The best advice I ever received came from my dad, Don Clifton. It was actually a piece of simple, yet profound wisdom that has shaped my life. "Your weaknesses will never develop," he told me, "while your strengths will develop infinitely."
If he hadn't taught me this, my development and achievements would have stopped at a very early age -- in college, probably.
I couldn't concentrate in college and flunked or barely passed a lot of easy courses. Later in life, I was diagnosed with attention deficit disorder, which made sense, particularly when thinking back to my college classes. Those classes were disorienting -- I just had no idea what the professor or the students were talking about.
Dad, who taught educational psychology at the University of Nebraska, figured out that my extreme weaknesses in classroom learning would never really develop, and that I would not follow in his footsteps as an educator. But he recognized that my strengths might allow me to succeed in sales, so he pointed me in that direction. Almost immediately, I succeeded at selling western record albums, history tapes of the old West, and advertising for farm and ranch directories.
Eventually, my best friend and I borrowed $5,000 and started a business selling market-research surveys. This was perfect, because the two things that inspired me most in a job were salesmanship and ideas. (I still love ideas, even bad ones.) Selling a wide variety of polls and surveys, mostly on the subject of customers, was a dream come true.
My work today has never really changed from that time -- it's still predominantly about sales and ideas. I am forever indebted to Dad for the best advice I've ever received. So are millions of others.
Dr. Donald O. Clifton died a decade ago. He advised people all around the globe to build their work and lives around their strengths, rather than only trying to "fix" their weaknesses. His legacy is his late-life invention, the Clifton StrengthsFinder. This online assessment uncovers users' top five strengths out of a total of 34 -- such as Achiever, Communication, Learner, Strategic, and others -- allowing users the potential to soar with their strengths.
It's impossible to go anywhere in the world, from New York to Nairobi to New Delhi, without someone asking me about StrengthsFinder. Many of the world's most influential leaders and organizations use it for their employees and students. If you haven't already, I urge you to discover your own strengths and then build your whole personal development plan around them.
You'll be in good company. Some of the most successful people I've ever known achieved what they did because they built their careers around their strengths, not their weaknesses.
As an example, our late founder, Dr. George Gallup, knew he'd never become a super-successful businessman. He once told me that he couldn't even run a popcorn stand, and he was proud of this. But what Dr. Gallup could do was teach, and he focused all of his energies on that. He was so good at it, such a natural, that many leaders around the world who knew him have told me he was the greatest teacher of his time.
Dr. Gallup taught at the University of Iowa, Northwestern, and Columbia, and he never quit teaching even when he created the Gallup Poll. He taught presidents, world leaders, media elites, thought leaders, and students who would show up at the Gallup building in Princeton. He became one of the most famous people of the 20th century, and his polling changed the world.
Here's another person who has soared with his strengths: Gen. Colin Powell. When he came to speak to Gallup employees once, he shared with us the observation that all he ever wanted to become was "the best soldier I could be." He became a pretty good one, too -- not only a highly decorated four-star general and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, but also U.S. secretary of state and quite simply one of the most influential military people in history.
Colin Powell is a soldier. George Gallup was a teacher. I am a salesman. If Dr. Gallup had tried to be a soldier; Powell, a salesman; and I, a teacher, none of us would've succeeded, because we wouldn't have been doing what we do best. As Dad said, if you want to soar limitlessly, you can't do so by fixing your weaknesses, but rather by using your God-given strengths.
Best advice I ever received.
Dad's Last Email to Me, on Strengths-Based Leadership (Unedited)
Another notion about leaders is that each one needs to know his or her strengths as a carpenter knows the tools in his box or as a physician knows the instruments she has available, and a carpenter does not hammer with a saw. So leaders have different tools (strengths) in their armamentarium, but the better she knows how to use them the more effective she is as a leader. It is not so much what strengths they possess as leaders -- it is knowing accurately what a person has as strengths. (A leader may also need to know her weaknesses, so she can manage them.) This means a leader needs to know what his tools are and exactly when to use each of them.
This explains why nobody comes up with a list of characteristics that describe all leaders. One leader may lead because he has a strength in relating; another may lead because he has a signature strength in competing, or conceptualizing, or courage, or responsibility. What leaders have in common is that each really knows her strengths, has developed her strengths, and can call on the right strength at the right time.
-- Don Clifton, 1924-2003