Why Your Talents are Enduring and Unique

Photo by rolands.lakis

Can you reconfigure your brain for empathy, competitiveness, or strategic thinking?  Maybe.  You might be fighting an uphill battle though.  Your brain shrinks as you get older.  As it shrinks, you get smarter.  Your brain shapes around your key strengths.  By the time you reach your mid-teens, your brain is mostly shaped.  I think what this means is that you gain more by focusing on your strengths and playing to your strengths, than trying to improve your weaknesses.  If you’ve got it, flaunt it.

In the book Now, Discover Your Strengths , Marcus Buckingham and Donald O. Clifton write about why your talents are unique and enduring.

Key Take Aways
Here’s my key take aways:

  • Your talents are unique and enduring.  You become more of who you are.  Your natural talents are supported by your brain and reinforced by nature.
  • It’s not what you’ve got, it’s how you use it.  Make the most of what you’ve got.  Everybody has a unique set of strengths.  It’s not the set of strengths that makes the difference.  It’s how you use it.  For example, do you know your key strengths?  Do you work in a career where your strengths support you?  Do you play to your strengths where you can?  Do you adjust situations so that you can use your strengths?  Do you limit your time in weaknesses?
  • As your brain shrinks, you get smarter.  As you get older, your brain shrinks.  This is backwards compared to other organs.  But, as your brain shrinks, you get smarter.  Your form and reinforce stronger synaptic connections.
  • Your brain throws away what’s not working.  If you don’t use it, you lose it.  Your brain continues to shape where you use it.  See Focus Changes Your Brain.
  • Find your effectiveness patterns.  The key is to be YOUR best.  Play to your strengths versus focus on your weaknesses.  While you can improve weaknesses that are liabilities, the key is to capitalize on your strengths.  It’s your unique set of talents that are your competitive advantage.  It’s also spending time in your strengths that gives you energy and makes you strong.

I think the main point is that the more you know your self, the better you can play to your strengths.  While you can continue to shape your brain, you have a unique set of talents you can leverage.  These are the things that come easy for you and you feel stronger when you do them.  An opposite approach is to focus on your weaknesses, instead of embrace your strengths.  I think a healthy formula is to play to your strengths, while limiting your liabilities.  In other words, only spend time on your weaknesses that hold you back.  To put it another way, give your best where you have your best to give.

You Can’t Stitch a Completely New Design
According to Buckingham and Clifton

What creates in you these recurring patterns?  If you don’t much care for your patterns, can you stitch a new design?  The answers to these questions are (a) your recurring patterns are created by the connections in your brain; and (b) no, beyond a certain age you are not going to be able to stitch a completely new design – your talents are enduring.   Given the large sums of money that companies spend on remediation programs, in effect trying to reconfigure people’s brains for empathy or competitiveness or strategic thinking, we had better explain (b).  Fortunately, (a) explains (b).  If you know how your brain’s threads are woven, you know why they are so hard to reweave.

Your Brain Grows Backwards
Your brain shrinks as you get older.  As it shrinks, you get smarter.  Buckingham and Clifton write:

The brain is an odd organ in that it seems to grow backward.  Your liver, your kidneys, and, thankfully, your skin all start small and gradually become larger.   Your liver, your kidneys, and, thankfully, your skin all start small and become gradually  larger until they reach the appropriate adult size.  With your brain, the opposite happens.  Your brain gets very big very quickly, and then shrinks and shrinks into adulthood.  Most bizarre of all, as your brain becomes smaller and smaller, you become smarter and smarter.

Your Synapses Create Your Talents
It’s the patterns of your synapses that form your strengths.  Buckingham and Clifton write

The secret to making sense of this topsy-turvy organ can be found in what is called a “synapse.”  A synapse is a connection between two brain cells that enables the cells (also called neurons) to communicate with one another.  These synapses are your threads, and you need to know about them because, as it says in one neurology textbook, “Behavior depends on the formation of appropriate interconnections among neurons in the brain.”   Put more plainly, your synapses create your talents.

Half Your Network is Gone
By your mid-teens, half of your neural network is gone.  Buckingham and Clifton write:

For some reason nature now prompts you to ignore a lot of your carefully woven threads.  As with most things, threads that are neglected fall into disrepair, and so across your network connections start to break.  You become so inattentive to parts of your mental network that between the ages of three and fifteen you lose billions and billions of these carefully forged synaptic connections.  By the time you wake up on your sixteenth birthday, half your network is gone.

You Can’t Rebuild It
While your brain is still shapeable, the main structure is in place.  Buckingham and Clifton write:

And the bad news is that you can’t rebuild it.   Yes, over the course of your life your brain does retain some of its early plasticity.  For example, it now appears that learning and memory require the formation of new synaptic connections, as does figuring out how to cope with the loss of a limb or your eyesight.  However, for most practical purposes, the configuration of your mental network, with its range of stronger to weaker connections, doesn’t change much after your mid-teens.

Your Smartness Depends on How You Use Your Strongest Connections
Playing to your strengths is the key to your effectiveness.  Buckingham and Clifton write:

This all sounds very odd.  Why would nature do this?  Why would it expend so much energy creating this network only to let large chunks of it wither and die?  The answer to this question, as educator John Bruer describes in his book The Myth of the First Three Years, is that when it comes to the brain, “less is more.”  Parents hang black-and-white mobiles and play Mozart CDs in the crib in order to stimulate synapse creation in their child, but they are missing the point.  It is not true that the more synaptic connections you have, the smarter you are or the more effective.  Rather, your smartness and your effectiveness depend on how well you capitalize on your strongest connections.  Nature forces you to shut down billions of connections precisely so that you can be freed up to exploit the ones remaining.  Losing connections isn’t something to be concerned about.  Losing connections is the point.

