Sunday, December 1, 2013

Robert Greene's "Mastery" - an outstanding book

A few months ago, a friend told me that the author Robert Greene had published a new book with the title "Mastery". I was immediately intrigued as this title resonated with my Maximizer talent and with my passion for a strengths-based life. And Robert Greene is one of my favourite authors who goes very deep in this writings about such complex and diverse matters as power, seduction and warfare (three different books).

I have been listening to the audiobook version of "Mastery" over the last four months while commuting with my car. I couldn't hear it all at once, as it was so profound and stirred me up emotionally each time I listened to it.  Now that I have concluded the book, let me say that this is probably the best book I have ever read in my life and therefore, I'd like to share with you some of the major take-aways for me from a strengths-based point of view. I do so with at least two blog posts and this first one here is about the connection between Greene's idea of Mastery and Donald Clifton's ideas of talents and strengths.

First of all, what is Mastery according to Greene?
"[It is] a form of power and intelligence that represents the high point of human potential. It is the source of the greatest achievements and discoveries in history. It is an intelligence that is not taught at school nor analyzed by professors, but almost all of us, at some point, have glimpses of it in our own experience. […] Instead of flitting here and there in a state of perpetual distraction, our minds focus and penetrate to the core of something real. […] The problem we face is that this form of power or intelligence is either ignored as a subject of study or surrounded by all kinds of myths and misconceptions, all of which only add to the mystery." 
Well, for people who know their talents and are familiar with the strengths-literature, this "form of power" is not such a mystery. Indeed, I find Greene's description of Mastery the best description of a strengths-based live. Note that I can only quote a few lines out of a great book here in this post.

So what does Greene say about how to get to Mastery? And does he mention talents?

"Natural talent or a high IQ cannot explain future achievements", explains Greene (p. 10) by giving examples, thereby not denying their existence, although referring here to the conventional wisdom that people like Mozart or da Vinci must have had some sort of natural talent.

The route to Mastery is for Greene "a youthful passion or predilection, a chance encounter that allows them to discover how to apply it, an apprenticeship in which they come alive with energy and focus. They excel by their ability to practice harder and move faster through the process, all of this stemming from the intensity of their desire to learn and from the deep connection they feel for their field of study. And at the core of this intensity of effort is in fact a quality that is genetic and inborn - not talent or brilliance, which is something that must be developed, but rather a deep and powerful inclination toward a particular subject."

Note that Greene does not refer to scientific studies. He does not mention any source at all. So this must be his own personal opinion after studying this subject. As such, we have to pay special attention and test our own opinions, which is a healthy process.

Greene makes a number of interesting statements here: he claims that at the core of Mastery is something genetic and inborn, which he calls "inclination", a concept that remains a bit opaque even as he goes on to describe it in more detail. And he says that talent or brilliance are not at the core,which does not mean they don't matter. He even claims that they are not genetic and are developed during life and therefore may already be part of Mastery.

The word "talent" here once again refers to the popular idea that there is such a thing as "natural talent" for playing golf, football, piano or chess, and that this talent is in large part inborn, which is also why the few gifted children display such a talent in early age already in a "natural" way, without massive effort and exercising.

Clifton also debunked this popular idea of talent and saw in talents (just) "naturally recurring patterns of thought, feeling, or behavior". From the training I received from Gallup, I understand that it is not yet clear to what extent such patterns are inborn (genetic) or develop in the early years of life. A best guess is that there is a 50%/50% distribution. But Gallup asserts that by the time one becomes a young adult, these talents are developed and won't change even if we would try very hard. In a way, we are "hardwired" for these talents, although not necessarily genetically so. 

Clifton's idea of talents seem to resound with Greene's idea of "inclination". Greene even says that inclination stems from our genetic make-up, which is unique and that "this uniqueness is revealed to us to the preferences we innately feel for particular activities or fields of study." I find it a bit daring to say that our genetic make-up gives us a preference for mathematics, certain sports, solving puzzles or playing with words, but perhaps it is true, and Greene claims here that this is a scientific fact.

I do not think it is worth delving into the nature vs. nurture debate of Mastery or talents, as I readily accept that we have a certain "make-up" as well as preferences and inclinations by the time we are adults, and is best to discover them and build our lives on them. Both Greene and Clifton seem to agree that there is something like a natural inclination at the core of Mastery, and that "hard practice" is nevertheless required to get to Mastery. In fact, these inclinations are the "fuel" that get us to Mastery. I find it of utmost relevance that Geoff Colvin writes in his bestseller "Talent is Overrated" along the same lines, as well as Malcom Galdwell in his bestseller "Outliers" (with the famous 10'000 hours). Both of their books draw extensively from the research of Prof. Anders K. Ericsson, who basically says there is no such thing as talent and expert performance is achieved mainly by a special kind of hard practice, called "deliberate practice".

