This title fight pits two classic pieces of folk wisdom against each other! Both ideas are fully indoctrinated into our culture, but which one is correct?
Introducing first, in the red corner, hailing from the depths of human optimism, the current, reigning and defending champion: “You can do anything you set your mind to!”
And in the blue corner, hailing from parts unknown, weighing in at a few books and some empirical studies, the challenger: “Stick to your strengths!”
Scheduled for three rounds, this might be the biggest title fight in the personal development history! The outcome of this fight might determine what you choose to do with the next phase of your life, and change your destiny forever!
Or, it might just be mildly interesting. Either way, keep reading.
Round 1 – Definition
What exactly does it mean to say “You can do anything you set your mind to”? It’s a tribute to the power of dedication, persistence, and time, or course. It means that even against all odds, these three pillars will support your success; all you have to do is try hard enough for long enough.
This perspective may or may not include the idea that “all men are created equal”. It may or may not concede that certain things comes easier to some people than they do to others. The phrase simply means that over the long-term, no inherent talent or current ability will play a greater role in getting you what you want than the above three factors.
Of course, this is a very positive and uplifting message. It gives us hope and makes us all that little bit more equal. So naturally, it’s a popular concept within motivational literature.
What about the opponent? When we say “Stick to your strengths”, what do we mean by that? We mean actions you can consistently do well, which lead to productive results. We also mean useful traits, and strengths of character.
A strength is a label given to a part of your brain or nervous system that is more efficient than other parts. As you go about your life, different types of thought, behaviour and feeling are called upon, either by your own actions or in response to something happening to you. The requests that your brain processes quickly or effectively are your strengths.
In Now, Discover Your Strengths, Marcus Buckingham uses a technological analogy. He explains that if your brain is like the internet, with the synapses in your brain being equivalent to the different connections between computers, your strengths are like your T1 lines (or whatever technology happens to be fastest at the time you read this!). They process input and provide an output much faster than other areas of the brain.
If you’ve got a tendency to respond to the world with what we’ve labelled “kindness”, it’s because the synapses that lead to altruistic actions are strong and fast. Nature always takes the path of least resistance, so when you perceive an opportunity to be “kind”, you usually take it. So the idea behind the saying is, shape your life around your strengths, because it will be hard or even impossible to go against the grain.
Round 2 – Evidence
Try googling “You can do anything you set your mind to”. You’ll find a load of very inspirational articles, each containing examples of people who have defied the odds. A cancer-ridden triathlon winner, an entertainer who succeeded across multiple fields, a man who became a kickboxing champion in six weeks. From this, the articles conclude that yes, you can do anything you set your mind to. These people did, so why can’t you?
Well, maybe it’s because these examples have all been selected specifically to support that point! I could write an article called “You can’t do anything you set your mind to” and fill it with some great examples of human failure – unsuccessful political systems, disastrous military campaigns, music careers that never left the ground; it would be no more valid. More on why, here.
We need stronger evidence than this. It comes in part, from Carol Dweck. Dweck and colleagues have studied the effect that beliefs about intelligence can have on various types of task performance. Basically, if you believe intelligence is a fixed entity, you’ll perform worse than if you view it as malleable. In the book, Why Smart People Can Be So Stupid, Dweck’s chapter explains these concepts and gives examples of some of the studies that have been done. For instance, when college students were taught that intelligence is malleable, their GPA increased, along with their commitment to their school work.
These results show that positive beliefs about the effects of effort can increase performance and motivation. So far so good, but they don’t explain how far a person can go with this. For that information, we turn to a different area of research.
Some interesting studies have been done on the effects of deliberate practice. At low levels of practice, things like genetics and natural aptitude account for most of the variation in ability. But after ever increasing amounts of practice, the sheer volume of training starts to take over, and eventually it accounts for more ability than any other factors. In many fields, it was found that no one had reached the level of mastery without around 10 years of deliberate practice, involving about 10,000 hours of training. This is regardless of natural strengths or ability. (1)
That’s a strong case for the champion, but what about the challenger?
