Playing To Strengths Part 1: Do I Have To Be Good At Everything In Order To Succeed?

My class at Yale this semester is my most diverse group to date, mixing opera singers, early music voice majors, composers, string and orchestra players, one guitar major and a conducting student.  The result is a rich sharing experience from many points of view.  And they are highly motivated to find out what it takes to create success in today’s environment.

Knowing your natural talents is an important component of setting the right career goals and finding the inner motivation to create success.  That’s why I start off my class at Yale with a personal development unit, focusing on passions, values and strengths, so that my students can set inspiring career goals that they are excited about pursuing.

My students are particularly interested in strengths, which is a fundamental tenet of positive psychology. Psychologists who specialize in strengths research, including Robert Biswas-Diener and Todd Kashan, find that our greatest successes occur when we use and develop our strengths and that people who have the opportunity to exercise strengths on a daily basis are more engaged in their work, have higher levels of happiness and lower rates of depression, and have a greater quality of life. 

Moreover, focusing on strengths enables you to work smarter, not harder.  Being a professional musician requires a very high level of talent and mastery of musical skills.  But mastery of those skills is not enough.  This is where strengths kick in.  By knowing what you excel at, you can focus on building those strengths to create your own unique profile.  You will be more motivated to get things done. And it will be a lot easier for you to get there.

Finally, by knowing, using and playing to your strengths, the more positive and confident you can be.  And that mindset is at the heart of fueling your inner motivation to help you to achieve the success that you are looking for.

For starters, I have my students take the StrengthsFinder 2.0 assessment, which was created by the Gallup Organization to help people find their natural talents. This particular assessment identifies 34 themes that are broken down into 4 domains of leadership strengths

  1. strategic thinking;
  2. executing or getting things done;
  3. influencing others; and
  4. relationship building.

Our strengths discussion in class took an interesting turn when a few students were concerned that they did not have strengths in all four  leadership categories.  I sensed an underlying belief that in order to succeed in today’s competitive music world, it was important to have strengths in all four areas of leadership.  And if you do not have all of these strengths, how can you succeed?

Good question!

My students’ concerns arise from the fact that it takes more than raw talent to succeed in today’s environment. Many musicians are now managing their own careers, which involve a lot of different skills in addition to musical talent.  The musician of the 21st Century needs to have a mindset of positivity and confidence, be on the lookout for opportunities and overcome and learn from challenges and setbacks.

 Musicians also need the following skills:

·      Goal-setting and action-taking
·      Time management and prioritization
·      Financial planning
·      Project planning
·      Branding
·      Networking
·      Marketing
·      Communication and Public Speaking

So how true is it that unless your assessment results come up with strengths in all four categories, you cannot be successful?

My answer is to focus and own the strengths that you have to see how they can help you to succeed.

For example, I have 4 strategic thinking strengths, 3 relationship strengths and one influencing strength and nothing in the executing domain.  Does this mean that I think and schmooze without getting anything done?  Of course not!  It means that I am highly motivated by thinking creatively and strategically, as well as interacting with people and helping them to maximize their talents.  The result is that these inner strengths motivate me to get a lot done!

Moreover, the skills that a musician needs in today’s world involve many different talents.  Let’s take networking.  On the surface, this may seem like a relationship-building skill because you are meeting and connecting with other people.  So those with strong relationship strengths may have an advantage.  But it is also very strategic because it involves thinking about the types of people you would like to meet and where and how you can meet them.  In addition, successful networkers are good at following through and keeping in touch with other people, which is a terrific use of executing strengths.  And if you are strong in influencing themes, this too can help you to make valuable and rich connections with others.

And are you limited by the results of this assessment?


These themes are tendencies and not iron clad rules.   This particular assessment gives you your top 5 strengths themes. You probably have 8-10 top strengths.  If you do not agree with the results of the assessment, you can read the book and find other themes that resonate for you.

You can also take the assessment again to see what other strengths come up.  For example, when I first took the assessment in 2008, my top 5 strengths included 3 relationship-building strengths and 2 strategic thinking strengths, whereas when I retook the assessment earlier this year, I added an influencing strength and 2 new strategic strengths.  The result is that I know my 8 top strengths. 

Another important factor is the interplay among your strengths and how you use them.  This means that even if two people have the same strengths, the way they use them will be different.  Therefore, when you go through the assessment, highlight the words or phrases that resonate for you and then see how your strengths can work together to help you move forward.

The skills that today’s musicians need are teachable because that is what my course is all about!  So what I tell my students is that you lead with your strengths.  If you are good at getting things done or if you enjoy thinking strategically or coming up with new ideas, use those strengths to motivate you to learn a skill in an area that you may not be naturally talented in, like learning how to manage your finances or creating your personal brand.

Finally, the purpose of this assessment is to encourage your development and not to limit or typecast you.  It’s a springboard for you to discover what motivates you so that you can accomplish what you want to achieve.  The premise of the strengths work is that while you cannot be anything you want, you can be more of who you already are.  So embrace your strengths and use them to help you achieve what it is that you want.

Next time, we will explore what you can do about your “weaknesses” so stay tuned!