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Passion, People and Principles

When Are You At Your Best?

post # 66 — May 2, 2006 — a Careers, Managing post

Bill Peper wrote in to ask:

I wonder what you think of the underlying premise of Positive Organizational Scholarship, a hot topic at the University of Michigan Business School these days. In particular, I am curious of your opinion of the Reflected Best Self exercise.

Thanks for drawing this to my attention, Bill. By way of background, the Reflected Best Self exercise is a way of getting feedback from those you have worked with (or family or friends) asking them to relate stories about you when you were at your best and made your largest contribution. It’s worth checking out. The underlying idea of the approach is that, as Marcus Buckingham pointed out in a series of books (starting with First Break All the Rules) a person’s success is usually obtained not by working at correcting weaknesses, but by finding out their core strengths and building upon them. (This is the source of the word “Positive” in the name of the area of research.)

It’s too soon to know whether this particular method of self-discovery is the best approach, but I am very sympathetic to the insight that most of us, for better or for worse, have a package of strengths and weaknesses, probably very hard to alter.

Two very important conclusions flow from this. First, know thyself. And second, find a way to play a role that fits who you are, not some organization’s generalized statement about what we all need to be good at.

(The conclusions are critical insights in managing someone, too. To help someone succeed, you must help them find a role where they can flourish, not fit everyone into a cookie-cutter set of standards)

cover of David Maister's book, True Professionalism I depart from the Michigan people (and Marcus Buckingham) in believing that career success is actually less about strengths than about desires. In <a href=True Professionalism (1997), I wrote about it this way:

Don’t worry about what you’re good at. If something turns you on, you’ll be good enough. If it doesn’t, you won’t. Your “strengths” are irrelevant: What you like is critical.

One key to discovering what you really like and love is to ask yourself what are the things you don’t like to admit. “I don’t like to admit it, but I need to be the center of attention.” O.K., find a career path that will let you show off. “I don’t like to admit it, but I don’t like dealing with other people.” OK, then devise a role that will let you make your contribution through things done at the office, such as intellectual creativity and true technical superiority. “I don’t like to admit it, but I really want to be rich.” Fine, go out and build a business. “I don’t like to admit it, but I’m an intellectual snob.” That’s all right, so find a career path that will allow you to work only with smart people. Play to your “evil secrets.” Don’t suppress them. You are a lot less flexible than you think.


Mike said:


I agree with your point about focusing on desires, but unless they’re “broken glass” desires, you’re probably only going to succeed in fulfilling them to the extent that your existing strengths will get you there. To your point, “You are a lot less flexible than you think.”

posted on May 2, 2006

Stephanie West Allen said:

Hello, David. For a number of years I have been measuring people’s hard-wired, innate aptitudes. The testing is objective (i.e,, not self-report, the person being tested has no idea for what they are being measured) and is based on assessments developed by the decades-old, non-profit Johnson O’Connor Research Foundation. Read about the great work the researchers at Johnson O’Connor are doing here http://www.jocrf.org .

When I work with my clients we look at strengths—skills developed through experience and education, as well as the innate aptitudes. We also look at desires; in our terminology, I believe those would be interests, values and goals. And we look at still other factors shown here http://www.highlandslifeandcareercenter.com . The mix or blend of all those factors are going to be unique for each individual as will the importance each person places on the various spokes of the wheel. Desire is a very strong motivator but in some cases is not enough, at least in my experience.

Thanks for another provocative topic on the table.

posted on May 2, 2006

Bill Peper said:

Here is a link to an excellent introduction to Positive Organizational Scholarship (POS) from a textbook of the same name, written by three U of Michigan Business School Professors, Kim Cameron, Jane Dutton, and Robert Quinn.


Here is a link to the home page of the sponsoring organization.

As David memntioned, it is worth reading the teaching notes and instructions for the Reflected Best Self Exercise, available for review at the website.

posted on May 2, 2006

John Eric Pollabauer said:

WOW! In my opinion, you are bang right on the money when you concluded the importance of finding a way to play a role that fits who you are (recipe for success), not some organization’s generalized statement about what we all need to be good at (recipe for failure). Thanks and much appreciation for your thoughtful and insightful contributions.

posted on May 3, 2006

Patrick Jacques said:

Ask the people who did make it big how they got there, and why they think they got there. You will find striking the number of them who claim no one ever thought they would make it and how many times they have been told to just forget about it. What does that say about their innate capabilities? Does somebody have an answer?

posted on May 4, 2006

David (Maister) said:

Patrick, I don’t want to choke off the responses of other people reading this (please contribute, folks) but my thoughts were captured in the title of a recent article of mine (on my website) called “It’s Not How Good You Are, It’s How Much You Want It.”

posted on May 4, 2006

Coert Visser said:

Dear David, here is some direct support to your claim that is essential to follow your passion from a new article by Stephen J. Dubner and Steven D. Levitt (the Freakonomics authors). In it they talk about the work of Anders Ericsson, and expert on expertise. Here is a quote from the article:

“Ericcson’s research suggests…: when it comes to choosing a life path, you should do what you love – because of you don’t love it, you are unlikely to work hard enough to get very good. Most people naturally don’t like to do things they aren’t “good” at. So they often give up, telling themselves they simply don’t possess the talent for math or skiing or the violin. But what they really lack is the desire to be good and to undertake the deliberate practices that would make them better.”

Here is the link to the article: http://www.nytimes.com/2006/05/07/magazine/07wwln_freak.html?_r=1&oref=slogin

posted on May 6, 2006