legostrength

"You can do anything you set your mind to" Vs "Stick to your strengths"

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.

“You can do anything…” is simply a tribute to the power of dedication, persistence, and time.

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 ‘best of the best’ shape their lives around their strengths.”

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?

“Going against the grain would be a tough, inefficient, unsatisfying way to reach excellence.”

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!

Final Bell!

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.

Recommended Reading:

20 thoughts on “"You can do anything you set your mind to" Vs "Stick to your strengths"

  1. References

    (1) Ericsson, K. A., Krampe, R. T., and Tesch-Roemer, C. (1993). The role of deliberate practice in the acquisition of expert performance. Psychological Review, 100(3), pp363-406.
    (2) Anderson, E. C. (2004). StrengthsQuest: Curriculum Outline and Learning Activities. Princeton, NJ: Gallup Organization
    (3) Seligman, M. (2002). Authentic Happines. NY: Free Press
    (4) Seligman, M. E. P., Steen, T. A., Park, N., & Peterson, C. (2005). Positive psychology progress: Empirical validation of interventions. American Psychologist, 60(5), 410-421.
    (5) Clifton, D.O. & Anderson, E. (2002) StrengthsQuest: Discover and Develop Your Strengths in Academics, Career, and Beyond. Gallup

  2. Great post – well balanced and great to see the references to specific examples and other sources.

    As with all these things, it is never a black-and-white case, as you point out – and to focus on your strengths shouldn’t mean to ignore all of your weaknesses.

    For example, in order to progress in most workplaces you need to demonstrate a balanced range of capabilities, and whilst a focus on strengths will still drive improved performance, if you do not acknowledge and address any shortcomings that you have, you are passing on the chance to develop and may even end up missing out on opportunities you never expected to experience.

    Thanks for the post, just stumbled across your blog today and will continue to read with interest…

    1. Thanks Paul,

      You’re right, and I think what Buckingham and co are saying is that this need to demonstrate a balanced range of capabilities in the workplace is the wrong way to go about things. But yes sometimes you can’t avoid something involving a weaknesses, and you have to do what you can with it. Public speaking and presentations are probably the best examples. Most degrees and many jobs involve this at some stage, so you won’t do as well if you’re really shy and unskilled at speaking. But if you’re shy and have a lot of practice speaking… you probably still won’t follow speaking as a career, but you’ll do better in your job or course.

  3. Warren,
    I found this very interesting. My perspective was more as a parent than businessman. When raising kids we see so much potential. Our kids may not have come to realize their strengths so with proper enoucragement we can help them develop areas that later become their strengths.

    On the flip side, as my old football coach used to say, “You’re gonna learn a lot about life in this game.” He was right, we learned what hard work mixed with persistence could do and how that quite often overcame talent.

    In the end, if you have a strength and apply it to something you love you can achieve greatness. Best example for me would be Tiger Woods.

    Brian

    1. I was reading an interview with Joshua Waitzkin the other day where he basically says the same thing. You’re better off focusing on your strengths and managing your weaknesses, because (he says) greatness in one area can translate to other areas too. Your football coach was right, I think, but if you want to reach greatness you’ll still need that same hard work and persistence.

      I agree, Tiger Woods is a great example. Apparently he saw a sports psychologist from a young age to learn the mental game early on. Mental game is another factor that I think is huge in getting to high levels of skill.

      Many thanks for the comment Brian!
      Warren

  4. Warren, I commend for you for a job well done, with regard to your exquisite post! While this is the first post I have read of yours, I can most definitely say that your strengths lie in analyzing and writing, and I can say that it appears you have many, many many hours of time invested in this practice! Congrats, you earned it,and I am quite grateful for your contribution to the digital arena!
    I never really thought about the impact of the two potential statements, and now that I have a little bit of insight on it, I can totally see how it makes sense, and how it can impact your life. I feel that many people work off of the 1st statement “You can do anything you put your mind to.” And while that statement is certainly valid, I think many, many, many people stand by that statement, but do not truly know why. Are they encouraged (persuaded) by people in their life to act, even though it may not be their true calling?; And if so, then what is the motivation?
    Many people are persuaded or even sometimes forced to follow in the tracks of others (parents/siblings/guardians), and they may not know why. Is it because of job security, rate of pay, vacation benefits? Whatever it is, it is usually not initiated by the individual, for it was somehow created by someone in their life. Everything seems to be, and while someone may actually be good, through their strengths, at that profession, it doesn’t seem to always work that way.
    The second statement “Stick with your strengths” just seems more of a solid idea. The problem is, I don’t believe that many people are even aware of how to validly rate their strengths, i there even is a way. I know for myself, I have never really been privy with the strength/weakness ideas, until the last couple of years. It was never really introduced into my life, and I was simply not aware, because I felt that I would follow in the path of others, successful in their areas of work, and thinking I can/could do it just as well, but not always enjoying what I was doing.
    Sure, we can be patient and persevere at something in life, and therefore eventually succeed. It will take hard work and time, but you have to decide that you really want it. In most countries, you can try and try until you get it right,and be ok, but the key is not to fool yourself into thinking something is right for you, when you may just be a slave to the practice in the long run. So, I thank you again for your insight, and look forward towards reading more and more of your fascinating insight. Happy Holidays: LostinTranslation

