12 Essential Lessons to Maximize Your Personal Strengths

Identifying your strengths and building your life based on them are essential for success. Without knowing how to recognize your strengths and maximize them, you may waste a lot of time doing the wrong things. Can you imagine spending years of hard work only to realize at the end that you have poured your time and energy (not to mention money) into the wrong things?

That’s why I believe these 12 lessons on maximizing your personal strengths are important. I summarized these lessons from the book Now, Discover Your Strengths by Marcus Buckingham and Donald O. Clifton. Rather than writing a review of the book, I’ll directly give you the gems in the form of these 12 lessons.

First of all, let’s be clear about the definition of strength used here: a strength is consistent near perfect performance in an activity. You have strength in something if you consistently achieve near perfect performance in it. This definition is important to bear in mind, as we go through the lessons.

So here are the 12 essential lessons to maximize your personal strengths:

1. Focus on your strengths, not your weaknesses

You will excel only by maximizing your strengths, never by fixing your weaknesses. Capitalize on your strengths, and manage around your weaknesses. Managing around your weaknesses will free you up to hone your strengths to a sharper point.

2. An ability is a strength only if you can fathom yourself doing it repeatedly, happily, and successfully

Besides consistently performing it successfully, you should also derive some intrinsic satisfaction from the activity.

3. Organize your life around your strengths

Organize your life around your strengths so that these strengths can be applied. Find or carve out a role that draws on these strengths every day. This will make your life more productive and fulfilled.

4. There are three raw materials of strengths: talents, knowledge, and skills

Talents are your naturally recurring patterns of thought, feeling, or behavior (more in lesson #6).
Knowledge consists of the facts and lessons learned (more in lesson #7).
Skills are the steps of an activity (more in lesson #8).
It is the combination of talents, knowledge, and skills that creates your strengths.

5. The most important of the three raw materials are talents

Talents are the most important because they are innate whereas skills and knowledge can be acquired through learning and practice.

6. Your talents are enduring because they are somehow “hardwired” into your brain

Basically, your talents are the strongest synaptic connections in your brain. It is the path of “least resistance” in your brain which makes you naturally tend to go that way.

7. There are two kinds of knowledge: factual and experiential

Factual knowledge is content. For example, when you start to learn a language, factual knowledge is the vocabulary. Factual knowledge won’t guarantee excellence, but excellence is impossible without it. It gets you into the game.

Experiential knowledge is the knowledge that can be acquired only through experiences. It teaches you what works and what doesn’t. It cannot be taught in classrooms. Instead, it’s something that you must discipline yourself to pick up along the way and retain.

To build your strengths, you need both kinds of knowledge.

8. Skills bring structure to experiential knowledge

A skill basically is the formulation of all the accumulated knowledge into a sequence of steps that, if followed, will lead to performance – not necessarily great performance but at least acceptable performance.

It enables you to avoid trial and error and incorporate the best discoveries directly into your performance. A skill is designed to make the secrets of the best easily transferable.

9. The key to building your strength is to identify your dominant talents and then refine them with knowledge and skills

It’s essential to understand how to distinguish your natural talents from things you can learn. The first thing you should do is identifying your natural talents. After that, you should acquire the required knowledge and skills to refine your talents.

10. Practice doesn’t (necessarily) make you perfect

You can’t reach near perfect performance in any activity you choose just by practicing. It also requires certain natural talents. While you can always improve your performance with practice, it might not take you to consistent near perfect performance. Unless you have the necessary talent, your improvements will be modest.

11. A sure way to identify your talents is stepping back and watching yourself for a while.

Watch yourself for a while when you try an activity. See how quickly you pick it up. See whether you become absorbed in the activity to such an extent that you lose track of time.

12. There are four clues to help you identify your talents

More specifically, look for these four clues to identify your talents:

  1. Spontaneous reactions
    What are your spontaneous, top-of-mind reactions to the situations you encounter? These top-of-mind reactions provide the best trace of your talents because they show where the paths of “least resistance” in your brain are.
    For example, when you hear that your employee cannot come because his child is sick, what is your first reaction? If your first reaction focuses on the ill child because you care about her, you may have a talent of empathy.
  2. Yearnings
    Your strongest connections are irresistible. They exert a magnetic influence, drawing you back time and again. These stronger connections will keep calling out to you, demanding to be heard. If you want to discover your talents, you should pay them heed.
  3. Rapid learning
    The speed at which you learn a new skill provides a telltale clue to the talent’s presence and power. Whatever the skill is, if you learned it rapidly, your talents may be at work.
  4. Satisfactions
    Your strongest synaptic connections are designed so that when you use them, it feels good. So, if it feels good when you perform an activity, chances are that you are using a talent.

Having read all the lessons, there are two questions you should ask yourself:

  1. Do I currently build my career on top of my talents?
  2. Have I organized my life around my strengths?

If your answer to any of these questions is no, you’d better take action before it’s too late.


  1. Donald,
    Great summary! I am a big fan of living around strengths. I would add one item to the “clues” section. Repeated patterns of thought, feeling or behavior. This is sort of similar to the spontaneous reactions, but a little less spontaneous.

