Harnessing Your Genius: Moving Beyond a Strengths-Based Approach

There’s a lot of talk these days about the importance of focusing on strengths to maximize your potential. In his bestselling book Strengths Finder 2.0, Tom Rath reports that “people have several times more potential for growth when they invest energy in developing their strengths instead of correcting their deficiencies.” In his book Authentic Happiness, Dr. Martin Seligman – influential pioneer of the positive psychology movement – places even more emphasis on the importance of strengths when he states that “the highest success in living and the deepest emotional satisfaction comes from building and using your signature strengths.” The widespread popularity of books such as these indicates that a strengths-based approach is starting to gain considerable currency.

A strengths-based approach turns on its head the old paradigm by which people traditionally have been encouraged to focus on- and fix their weaknesses. Instead of gritting your teeth to push uphill what for you is a woefully heavy stone, with a strengths-based approach you can forgo the hardship and do what comes easier to you. This has a lot of intuitive appeal. Just as a good craftsman works with the grain of his wood – not against it – so too do followers of a strengths-based approach work with their strengths, not their weaknesses. Instead of trying to do it all, they work synergistically with others in mutually supportive relationships so that the strengths of one offset the weaknesses of the other.

Yet as much intuitive appeal as a strengths-based approach has, it only tells part of the story. To realize your full potential it is not enough to focus merely on your strengths. Rather, as Jay Niblick contends in his book What’s Your Genius, to develop your strengths to the point of mastery and embrace your genius it is important to align three key factors: (i) natural talents; (ii) personal values; and (iii) behavioral style. Each of these illuminates an important aspect of who you are. And each is required to move beyond mere strengths to the realm of mastery and genius.

Work With Your Talents, Not Your Strengths

Strengths are not the same thing as talents. A key distinction between the two is that talents are innate, whereas strengths are nurtured over time. While it may be possible to develop strengths through sheer grit and determination (as the old paradigm would have us do), it is more effective to build strengths upon a foundation of natural talent. As Aldous Huxley said, “There is no substitute for talent. Industry and all its virtues are of no avail.” Yet industry and all its virtues are absolutely indispensable for developing mastery and stepping into your genius. As Anna Pavlova – the legendary Russian ballerina – said, “God gives talent. Work transforms talent into genius.” Genius is a high standard that results from developing your talents, not from nurturing non-talents. While nurturing non-talents may well develop strengths, it will not suffice to master them. Ultimately, developing genius requires a ‘talents-based’ approach, not a ‘strengths-based’ one.

Align Your Talents With Your Values

Yet even if you do adopt a talents-based approach, this in-and-of-itself is insufficient to develop mastery and genius; you must also align your talents with those things that matter most to you, namely your values. Values are like food that nourishes you at a deep level: you must honor them, or a piece of you goes hungry and dies. Failure to align talents with values is like fueling a high performance race car with low octane gasoline. Without the right fuel you are bound to sputter and fade away. To transform talent into genius requires that you work at it long and hard. This, in turn, requires that you use your talents in ways that keep you motivated and inspired – that is, in ways that are aligned with your deepest values. Only then will you be able to sustain the serious effort required to gain mastery over your talent over the long run and embrace your genius.

Apply Your Talents In Ways That Suit Your Behavioral Style

Yet even if you adopt a talents-based approach and align your talents with your values, this is still not enough to step into your genius. To do so, you also have to make sure that you apply your talents in ways that suit your natural behavioral style. Your natural behavioral style is your own unique way of interacting and communicating with the world. Some people tend to be aggressive and gruff, others are more outgoing and friendly, and still others are more pensive and reserved. Indeed, there are as many different behavioral styles as there are people in the world. But unless you apply your talents in ways that suit your natural style you will experience significant discomfort and stress. While some stress is important for growth and development, too much stress will overwhelm you. (On the importance of setting challenging goals to develop mastery, see my review of Daniel Pink’s book Drive by clicking here). If the difference between your natural behavioral style and the way you actually behave is too big, the resulting stress will undermine your efforts to master your talents and drag you down in the long run. Like a rope that tethers you to the earth, behavioral inauthenticity will ultimately keep you from floating above your talent to your place of genius.

Don’t Just Use Your Strengths – Harness Your Genius

While there is a lot to be said for a strengths-based approach, as a prescription for realizing your full potential it falls short of giving a complete picture. In fact, it isn’t a strengths-based approach that’s required at all – it’s a talents-based one. Yet developing mastery and genius requires more than just nurturing your talents; it also requires that you align your talents with your values, and apply them in ways that suit your natural behavioral style. Like the tripod legs of an artist’s easel, natural talents, personal values and behavioral style must all be aligned if you are to do your best work. In the end, only with your easel properly in place do you – the artist – have the foundation required to go beyond mere strengths, and step into your place of true genius.

Adam Kay - Adam A. Kay is a leadership and professional development consultant and coach. A former international lawyer and business executive, Adam is passionate about personal, professional and organizational excellence. His clientele include lawyers, executives and business professionals located throughout Canada and the United States. Read more about Adam.

One Comment


  1. Paul Coughlin
    Nov 15, 2011

    Great article Adam, loved the ideas you explained so clearly.. totally on-board with the Talent based approach! thanks, Paul.

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