    1. LostinTranslation,

      Wow, many thanks for the kind words! You just made my day!

      Yes you’re exactly right – I think the influence of the self-help industry encourages the “You can do anything you set your mind to” attitude, especially in the US where that industry is hugely popular. I agree with the idea that you should make your own choices – why not? Many, many years ago you had little choice but to follow in the family trade (if there was one), and in many countries today people have little or no choice over what they can do with their time. But now we have all this choice – why not try to do something you like? But the key thing is, are you really planning to do something you like, or do you just plan to get somewhere you want to be? It’s a bit like the old saying, it’s the journey not the destination that counts.

      Happy new year to you!

  5. As other commenters have already said, great post!

    In my own experience I have certainly found that firm conviction, making a decision to do something and believing you can do it, almost always results in success… I guess that’s the same as saying you can do anything you set your mind to.

    I’m currently training to run the Ironman triathlon, and I’ve had the odd doubt about the race, but recently read an article about a double amputee who completed the race. It was at that point that I knew I was capable of doing it and made the decision 100% to train for, enter and complete the race no matter what, and I believe I will… I guess I’ll find out in a few months whether I really can, but I think the same approach can be applied to any area of life – sport, family, business whatever!
    .-= Billy AKA Action Geek´s last blog ..Get your geek on =-.

    1. Billy,

      That’s AWESOME! Best of luck with the training, what an awesome challenge.

      I’ve been thinking a lot about this issue and I’m swaying a bit. I think there are levels to this:

      1) On the one hand, there are certain things that certain people will not be able to do, full stop.
      2) There are also things that certain people will not be able to do without certain other factors (support, coaching, facilities, money, time, etc) being present which are, practically speaking, not going to be present. So maybe they theoretically can, but practically won’t be able to.
      3) For some people, these factors (resources, time, motivation etc) ARE present, but there is no intrinsic enjoyment of the task, so the journey of getting from their current state to the one they want will be so difficult and unfulfilling to make it either unlikely that they’ll stick with it, or just simply not worth doing in the first place (unless there’s some benefit to other people that is driving them on, perhaps).
      4) Sometimes a person has no or little natural talent, but they have some enjoyment for the task so with enough practice – maybe the 10,000 hours I talked about above, they can reach the goal – eventually!
      5) Some people are naturally talented at a particular thing and it just comes ‘naturally’ to them. But still, no one is a natural master and they will still have to put in their many thousands of hours’ practice – they just might get there a little quicker or have a little headstart because of the talents.

      So as I allude to in the article, maybe it’s not so much whether it’s possible to do something that you’ve set your mind to, but whether it’s worth doing. I think this “you only need to believe” stuff is bullshit. You are better off believing that you can do it, obviously, but it doesn’t logically follow that belief is all that is needed.

      Anyway, good look and let me know how you get on!
      Warren

  6. Hey Warren, great post and certainly insightful! I think your latest reply to Billy really sums it up best contextually, though.

    From a business perspective this realistic approach certainly applies…For example, while self-employed entrepreneurs are called upon to do so many varied tasks to run their biz, it’s really easy to fall into “I have to do it all myself” trap and all of a sudden they are sucked into the vortex of limited time and resources to stay float at the detriment of working on the more important things like business development and growth planning…They would be much better served focusing on what they are “good” at and offloading the rest.

    Funny though, because when you look at employee evaluation forms, you see that people are all rated on the same criteria regardless of their position, which kind of leads back to the “you have to be good at everything” mindset…But really, the person who will achieve the best results is the one who focuses on their strengths and compensates for their weakness instead of trying to “improve” them.

    My 2 cents,

    Patch
    .-= Patch´s last blog ..Set Your Mind to Succeed =-.

