BTRIPP (btripp) wrote,

Let the buyer beware ...

OK, so this may end up being one of those reviews which is more about my reactions to things around the book rather than the book itself. I had run into a mention of Marcus Buckingham & Donald O. Clifton's Now, Discover Your Strengths (the odd formation of the title serves to imply that it's a follow-up to their previous First, Break All The Rules) in some other book I was reading (don't recall what that was at this point), and it sounded like a very useful read, as it offers the promise of helping me discover and focus on my strengths. So, as is my wont, I scurried over to Amazon and ordered a used copy … no problem, right? WRONG! It turns out that the on-line assessment associated with the book involves a code (printed inside the dust jacket) that can only be used once, and evidently one of the previous owners of my copy had done the quiz and I was S.O.L.

Now, the core element here is THE ASSESSMENT … “you can't tell the players without the program” and all … and they (in this case “they” appears to be the Gallup organization) are selling these for as much as a new copy of the book about their “StrengthsFinder” … and that will only give you your top five (out of 34 “strengths”) – if you want to see the rest of the rankings, it will cost you five times as much. Needless to say, I'm not going to shell out $90 for that info, and, frankly, just getting the top five (although, admittedly, the cover, in rather small print, only promises “your top 5”) seems like a gyp even if the code was working. I sent in a request to get a usable code (noting that I was going to be reviewing the book) and got ZERO response … which further pissed me off.

I'm hardly the only one in this situation … there's a rather interesting blog out there which both addresses this, and has a long run of comments bitching about it. The blogger has the suggestion that “If you’re honest with yourself, you can achieve accurate results by self-reporting.”, and points folks to a form which lists the 34 strengths and lets you rank them to come up with your own list. Frankly, out of the 34, I probably wasn't saying “yuck!” to only 6 or 7, so I was able to narrow down the field quite a bit … but this lacks the precision that having the actual quiz's dynamics involved.

So, on one hand I was angry for not being able to approach the book as it was intended, and on the other, a bit embarrassed that I'd once again fallen on the landmine of buying used books (with on-line components – more often an issue of stuff being “404” than being invalid, but still) … however, six and a half years without a regular paycheck makes the odds of my paying retail for something like this pretty damn slim.

You might expect that I'd just throw some curses at the authors, their organization, their publisher, and the horse they rode in on, give you the broadstrokes about what the book's about, and wash my hands of it. But …

The research involved here is pretty damn impressive. The Gallup Organization had done a thirty year (as of the time of the book's release in 2001 – I don't know if it's been on-going since) “systematic study of excellence wherever we could find it”, involving over two million interviews consisting of “open-ended questions”. Out of this massive amount of data they started to find “themes”, which eventually became the 34 “strengths” presented in this book – Achiever, Activator, Adaptability, Analytical, Arranger, Belief, Command, Communication, Competition, Connectedness, Context, Deliberative, Developer, Discipline, Empathy, Fairness, Focus, Futuristic, Harmony, Ideation, Inclusiveness, Individualization, Input, Intellection, Learner, Maximizer, Positivity, Relator, Responsibility, Restorative, Self-Assurance, Significance, Strategic, and "Woo" (which they say stands for "Winning Others Over", but could be just as well taken in the sense of "wooing").

One of the interesting things here is that they go against the “business as usual” concept of spending a lot of time, effort, and money on trying to “fix” one's weaknesses … here it's argued that this is, generally speaking, a waste, and we'd be much better served by focusing on honing our strengths. These are based on what they're referring to as “talents”, which are defined in the analysis of the study as “Talent is any recurring pattern of thought, feeling, or behavior that can be productively applied.”, with the emphasis on the any, as even some less-than-positive/helpful patterns can be framed as talents if they can be productively applied.
What creates in you these recurring patterns? If you don't much care for your patterns, can you stitch a new design? The answers to these questions are (a) your recurring patterns are created by the connections in your brain; and (b) no, beyond a certain age you are not going to be able to stitch a completely new design – your talents are enduring.

Your talents, your strongest synaptic connections, are the most important raw material for strength building. Identify your most powerful talents, hone them with skills and knowledge, and you will be well on you way to living the strong life.
The authors are pretty adamant that these things are hard-wired in our brains, and that going against what's in there is pretty much like Heinlein's classic line about “teaching a pig to sing”. However, there are inner signals that let you figure out where those talents lie … “Spontaneous reactions, yearnings, rapid learning, and satisfactions will all help you detect the traces of your talents.”

The middle section of the book is simply a walk-through of the 34 “themes”, each with just a single page, featuring a descriptive paragraph and 2-5 examples (framed as “X sounds like this:”) featuring people from the study who fit that theme, with their relating something key to the concept. As noted above, reading through these does give one a fairly good idea of what are “your strengths”, as they prompted a “eww, that's not me reaction over and over again, except for where they didn't.

Again, without having the actual on-line test to go from, there was an irritating vagueness to this all. The listing of the strengths is followed by a rather interesting section called “The Questions You're Asking” which was pretty informative, if not including my #1 question: why can't I take the damn assessment?!. The next part is another 1-page-per look at “How To Manage A Person Strong In X”, each with a half-dozen or so bullet points with fairly specific suggestions of working with that particular type of person.

The penultimate part of this got the majority of my little bookmarks, “Building A Strengths-Based Organization”, which advances the authors' iconoclastic stance towards balancing strengths and weaknesses. One thing I found fascinating (given my own long job search) was:
Most employment advertisements loudly assert the need for certain skills, knowledge, and years of experience but remain mute on talent. It is ironic tha they itemize qualities they can change in a person while ignoring the ones they can't.
They include a number of additional assessment tools for managers, with lists of questions (“these questions were selected from a list of hundreds because, when worded in exactly this fashion (complete with qualifiers …), they predicted employee {behaviors}) to be used in working with staff. There are quite a few eye-opening data bits here, such as that eight out of ten employees are “miscast”, and that “job status” is more predictive than obesity, smoking, or high blood pressure when it comes to heart attacks!

Now, Discover Your Strengths concludes with a technical appendix on the methodology, etc. of the research involved in developing the StrengthsFinder, which also includes some intriguing statistics on how various demographic categories differed (or didn't) in the results.

Obviously, it's hard for me to recommend this book via the used channels, since you can't take the actual test, but I'm not sure I liked it well enough to say “hey, money be damned” and saying it's worth paying retail for. If you're interested in this sort of thing as a philosophical discussion of types, sure, spending 1¢ (plus shipping) will get you a very interesting read about the work Gallup's done in this area … but they're hell-bent on wringing every dollar out of organizations (who are the main target of this book), and aren't going to cut the people who might be trying to better themselves (again, check out some of the comments on that blog post … some angry people out there!) any slack in the pursuit of that lucre. It's fascinating, but feels real sleazy once you've been jilted.

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Tags: book review
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