A Thousand Flappers and Hobbledehoys

not merely superfluous, but ridiculous

Now, Discover Your Strengths: Review

The following post is taken from my Goodreads review:

For many readers, personality quizzes possess an inherent fascination, on which many self-help books have managed to capitalize. To a degree, this makes sense: we are told to go to books to find out more about who we are, but trying to understand that through the prism of a novel or poem can feel an awful lot like hard work, requiring us to spend time thinking about what we just read, and reach an independent conclusion about how it relates to our own understanding of the world. This can be frustrating and challenging, and takes time that might be spent on other things, such as going to brunch. Better to stick with a book that divides the world into a set number of categories and tells us to which one we belong.

To its credit, the system devised by Now, Discover Your Strengths is more open-ended than many books of its type. Rather than trying to put you into a single category, authors Marcus Buckingham & Donald O. Clifton, Ph.D come up with 34 “themes,” and assign five to each person. You can find out what your five themes are by taking a test online. However, in order to take the test, you must have a code, which will only come in a new book. For a book that is nominally about how to work and manage employees more effectively, its authors seem to have spent a fair amount of time thinking about ways to reduce consumer surplus.

The test seems well-designed: the five “themes” assigned to me did seem to create a composite of a person who thought and acted much as I believe I do, and, were there human beings anywhere on this earth who both knew me personally and were willing to take my book recommendations, I believe they would choose those five categories for me as well. The nearly universal tendencies I showed toward the gradual accumulation of research and knowledge made me, for the first time, think that I may have made a mistake in leaving academia. The book’s main point, that you should spend time trying to develop the talents encapsulated by these themes rather than improving areas of weakness or skills that don’t come naturally to you, is one of those common-sense ideas that nevertheless bears repeating.

Now, Discover Your Strengths also makes a case for specialization in an increasingly heterogeneous business world. With large companies diversifying and startups competing to create novel approaches to traditional ways of doing business, the time for this message seems to have arrived. The vision the book creates, of a largely horizontal company where compensation is based on value rather than management tiers, is the sort of model the corporate world is likely to have to move toward if it wishes to continue making gains in efficiency.

But the authors only gesture in the direction of the bigger picture, giving over the majority of the page count to its fun complicated personality test that you can take and call a book. The only other significant feature of the book is the utter inaptness of its sports examples: the book features Tiger Woods and Phil Jackson, two late-90s sports figures who have done more to tarnish their reputation (short of actually being brought up on criminal charges) than any other sportsman this century, as its examples of successful figures worthy of emulation. Worse, the example they give for Jackson, his habit of gifting books to his players that they almost certainly never read (seriously, if Shaq has read more than two pages of Nietzsche I’ll eat one of his enormous disgusting shoes), is more a bizarre quirk that does little to explain Jackson’s coaching abilities. The authors are probably just relieved that they cut the chapter on Aaron Hernandez.

In conclusion, this book has a good, basic idea, and presents it in a way that humans seem hardwired to think of as compelling. I understand there is a newer version of the book that “can be read in one sitting,” likely making it much shorter than this one. That is probably good too. I would not recommend bringing it to brunch, as you might get eggs on it.

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