However, if we deny the existence of talents, the question that arises as a consequence is why some people are more motivated or  disciplined for hard practice than others. Geoff Colvin tries to give an answer to this question in the last chapter of this book, titled "Where Does  the Passion Come From?" He explains that it is an intrinsic motivation (e.g. fascination with a field of study, need for power, need for achievement, need to do good in the world) rather than an extrinsic one (e.g. money), but extrinsic motivators that reinforce intrinsic drives can be highly effective. He goes on to explain that the right kind of feedback is very important, particularly so in childhood.

Again, this idea of intrinsic motivation sounds familiar to me. Fascination for a field of study? Could there not be talents like Learner, Intellection, Input, Ideation, Connector at the root? Need for Power: Significance, Competitor? Need for achievement: Achiever, Significance, Maximizer? Need to do good in the world: Significance, Includer, Developer?

If the talents as defined by Gallup/ Clifton/ Buckingham were indeed the true cause for "passion for hard practice", or the "inclinations" that Greene talks about, then of course we gain a lot by knowing our talents and designing our roadmap to Mastery based on these talents. Greene does not mention Clifton, but as he writes about "inclination", it sounds very much like talents.

The next big question then is of course: how to we develop our talents or inclinations into Mastery? What does Greene tells us about this?

Indeed, most of the book is about exactly this question, full with very interesting examples, such as Mozart, Leonardo da Vinci, Napoleon Bonaparte, Charles Darwin, the architect Calatrava and many other famous and often historic figures. My next blog post will deal about this. But let me already say that the route to Mastery is not a straight line, but rather an iterative  process. But Greene proposes very interesting "strategies" than can help to make the erratic line more straight. Mastery is the ultimate goal, like check mate in chess play. But we do not need to know that we will check mate the other player's king on square F4 after 26 moves by using our Queen and a Bishop. Many roads can take us to the goal of check mate, and so is it with Mastery as well. This was a major learning point for me, as I somehow tend to think that with enough insights, intelligence and the right kind of planning, I could develop a plan to achieve Mastery without many deviations. Perhaps, this is still true, but not in the way I imagined it to be. More about this soon…

Monday, May 13, 2013

Mapa de Talentos (in portuguese)

Pensamento Estratégico

Sunday, August 26, 2012

StrengthsFinder Full-34 Report goes public!

This is truly breaking news for all people who love the StrengthsFinder: Gallup's chairman and CEO Jim Clifton announced in his blog on August 18th that everyone can now get the StrengthsFinder report with all 34 ranked talents for 89 Dollars. It is also possible to get the Top-5-Talent report for 10 Dollars without buying one of the Gallup books.

I admire this decision and it increases my respect for Gallup. It has always bothered me that the full-34 version was mainly available to employees who are fortunate enough to work for a company that could afford Gallup's consulting services. This bothered me also in view of the  the "revolutionary", "make-the-world-a-better-place" rhetoric in many of the Gallup books.

And believe me: it makes a big difference if you know your ranked sequence of all 34 talent themes rather than only your top five (signature) talents. In fact, in my strengths-based coaching training that I received in the past from Gallup, it was always emphasized that it is really our top 10 talents that define us. 

From an acquaintance who personally knows Jim Clifton, I learnt that is has always been a concern of him how to spread the StrengtsFinder tool and philosophy to a wider public, while of course not jeopardizing the economic engine of Gallup Consulting. I imagine that these are two difficult objectives to balance. And hence, I applaud Gallup's courageous step to make the StrengthsFinder available to a much wider public.

I find it also interesting that Gallup has not chosen to go the way that many providers of personality assessments have gone: to develop a network of independent, certified coaches as a special "sales channel" for the StrengthsFinder. This emphasizes their commitment to really make it available to a broad public. And I also know from own experience that the true value add of strengths-based coaching is not in administering a psychological assessment and provide some standardized feedback, but to provide a highly individualized feedback for a client, taking many other factors such as personality into account, and then provide clear, actionable recommendations for how to develop talents into strengths that go well beyond the general advise you can find in the Gallup books.