Grown, Not Downloaded

27 May


Turning Talents Into Strengths

“I know kung fu.” - Neo, The Matrix

One of the standout moments of the 1999 science-fiction movie “The Matrix” is when the newly-awakened hero, Neo, discovers that he can download needed skills straight from an online database and directly into his brain. (It helps that he has a plug in the back of his head.) So when he needs to know kung fu or how to fly a helicopter, he merely plugs in and waits for his new expertise to finish downloading.


While it would be very convenient to be able to instantly download world-class strengths straight into our brains, reality requires a much more mundane process of growth and development. To achieve mastery in any discipline, one needs to begin by learning the basic skills and relevant knowledge for that endeavor. Once a basic competence is achieved, further development requires adding additional knowledge and expanding one's skill set through focused practice and intentional learning.

Malcolm Gladwell, in his book Outliers, synthesizes extensive research on high-performing individuals and concludes that "world-class" performance requires an average of 10,000 hours of intentional effort. While some aspects of Gladwell's “10,000 hour” theory have been challenged, the underlying principle remains true:

High performance, in any field, requires an intentional investment of time and energy.

One immediate implication of this principle is that given the time and energy demands required for developing areas of expertise, we need to accept the fact that each of us has a limit to how many things we can actually master. While some individuals may be able to master a greater number of areas than others, everyone still has a limit. Consequently, each of us needs to carefully consider on which areas we want to focus our energy.

For Christians, this dynamic has implications for discipleship. Each person has been uniquely gifted by God and called to serve in a unique way. While our righteousness before God is founded on grace, Scripture also reveals that God desires his children to mature and fulfill their unique callings. For example, in the parable of the stewards (Matt 25:14-30) Jesus tells a story for which the lesson is “God expects his stewards (us) to use what we’ve been given to extend his kingdom.” Merely burying God’s investment is condemned as “wickedness and laziness.” So, settling for mediocrity runs the risk of falling out of step with God.


With the extensive range of potential talents to develop, each of us is challenged to determine our areas of focus. For many of us, our parents and teachers played a guiding role in setting our initial trajectories for our areas of work and study. For some, those pathways led to satisfying roles and experiences of success. For others, the vocational journey has been filled with unplanned detours and the occasional dead-end.

Regardless of one’s past, we all face an uncertain future with limited personal resources. Under these circumstances, making wise choices is paramount.

While various factors warrant consideration (e.g. financial resources, time availability, vocational flexibility), one of the most crucial factors to consider is one’s unique set of God-given talents. Research conducted by the Gallup Organization (and many others) about what leads to consistent, outstanding performance across a range of fields identify developing one’s natural talents into strengths as a foundational principle.

While nearly everyone can improve in any area with the investment of time and effort, not everyone improves at the same rate or to the same degree. Those with natural talents in a given area will learn more quickly, demonstrate greater competence, and report greater satisfaction when performing that activity. Talent has a multiplying impact in strengths development. One way to capture this idea is this formula:

Talent x (Skills + Knowledge + Effort) = Strength


Depending on your current levels of talent self-awareness and strengths development knowledge, your personal “next step” will vary.

1. For those who desire greater clarity and a richer vocabulary for describing their talents, the Clifton StrengthsFinder online assessment tool (developed by the Gallup Organization) is a great place to begin. This report offers critical and unique information regarding which areas of talent possess the greatest potential for top-tier strength development.

2. For those who have identified their talents but have not understood how to maximize their potential, focused dialogue and reflection could be a powerful “next step” in one’s personal development. Professional coaches can play a critical role in helping analyze past and present successes (and failures) in order to understand how talents have been utilized in the past. By generating a deeper understanding of how one’s talents have been effectively used in the past, those insights become available for present and future real-world application.

Regardless of one’s past, the future provides us all the opportunity to invest in our strength development. Start with your areas of natural talent and then invest time and energy in learning resources that will take your talents to the next level. Workshops, podcasts, online training courses, books, and mentors are readily available for nearly every topic, so there is little excuse for not taking the next step.

Bringing your “best you” to your work and personal life is worth the effort and honors God.


ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Dave Zovak serves with CRM in Southeast Asia. He and his wife work with leaders in the region to see disciples made and churches started and strengthened.