© 2018 Strengths University

  • Anne


Updated: Feb 27

Exsqueeze me? Baking powder? I thought my talents were my strengths.

What’s with the weird word math?

CliftonStrengths has developed an incredibly rich vocabulary to help people better understand and communicate about themselves and others, BUT sometimes the terminology can be confusing. The words talent(s) and strength(s) are often used interchangeably even though they technically mean different things. I wanted to just take a minute and break down how Gallup – and Strengths University – defines these terms, so you better understand just what the heck we’re talking about. If you’re ever feeling confused about any of this, feel free to contact us and we’ll help walk you through it.


Talents are naturally recurring patterns of thought, feeling, or behavior that can be productively applied. Our talents color how we see and react to the world. Our behaviors are reflections of our natural talents.

Talent Themes are a grouping of similar talents. When you get your Top 5, they are actually your “Signature (Talent) Themes” NOT your Top 5 talents or strengths. When Dr. Donald Clifton was developing CliftonStrengths, he found over 400 individual talents, so they bundled them into 34 for themes to create an effective tool and language.

Investment is acquiring the necessary skills and knowledge to complement and support your talents. When you invest in your talents, you increase your ability to maximize your talents to they can be applied consistently and effectively.

A strength is the ability to apply a talent in a consistently effective way that delivers near-perfect performance at a specific task. When you maximize your talents, your talents become Strengths.

A weakness is a shortage or misapplication of talent, skill, or knowledge that causes problems for you or others. We don’t often focus on weakness when we’re talking about strengths, but we also can’t ignore them. I’ll refer back to this later on.

Let’s do an analogy. People like those, right? Say you’re a natural born juggler. It’s just always been super easy for you. Juggling would be your talent. Entertainment is your talent theme. Clown College is your investment. Trying to juggle too many balls would be a weakness. Your strength would be juggling while riding a unicycle without dropping anything.

Back to our word problem from earlier:


When you take your natural talents, as described by your Signature Talent Themes, and invest the time to reflect and learn more about them and/or learn new skills that will support the way you naturally do things, you will be able to more consistently use those talents in an effective way.

More simply, you’re naturally good at certain things…things that make you different than anyone else. When you focus on ways to make the things you’re good at even better, you start the process of maximizing your talents. When you can use your talents at a consistently near-perfect level, they are strengths.


To a certain degree, you’ve already started investing in your talents. If you’re a natural analyzer, you’ve probably learned how to use Excel. If you love meeting new people, you’ve figured out ways to work a room or remember the contacts you’ve made.

Now (hopefully) you’ve started a more formal investment process by taking the CliftonStrengths assessment and you know your Top 5 Signature Talents. Unfortunately, many people stop there. Maybe they make a nice sign for their door or desk or talk about them in one meeting, but that’s it. That might be helpful information for any coworkers who have taken the time to better understand this process, but overall it doesn’t get you to the goal of honing your talents into strengths.

Instead, think of your Top 5 as the starting point on a journey to becoming your best self. Look at your Signature Themes Report, Strengths Insight Guide, and Strengths Insight and Action-Planning Guide. When you read about yourself, how you feel? How do you see those things showing up in your life? Ask other people who know you well to read them and give you their thoughts. We live in our brain and rarely take the time to reflect on how we operate in the world. Sometimes seeing our behaviors through other people’s eyes can help us better understand ourselves.

The better you understand how you use your talents, the better able you are to assess where you’re using them productively, where you’re falling flat, and where they just might be getting in your way. I mentioned weaknesses earlier. People usually think of weaknesses as being the things we’re bad at or lack. I have no rhythm = weakness. I’m not coordinated enough to play tennis = weakness. In reality, the things that most get in our way is a misapplication of our talents or not having the necessary skills or knowledge to properly support them. Yes, the things we’re best at can come back to bite us in the BLEEP.

Because our talents come so naturally to us, we default to them in almost every situation. That is usually helpful, but sometimes not so much. There are different versions of this saying, but I’ll go with Abraham Maslow, “I suppose it is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail.” We look at the world through the lenses of our talents, so when we approach a person, situation, or project it’s with that worldview which isn’t always the best way to tackle it.

For example, I have Ideation as my #1. I love connecting different ideas and thoughts and developing new ways to do things. I get bored doing the same things over and over. When I worked with my RA (Resident Assistant) staff, I was always pushing them to come up with new ways to talk about dating violence or suicide or whatever we were working on. I frequently got frustrated when their ideas mostly consisted of slightly changing what we’d done last year – like cupcakes instead of cookies or giving away shirts instead of raffling gift cards. When I took a step back, I realized that other people don’t have the same need that I do to do things differently every time. The RAs were happy to recreate successful events with minor changes, and so were the students who were the target audience – not me. I’d wasted a lot of time and frustration pushing my staff to do things in a way that met my needs without considering whether it was useful to the overall goal. I stopped wasting our time and frustrating myself and my staff and instead used my Ideation on new initiatives.

We invest in our talents by understanding them and how we use them – both positively and negatively. That can help us adjust our own behavior, as well as see where we may need additional training, knowledge, or skills to really help our talents shine. People who have Harmony want everyone to get along. That means some people who have Harmony avoid conflict like nobody’s business, which leads to many other problems. Assertiveness coaching would be extremely beneficial for someone in that position. Achievers like to get things done, but if you’re a supervisor and aren’t prioritizing the big picture over the minutia because you’re just enjoying the process of doing, you might need to learn how to better delegate.

Investing in your talents can take many forms. If you’re a self-starter and are disciplined enough to go it on your own, Gallup has many resources available for free or relatively low cost: online, books, videos on YouTube, etc. You just need to be sure you’re making the time to do it on a consistent basis. Maybe find a partner or small group that can help keep you focused and accountable. If you decide you want some help, think about Strengths coaching or a Strengths training session if you want to invest with a group. Even if you are the DIY type, often having a neutral person like a Strengths University Coach or someone else investing in their talents to help you see things from a different perspective and ask those probing questions that really help you think about your talents and yourself on another level.

No matter how you choose to invest, the most important thing is to think of this as an investment in yourself and your success. Investing in your strengths isn’t just something else to add to your never-ending list of things to do, it’s a powerful tool that can help you solve problems, become more productive, and increase your sense of well-being. Of course, there’s an initial learning curve that will take time but the more you integrate thinking about your talents and strengths into your life, the easier it is to use these tools to help you solve problems, correct problems, and control where you go.