  2. Donald, thanks for the excellent summary.

    I find that this advice of focusing on strengths, together with Tim Ferriss’ 4-Hour Workweek advice on outsourcing (your weaknesses) may be the a real killer combo… What do you think?

    As a suggestion, you could explore that idea on a future post, pouring in your insights. Thanks!

  3. Jimazing,
    Thanks for your addition to the “clues”! Repeated patterns of thought, feeling or behavior is similar to the definition of talents (lesson #4) and you’re right, we can directly observe them to identify our talents.

    Combining ideas from those two books is a clever trick ๐Ÿ™‚ Both are practical enough to apply at individual level.
    I wrote a bit about the idea of outsourcing in Personal Outsourcing, which is inspired by Thomas Friedman’s The World is Flat. But it’s not yet practical enough. Ideas from The 4-Hour Workweek you suggested can fill the practical side of the idea.
    I’ll be glad to explore it more in a future post, the only problem is I still don’t have enough experience ๐Ÿ™‚ Thanks for sharing your idea!

  4. >You will excel only by maximizing your strengths, never by fixing your weaknesses.

    It’s a controversial statement. For example if your weakness is a foreign language, you can just learn it. If you can not touch-type you can acquire this skill. If you are out of shape you can do work outs.

    >Unless you have the necessary talent, your improvements will be modest.

    It’s correct up to a certain degree. For example if you are a lousy driver you will be a lousy driver even after so many years of experience. But the problem is that you just stick to the same mistakes. If couch points out at them and helps you to improve you will become a good driver.

  5. Hello there! I am inviting members of Priscilla Palmer’s Personal Development List to participate in a blog series based on the Desiderata. I hope you’ll consider participating. Here is a link describing the project: Help Wanted: Desiderata Series. Thank you and have a great day.

  6. From Canada,
    It’s back to the definition of strength we use in this post. Here a strength is consistent near perfect performance in an activity. So the word “excel” in this post is also in that context.

    If we are out of shape, yes, we can fix it by doing work outs. But “getting in shape” is not what the word “excel” represents here. The word “excel” and “strength” here represent something like “being one of the best athletes in the world”. We can only be “one of the best athletes in the world” if we have strengths in it and maximizing them. If we don’t have the strengths, we can never be one no matter how good we are at fixing our weaknesses. At best we will only be mediocre.

    The driver example you gave is similar. Being a “good driver” is not really in the context of strength here. It’s more like being “one of the best Formula 1 drivers”. We will never be “one of the best Formula 1 drivers” if we do not have the necessary talent in the first place, no matter how hard we practice.

    Thanks for letting me know about the project! I still donโ€™t know whether or not I will participate, but I will definitely check it out.

  7. I am a huge fan of using your strengths, so as well as Now, Discover Your Strengths I would also recommend Tom Rath’s book, Strengthsfinder 2.0: A New and Upgraded Edition of the Online Test from Gallup’s Now Discover Your Strengths.

    Tom works for Gallup and I have just completed an interview with him for my article directory website. I’ll be publishing it soon.

  8. Thanks for the information, GreatManagement! Strengthsfinder 2.0 should be an exciting book. I haven’t read it, but I’d love to someday.

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  11. Great summary Donald but beware! Buckhingham’s definition of ‘talent’ is misleading.

    A ‘naturally-recurring behavior’ can be positive or negative. Would you seriously, for example, advise a kleptomaniac to build his strength as a thief?

    Highlands (www.highlandsco.com) focuses on talents in their neutral (and natural!) sense. Their definitions are scientific.

    Professionally I have used Gallup’s strengthfinder and the one thing I did find was their tool, and definitions, were a right bag of spanners.

    They were totally unscientific with no proof of how they arrived at their definitions (like ‘woo’ for example). We had to deal with a ‘relator’ who was more like Adolf Hitler then Princess Diana.

    Keep up the good work!

  12. Nick,
    Your information is interesting. From what I read, Now, Discover Your Strengths is a good book. It also has good reputation. Perhaps you can show me an article that has more information about why Gallup is not reliable?

  13. Donald, greetings from Northern Ireland. I’ve recently discovered your site while googling for articles on ‘signature strengths’. I thought this was a useful summary of the Buckingham/Clifton book. It led me to enjoy many of your other blogs & articles. We intend to place your blog on the ‘personal development’ section of our website. Keep on running! BTW have you Seligman’s stoff on ‘strengths and virtues’? How do you think it compares to this one?

  14. Allen,
    Thanks for the kind words! I appreciate it. I haven’t read Seligman’s book so I can’t compare it with Now, Discover Your Strengths. It looks interesting though.

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  21. Dear Donlad,

    Thanks for your tips. Good advise! I can realise my strengths after reading your short notes.

    Actually i could do more than the others can not do but I always give up everything easily whenever I face some difficulities because I want peace and silent. I hate fighting with others.

    Could you please advise me how to overcome these difficulites and make it proud in my life? Thanks You.

  22. Great post. Very informative and direct. Great use of verbiage and the article flows smoothly. Again… GREAT post!!

  23. Great presentation. I am really adopting from this guidelines

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