Now, Discover Your Strengths by LawCrossing

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									WEEKLY BOOK REVIEW                                                                                                           1. 800. 973.1177




                            Now, Discover Your Strengths
                            [by James Fant]
                            This career book offers insight into how we need to play up our strengths to find success and happiness in our
                            careers. But what did our reviewer think of its message?




A senior executive at Merrill Lynch once           that you need to know what you’re good at          many people, who do not suffer from a rec-
explained his favorite interview technique to      in order to reap the fruits of your strengths.     ognizable mental illness, still have an incho-
an associate of mine. Like many interview-         As in the biblical parable of the talents, it is   ate sense that their life could be happier or
ers, he would ask candidates about “their          our job is to make the most of what we are         better in some ineffable way if they only knew
greatest professional accomplishment.” The         given. Instead of lamenting our weaknesses,        how to make it so. Based on my own observa-
hapless candidate would then explain, usu-         and spending time and effort trying to repair      tion, I would estimate that a large majority
ally with a proud smile, how he or she had         them, a peculiar obsession of our culture,         of attorneys fall into this category. Seligman
managed to pull off a great coup against all       and perhaps a cultural legacy of Puritanism,       believes these people deserve help, too. And
odds, and with great toil and trouble. This di-    we should take stock of what we’re good at         so, implicitly, do the authors of this book.
rector would then ensure that the candidate        and make the most of it. Most people, appar-
was not offered a job that had anything to do      ently, do not.                                     To many, the authors’ contention that
with that accomplishment.                                                                             strengths are relatively fixed and therefore
                                                   Strengths are not knowledge, nor are they          somewhat immutable from an early age will
His reasoning went something like this: if you     the product of training. They are abilities,       seem a heresy. The prevailing wisdom of the
are proud of a particular accomplishment,          or clusters of abilities - and generic ones at     last several decades, at least in academic,
that means you probably worked hard at it.         that. You will not find writing briefs, pre-       sociological and anthropological circles, is
And if you worked hard at it -- to master a        paring witnesses, or negotiating complex           that we are all, essentially, plastic beings.
new skill, for instance, or perhaps to over-       transactions on the authors’ inventory of          We can be molded to do anything, and to be
come a previous fear or perceived shortcom-        strengths. Instead, you will find designa-         “good” at anything. A corollary of this notion
ing -- then the accomplishment, in his view,       tions like “achiever, competition, developer,      is that we can therefore improve anything, if
did not come naturally to you. Had it done so,     learner,” and thirty others (the lack of paral-    only we try hard enough, or muster enough
this victory against all odds would not have       lelism is the authors’ own). Once you take         willpower to overcome our deficiencies. This
seemed a coup: merely par for the course.          the “Strengthsfinder Profile,” a web-based         is the “can do” spirit in a nutshell, nearly as
And if something does not come naturally to        survey that you are entitled to access after       old as America itself. Give it the old college
you, he does not want you to do it under his       purchasing the book (there is a code printed       try. Learn to earn. And so on. Although some
watch. QED. This may seem like an unfair,          inside), you are duly informed of your top five    scholars (cf., Steven Pinker) have recently
even perverse, way to interview someone and        strengths. It is a relative ranking. The book      challenged the notion that we are blank
frankly I am not able to do it justice here. I     then describes each “strength” in greater          slates, tabula rasa, for our purposes here the
am not sure it is even “just.” But there is, im-   detail. Understanding your strengths and           nature/nurture question is an academic one.
plicit in his hiring philosophy, a truth - which   how to apply them to your legal career is left     Whether prompted by nature or nurture, or
is that you tend to be better at some things       to you.                                            some mysterious combination thereof, we
than others, and that you tend to enjoy what                                                          can all agree with the authors that we have
you are naturally good at. And vice versa.         The authors are arguably part of a loose           individual strengths. In order to find hap-
You therefore ignore your characteristic           movement that has been termed “positive            piness and fulfillment, and perhaps even a
strengths and weaknesses at your peril, and        psychology,” which was originally conceived,       modicum of success, the authors argue that
so, he thinks, does your employer.                 and is still led, by Dr. Martin Seligman of        we need only “discover” and deploy these
                                                   the University of Pennsylvania (he has his         strengths more effectively.
Marcus Buckingham and Donald Clifton, the          own “strengths” test, available for free on
authors of Now, Discover Your Strengths,           the Internet at www.authentichappiness.            One of the underlying strengths of this book
want people to understand their strengths          org). Positive psychology is predicated on the     is the large body of empirical data that
so that they can be happier, more fulfilled,       (seemingly indisputable) notion that most          Gallup has collected over the years that ap-
and more successful. They argue, sensibly,         psychologists tend to fixate on pathology. But     parently supports the authors’ thesis. While