The Gallup Organisation has been very active in researching strengths. As part of their work they interviewed over 2 million individuals in almost all professions, looking for patterns between the top achievers. They found that the “best of the best” shape their lives around their strengths, and found ways of developing and applying these strengths in the areas they wanted to become effective in.
So while practice might override talent at the highest levels, it seems it’s easier to get there by using practice that involves strengths: If this wasn’t the case, Gallup would have found many top achievers who weren’t employing their strengths. (2)
Researchers have also looked at the quality of activities that employ strengths versus those that don’t, finding that people are more intrinsically motivated to do activities which use their strengths. (3) In my own dissertation, I found that people using their strengths experienced more flow (the state of being ‘in the zone’, totally focused on the task), and enjoyed the activities more.
Perhaps because of the above benefits, people who start to use their strengths on a regular basis become happier. One study asked people to integrate their strengths into their lives, and measured their happiness over the next six months. They found their happiness had increased each time it was measured. In StrengthsQuest, Donald Clifton and Edward Anderson note that regular strengths use leads to more confidence, optimism, and direction in life. (4)(5)
Round 3 – A thought experiment
Let’s take the points from the previous round and see how they might work in an example.
Imagine two people, Bob and Jane. Bob is extroverted and full of zest, with a natural sense of humour. He’s always ‘on the go’, looking for something fun to do. Jane is introverted, intelligent, and prudent. She spends most evenings in front of a fireplace with a good book. How well would each of them do in the role ‘stand up comedian’? Could Jane, do well in this field, if she put her mind to it?
If self-help books could speak, they’d chorus an enthusiastic ‘yes’. People supporting a strengths perspective would answer a resounding ‘no’. Who’s right?
The work on dedicated practice suggests that given enough practice, and a long enough timeline, the answer is, yes, Jane could be an expert comedian. Of course, Bob could get there more easily; he would find more satisfaction in practising, be more motivated, and progress faster. Because Jane is going against the grain, her success depends on whether her natural tendencies allow her to get enough practice in. The process of reaching excellence would be a chore, and she’d have more setbacks and frustrations to overcome. But if she could find a way to keep going, in theory, she could make it.
I say ‘in theory’, because in practice it’s probably rare that someone could maintain that level of training without any intrinsic enjoyment of it. Without love for the activity itself, it’s easy to imagine Jane burning out long before reaching 10 years and 10,000 hours of practice. It would be a tough, inefficient, unsatisfying way to reach excellence.
On the other hand, employing strengths is much easier. Bob would be happier overall, have more motivation to practice; for him, it will all just seem easier and more natural. Another great example is The Beatles, who clearly had a natural aptitude for music, and loved performing. They had clocked up nearly 10,000 hours of practice before they even released a single – they are an extreme example of what can happen when you combine your strengths with massive amounts of practice, rather than have the two work against each other!
When the final bell rings, both fighters are still standing. The first two rounds were pretty even, both combatants landing some strong blows. But in the third, “You can do anything you set your mind to” started looking a little worse for wear. “Stick to your strengths” is your winner and new champion, earning the victory on points!
When people say “you can do anything…”, they mean that even against tough odds, you can succeed if you have enough persistence and determination. While that may technically be true, the phrase speaks only of the end result, and says nothing about the quality of the journey we must undertake to get there. By sticking to your strengths you reduce the number of options you have, but what you lose in quantity you make up for in quality. Unless there is some hugely important reason to go against your strengths, or a massive sense of meaning you attach to it, being happier and deriving more satisfaction from what you do is always going to be the better option.
- StrengthsFinder 2.0: A New and Upgraded Edition of the Online Test from Gallup’s Now, Discover Your Strengths
- Character Strengths and Virtues: A Handbook and Classification
- Average to A+: Realising Strengths in Yourself and Others