  7. Most people don’t even prepare themselves in their minds for putting in sustainable effort toward achieving their goals. This eventually leads them off the track toward their goals. You must resolve exactly what you are prepared to give to have your goal. Most people overestimate what they can achieve in a year, but underestimate what they can achieve in five. Prepare yourself in your mind to put in the effort each day. Without a prepared mind – you will be lost at the first sign of challenge or resistance.
    Most people don’t set a deadline for when they will achieve their goal. Because they have no real sense of how long it will take to reach their goals, they have no reference of when it will transpire, and so it never does. If you make a habit of setting small achievable goals and, as a consequence reaching them in the time you have set, attaining your big long term goals is inevitable. It’s no longer a matter of if but when.

  8. this is a bit late.. i know, i know..

    my opinion: when you really “set your mind” to something, it means you REALLY want that, um, whatever it is.. you can’t set your mind to doing something you don’t want to do.. even if that means that you will have to work harder than those with the advantage (the strength), you wouldn’t feel the pressure.. you will feel the “work”, that’s for sure, but the pressure is not there when you know that the end result is what you really want.. and, isn’t it more rewarding in the end that despite all odds, you got there? that, to me, is a more meaningful “journey” than having it “easier”..

    just an example:

    we have two friends, bill and jake.. they both decided that they want to reach the top of mount wakalikuhiki.. bill, the “weaker” one, has a disadvantage because jake, the “stronger” one, is rich.. let’s say they decided to do their goal on the same exact day, bill started climbing while jake got on his helicopter.. jake is enjoying the “journey” coz well, he’s comfortable just riding his heli to the top.. sure he encounters problems, like his wrist feeling tired, eyes getting tired, etc, but hey, those are minor problems coz he’s moving faster and reaching the goal easier.. bill, on the other hand, is having all sorts of troubles with climbing, but because it’s what he really want, he came PREPARED.. sure there are unexpected events, but because he is PREPARED, he got thru it.. when he got there, there are two scenarios:

    A: jake wasn’t there anymore, he already decided to descend because well, he was there first and even though he enjoyed the scene at the top, he got bored of it already.. will bill enjoy it more? answer that..

    B: jake was still there, not cause he wants to, but because his heli broke and he doesn’t know how to get down.. he didn’t trek it, so going down will be unfamiliar for him..

    conclusion:

    “sticking to your strengths” is a limiting attitude.. you don’t learn much from it, you experience little from it, and you don’t grow out of it.. it may make the journey more enjoyable, but not that meaningful..
    “YCDAYSYMT” is a progressive attitude, as long as you know your weaknesses and PREPARE yourself that those weaknesses will let you down at one or more times in your journey, then learn from iy.. it makes the goal much more enjoyable, and makes the journey much more meaningful because well, you’ll be PROUD of it..

    well, that’s my opinion, anyway..

    1. Hi Martin thanks for the comment!

      A: jake wasn’t there anymore, he already decided to descend because well, he was there first and even though he enjoyed the scene at the top, he got bored of it already.. will bill enjoy it more? answer that..

      B: jake was still there, not cause he wants to, but because his heli broke and he doesn’t know how to get down.. he didn’t trek it, so going down will be unfamiliar for him..

      I think I’ve gotten a little lost in the metaphor! What is the helicopter breaking down an analogy for?

      The extra variable here is meaning — if something means enough to you then it’s easier to overcome setbacks and hardships. But when people say “You can do anything you set your mind to,” they don’t generally mean that you can achieve something that you REALLY want, it’s used to inspire hope and confidence. As though, you choose what you want, then you set your mind to it, then you achieve it. Yet in practice, that level of meaning, drive, motivation or whatever you want to call it, is very, very difficult to create in yourself if it isn’t already there.

      I also disagree with these comments:
      Take

      “sticking to your strengths” is a limiting attitude.. you don’t learn much from it, you experience little from it, and you don’t grow out of it..

      I don’t think using your strengths precludes learning, experience or growth. Take Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak. If Jobs REALLY wanted to be a technician and Wozniak really wanted to be a saleman/orator, should they have switched roles? Would they have learned as much, experienced as much, or grown as much?

      Also, what about someone who doesn’t know what they REALLY want? Maybe sticking to strengths is a good “default” option in the absence of a strong drive to do something in particular.

      So Martin I agree and disagree with you. I think you are dead right that if you have a huge amount of drive to do something, this can compensate for a lack of natural ability in that area. But I think such levels of drive are rare, they are either naturally present or come in response to a powerful event in your life. I think most people would struggle to generate such a huge level of drive artificially.

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