A Distinctly Talented Individual in Your Own Enduringly Unique Way
Nature supports and reinforces your uniqueness.  Buckingham and Clifton write:

… nature and nurture reinforce some connections and allow others to fade away.  And so you emerge – a distinctly talented individual blessed and/or cursed to react to the world in your own enduringly unique way.

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  1. Interesting take on brain functioning. This is a preferred explaination when compared with the “we only use 10% of our brain” capacity. It’s more likely that our brain functioning is shaped by our intellectual needs. By the way we live our lives and the skills that are necessary to survive in our environment.

  2. “It’s not what you’ve got, it’s how you use it” is my takeaway from this one. Instead of chasing something i do not have, instead of strengthening my weaknesses i guess i’d better focus on what i already have – my strengths. I’d better take my strengths to the max.

  3. Wow, it’s fascinating that our brain shrinks by almost half by the time we’re in our teens. It does make sense that the synapses get stronger as they grow closer together. I learnt something else about the brain today. Thanks!

  4. “The key is to be YOUR best. Play to your strengths versus focus on your weaknesses.” Yay! I think I might just grow up to be great, yet.

    Really — all our other organs get bigger? Is that why I’ve gained 5 lbs?

  5. I never knew about the shrinking bit! It makes sense though, I suppose you can’t be good at everything?

  6. I was concerned when you stated that my brain shrinks as I get older, but was relieved to know that it also gets smarter (phew).

    I also love the concept that my natural talents are supported by my brain and reinforced by nature.

  7. Hi J.D.

    What an interesting post. I found the information on brain fascinating. I really enjoy reading this one.
    Thank you,
    Giovanna Garcia
    Imperfect Action is better than No Action

  8. I was really interested to read about the brain becoming smarter as we get older .. & discarding the unnecessary ‘bits’ ..

    Thanks JD – a really interesting post – especially it’s not what you’ve got – but what you do with it.

    Hilary: Be Positive Be Happy

  9. “Rather, your smartness and your effectiveness depend on how well you capitalize on your strongest connections. Nature forces you to shut down billions of connections precisely so that you can be freed up to exploit the ones remaining.” This makes perfect sense to me and explains much about how masters develop. Practice is key and we are what we make of ourselves.

    This post is a deep one J.D. I’ll need to return visit to ponder it fully.

  10. @ Gennaro

    That’s a good way to put it … We shape our brains by our intellectual needs and the way we live our lives.

    @ Alik

    It makes a lot of sense since you can get exponential results by playing to your strengths. Just improving your weaknesses won’t cut it. Also, spending time in your strengths keeps your energy high and that’s a key ingredient for results.

    @ Daphne

    It’s one of those interesting counter-intuitive points, but, yeah, it does make sense.

    @ Jannie


    Growing greater is the way to go, bigger organs and all.

    @ Louisa

    I think of it like a portfolio of results … invest more in your best assets.

    @ Stacey

    I remember when I first read it, I had to do a double take. I was hoping there was a workaround. I too was happier that shrinking meant getting smarter.

    @ Giovanna

    Thank you. Although a bunch of the brain is a mystery, it seems like we’re closing in on the key things that help get results.

    @ Hilary

    I’m really a fan of making the most of what you’ve got. I used to invest more in my weaknesses until I figured out I could get more ROI from my strengths. It makes sense in retrospect.

    @ Tom

    Great way to put it – we are what we make ourselves. I’m still testing my strengths and revisiting some of my earlier conclusions about what my strengths and ewaknesses are.

  11. I’ve done the strengths finder online test and gotten my five key strengths. And I agreed with them completely. The challenge of course is to keep them top of mind and work to them instead of going with old habits.

    The more I hear about this book the more I think it’s something to read. Thanks for the detailed review!

  12. Hi JD

    I’m glad more people are noting the importance of using and focussing on one’s strengths. There is always so much emphasis placed on improving areas of weakness. I especially see this in the work place where somehow one is expected to be this perfect “all-rounder”. Feedback seems to focus on “personal development areas” i.e. where you are weak. Even if strengths are noticed, there is never an active drive to develop them further.


  13. Very interesting material. I think too that thinking is just little chemicals making practiced pathways from synapse to synapse. Thus with the brain shrinking the synapse pathway can be there for faster results and more creative responses.

    I have dyscalcula and have always had trouble with math and spacial things. Everyone in my family wanted to help me, so they put me in charge of doing bookkeeping tasks and paying the bills for them – not to mention filling. In all my years, I am very good at organizing and neat of penmanship but I have not been able to think mathematically.

    Then 2 years ago, I bought myself a DS player and the brain age games.
    Step by step I have taught myself how to play Suduku. I do not improve on any of the math games that call for division skills or thinking skills, but I am pleased to be able to play this game and consistently get better and faster. I think it comes from so many years of writing the numbers down on paper.

    I went to the web page for Dyscalcula folks last year (I didn’t know they had one) and I am very lucky that I am able to drive – I am amazed at all the folks who tell me computer apps. are easy – just follow the directions – yah right!

    Interesting post

  14. @ Alex

    Really good point on keeping your strengths top of mind. In fact, I’m going to add it to my checklist I review on Fridays for reflection. I like to use Friday’s as a weekly checkpoint.

    @ Juliet

    You’re right, people tend to focus on the negative and ignore the positive. One thing that’s helped me get more balanced feedback is I ask for 3 things going well and 3 things to improve.

    @ Patricia

    Thank you for sharing your personal story. It’s great that you’ve had a supportive family and it sounds like your earlier focus is paying off dividends in surprising ways. Your strengths support you.

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