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Building advocacy networks for people

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Do you want to Flourish? Focus on your Strengths

Aristotle once said, "Where your talents and the needs of the world cross, there lies your vocation."

There's a clear connection between developing our talents and doing what we love. Both bring multiple benefits. According to Tom Rath (senior scientist and advisor to Gallup, where for 13 years he led the organization's work on employee engagement, strengths and well-being), people who "have the opportunity to focus on their strengths every day are six times as likely to be engaged in their jobs and more than three times as likely to report having an excellent quality of life in general."1 Rath goes on: "it's clear from Gallup's research that each person has greater potential for success in specific areas, and the key to human development is building on who you already are."2

And who is that, exactly? Not always easy to tell. Peter Drucker has found that "Most people think they know what they are good at. They are usually wrong.... And yet, a person can perform only from strength." Richard Koch agrees: "Most of our failures are in races for which others enter us. Most of our successes come from races we ourselves want to enter."3

Rath explains: "when we're able to put most of our energy into developing our natural talents, extraordinary room for growth exists."4 We can, of course, build our skills in areas that don't come naturally to us, but we'll probably make slower progress. He further notes, "While it may be possible, with a considerable amount of work, to add talent where little exists, our research suggests that this may not be the best use of your time. Instead, we've discovered that the most successful people start with dominant talent - and then add skills, knowledge and practice to the mix. When they do this, the raw talent serves as a multiplier."5

This point is borne out by Helen Swaby, Founder and MD of DeMontfort Fine Art: "If you really enjoy something, you can work with more fervour, enthusiasm and passion."6 Dr Robert Anthony has experienced this too: "whenever I followed my joy, it always turned out to be the most financially rewarding thing at the end. When you follow your true joy, wherever that leads you, and even if it changes from time to time, then the details will work themselves out on their own. If you try to work out all the details and debate them to death, you will go insane before you find the right answer. But if you just follow your joy and what brings you excitement, then you will end up doing what is best for you and everyone else."7

Sadly, such congruence is all too rare. As Rath puts it, "Over the past few decades, Gallup has studied how talent can be applied in a wide variety of roles, from housekeepers to chief executives and from clergy members to government officials. We've researched almost every major culture, country, industry and position. [...] Across the board, having the opportunity to develop our strengths is more important to our success than our role, our title, or even our pay. [...] That being said, across all areas we have studied, the vast majority of people don't have the opportunity to focus on what they do best. We have surveyed more than 10 million people on this specific topic, and approximately seven million are falling short."8

"Far too many people spend a lifetime headed in the wrong direction [...] without uncovering their greatest talents and potential," Rath says. "Every human being has talents that are just waiting to be uncovered."9 Steve Jobs advised: "Your time is limited, so don't waste it living someone else's life."

Is it possible to change tack? Yes, according to Dr Russell Ackoff: "to a large extent the future can be what we want it to be."10 Rath believes that "No individual is fully formed. On the contrary, each individual is a work in progress, alive with possibilities."11

For anyone who likes this idea but doesn't know where to start tapping such possibilities, Dr Anthony has a practical suggestion: "If you are not sure what your true joy might be, ask yourself these questions and record your answers.

"Examine your answers. Do you see a certain behaviour or belief in more than one aspect of your life? What information do you see repeated that seems to reveal a behaviour pattern? What are your long-lasting interests? Using this information, paint a self-portrait by completing the following statements:

Now ask yourself if your current job or career helps you achieve these five statements. If it does, you're probably on the right path."12

  1. Tom Rath, StrengthsFinder 2.0 (New York: Gallup Press, 2007), p. iii ↩︎

  2. Rath, p. 7 ↩︎

  3. Richard Koch, The 80/20 Principle: The Secret of Achieving More with Less, 2nd edn (London: Nicholas Brealey Publishing, 1998), p. 155 ↩︎

  4. Rath, p. 9 ↩︎

  5. Rath, p. 19 ↩︎

  6. Helen Swaby, quoted in Sue Stockdale, Secrets of Successful Women Entrepreneurs: How Ten Leading Business Women Turned a Good Idea into a Fortune (Great Britain: Lean Marketing Press, 2005), p. 107 ↩︎

  7. Robert Anthony, Beyond Positive Thinking, revised edn ( 2004), pp. 209-211 ↩︎

  8. Rath, p. 11 ↩︎

  9. Rath, p. 30 ↩︎

  10. Russell L Ackoff, Creating the Corporate Future: Plan Or Be Planned For (New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1981), p. 13 ↩︎

  11. Rath, p. 89 ↩︎

  12. Anthony, pp. 207-208 ↩︎