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WEEKLY BOOK REVIEW                                                                                                          1.800. 973. 1177




more detailed evidence to support their           enjoy our strengths. In other words, I believe     at the door of the Delphic Oracle to “Know
claims would certainly be welcome, this is        that knowing one’s strengths is no more than       Thyself,” but at least it gets you started.
not a scientific monograph. It falls under the    half the battle. Perhaps as little as a quarter.
rubrics of “career advice” and possibly even                                                         I am of the view that for a career book to be
“self help,” which are genres not generally       Most legal practices require the success-          worth more than its utility as a doorstop, it
celebrated for their vigorous application of      ful interaction of a veritable constellation       should contain fresh ideas that you can use
the scientific method. Like soufflés, many ca-    of strengths. For example, if you were to          in a practical way -- if they strike you as be-
reer books are full of hot air, which deflates    list what it takes to win a complex case or        ing right. This book prompts you to come up
minutes after you leave the bookstore into        pull off a massive merger in the face of           with your own answers. It provides food for
a residue of sugary fluff. The “filler” pads      regulatory hurdles, you would not be able          thought. If you are looking for a prepackaged
out what would otherwise be an article into       to say merely “strategic thinking,” though         program, look elsewhere. There is no short-
a book-length, and therefore commercial,          that would almost certainly be an important        age of gurus eager to tell you how to lead
opportunity for the authors. My fork detects a    component. Since so much legal work is             your life. For the strengths inventory alone,
certain lack of density here, but certainly not   collaborative in nature, how you interact with     however, I believe the book is worth the price
at the level of a souffle. More like a brioche,   others, and how they interact with you, will       of admission.
if a fluffy one.                                  have a bearing on how well you can exercise
                                                  your strengths in a law firm setting. Are you      A follow-on book for lawyers would be
As a legal recruiter, I can think of real-life    brilliant at writing, but stuck doing docu-        something like Now Determine Your Legal
examples that challenge the notion that           ment review? The practice of law can create        Strengths, though some would argue that a
using one’s strengths necessarily leads to        a unique set of hurdles in exercising your         glance at your law school transcript will tell
greater fulfillment, or even contentment.         strengths.                                         you all you need to know. Nevertheless, that
For example, I know of very accomplished                                                             book remains to be written. Any takers?
litigators who simply do not enjoy the cut        And finally, any strength category can be
and thrust of litigation. These individuals       accused of being arbitrary. Why thirty-
are clearly very good at what they do: they       four? Why not seventy? Or one thousand?
have even come close to the pinnacle of their     For instance, Dr. Seligman’s VIA Strengths
practice area at a national level. But litiga-    Survey describes a sense of humor as a
tion somehow leaves these individuals cold        strength. Humor is absent from this list.
-- they feel that they are somehow at logger-     To someone like Larry David who has built
heads with themselves. From a “strengths”         an $800 million+ fortune on the back of his
perspective, one could argue that they are        sense of humor... who is right? This is more
unfulfilled because they are using some           than mere semantics. Even worse, there
strengths to the detriment of others. Perhaps     seems to be circular logic at work here.
they enjoy counseling and would like to do        There is something inherently tautological
more of it. But I think their discontent arises   about attributing success to strengths which
from something deeper.                            are evidenced by that success. However, the
                                                  authors do not ask you to look for successes
The missing ingredient is ethics, or, more        in your life; they ask you to take a web-based
specifically, your personal values system.        questionnaire.
Just because I am good, say, at arguing with
other people (which is not, in fairness, a        I believe that this book is redeemed by the
strength defined by the authors, but seems        novelty of the authors’ strengths framework,
to be one in the legal field), either in person   and by their laudable attempt to get people to
or on a motion, does that mean I enjoy it, or     think more about what they are good at and
that I should do more of it? Any book that        what they enjoy. Nevertheless, readers who
discusses strengths without, for lack of a        enjoy the authors’ thesis will be left wanting
better term, a philosophy or belief system        more. Maddeningly, the book is not prescrip-
to underpin them is operating in a moral          tive. It merely says - here are your strengths
vacuum. And I don’t think there is any doubt      (according to you). Do with them what you
that values constrain how we see, use, and        will. It is not far from the ancient admonition




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