Tom Rath: Grow Your Strengths

If you sharpen your focus on what you do well, you'll be happier and more successful, says Gallup's research guru and best-selling author Tom Rath.

April 1, 2010

In your book Strengths Finder 2.0 (Gallup Press, 2007), you say we should focus on improving strengths rather than correcting failings. But if we’re not good at something, won’t that hinder us?

RATH: When people focus on fixing weaknesses, they tend to lose confidence in themselves. But when they spend time improving strengths, they boost their confidence, become more engaged in their career, experience more success, and are generally happier.

How does strength differ from talent?

RATH: We use "talent" when speaking of the more constant elements of your personality—what you probably inherited and what helps differentiate you. "Strength" describes a product of that talent, multiplied by education, hard work, and skill.

The challenge is to identify your talents and build them into strengths. You can take cues from what you’ve enjoyed doing and where you were most successful.

So, our goal should be to build better versions of who we already are?

RATH: Exactly. Research shows that when people spend more time on what they do well, they reach a higher level of success than if they tried to improve their weaknesses—in fact, they’re six times as likely to be engaged in their jobs and more than three times as likely to have an excellent quality of life.

In my most recent book, Strengths Based Leadership (Gallup Press, 2008), co-author Barry Conchie and I look at business leaders with different strengths and why each has been effective.

Who are some of your examples?

RATH: Wendy Kopp, founder of Teach for America, took a concept from her college thesis and in 12 months turned it in into a national organization that rallies people to teach. She knew to surround herself with the best teachers and fundraisers.

Her strengths are different from those of Brad Anderson, former CEO of Best Buy, who’s a strategic thinker and learner. He took an unknown regional store and made it into the country’s largest electronics retailer.

How can real estate professionals build on their strengths?

RATH: Once you know your strengths, you should invest more energy and resources to boost them. If you’re good at attracting buyers and sellers, figure out how to spend time doing that rather than sitting behind a desk. If you’re not great at closing a deal, partner with someone who is.

What if you discover that your strengths aren’t what you thought?

RATH: It usually won’t require switching careers, but rather making small adjustments to spend more time using your strengths. I’ve seen people who weren’t bad at their job and didn’t hate their job, but their position didn’t fit their talents or provide as much reward as it could.

If you find you’re headed in the wrong direction, it’s worthwhile to make the switch.

Should people with similar strengths work together, or do opposites make a better team?

RATH: It’s good to be part of a well-rounded team. If I’m the Brad Anderson–type big-picture thinker, I need someone to make things happen, or my ideas won’t get far. You can strive to be mediocre at a lot of things, but that will eliminate your being great at one or a few things.

You also say we should help others develop their strengths?

RATH: You can start by helping them identify their talents. If a person is gathering paperwork for a home closing and is doing it well, point that out with specificity. Focus on what they did right rather than wrong.

Once we know our strengths, you recommend taking 50 "actions"—10 for each strength. An achiever, for instance, should attach timelines and measurement to goals so the effort leads to defined progress and tangible outcomes. This seems pretty daunting.

You’re right; it’s not realistic to act on all 50. They’re meant to be a broad list of suggestions from which people choose a few.

Learn More

Visit for more information about Rath’s books and his Strengths Finder assessment.

Barbara Ballinger

Barbara Ballinger is a freelance writer and the author of several books on real estate, architecture, and remodeling, including The Kitchen Bible: Designing the Perfect Culinary Space (Images Publishing, 2014). Barbara’s most recent book is The Garden Bible: Designing Your Perfect Outdoor Space, co-authored with Michael Glassman (Images, 2015).