I came across this talk by Scott Dinsmore. It's geared towards those who feel trapped trapped in their current circumstances, yet my main take-away was his recommendation on StrengthsFinder 2.0, now called CliftonStrengths. I took the plunge and bought it since this isn't the first time it's been recommended.
The book itself is only half of what you're getting as the back sleeve includes a code you can use to take the online assessment. It will tell you your top five strengths, of 34, that were devised by this system after you answer 177 Likert-type questions. Rather than mitigating your weaknesses—which the book claims modern society promotes—you can purportedly get a better return on investment for your time by focusing on improving these strength traits.
The book includes a useful analogy. If you spend a lot of time (say a 10 in effort) honing a skill you have little talent in (say a 3), then you're effectively as skilled as someone who puts in little effort (a 3), but has natural talent (a 10). That is, the relationship is commutative. To get the biggest returns, you need both talent and effort investment. Hence, it suggests you should focus on what you're already good at.
The 34 themes aren't things like analytic ability, strength with numbers, or drawing skill. The book claims these are inherently learned skills that require knowledge and practice. Instead these themes are consistency, discipline, empathy, focus, and ideadation. Communication, positivity and self-assurance. Harmony and responsibility. They operate on a higher level.
Each theme has a detailed description, a list of action points to take away, and how to work with people who possess them. However, the book recommends that you first take the online assessment before reading the theme descriptions, perhaps not to influence you.
The online assessment
I was convinced, and keen to take the assessment, but the excitement didn't last. It is hard to maintain focus for 177 questions, especially because you are timed and only given a maximum of 20 seconds for each. The whole thing took a little under an hour to complete.
The questions themselves are odd. They are not along the spectrum of strongly agree to strongly disagree. Instead both sides of the spectrum are strongly agree, with two different phrases on each side. This wouldn't be an issue if the statements were opposites, and in some cases they are, but most are not. Often the statements were completely unrelated. If I disagreed with both, then I could simply select neutral, but that only happened once. Much more often was the case where I agreed with both statements on the scale, in which case I had to pick whichever I felt stronger about, but that is difficult when they are unrelated topics, when you only have 20 seconds to answer, and when you've already answered dozens of questions like that already.
Safe to say, I was discouraged upon completing the test. I wasn't sure on what exactly it was assessing. My results only confirmed that. My top five theme descriptions had familiarity, but I would only consider one of them to be strength. Another I would consider to be a weakness, determined from my own introspection and feedback I've had in the past.
Improving my mental models
I read somewhere before that reading needn't be about remembering facts and methodologies, but instead to adjust our mental models of how things work. I took the opportunity to finish the book, reading through all 34 themes. Some of them resonated with me far more than the five I was given.
Therein lies the value for me. It's given me awareness of traits I never thought were an asset, and a few ideas on how to leverage them. No online assessment will be able to know you like you know yourself, but that doesn't invalidate the premise behind the classifications.
As I write this, I'm in the process of going through all 34 themes and, one by one, writing a paragraph on how I think the theme applies to me based on evidence of past actions and behaviour. Then I am grading this applicability to me on a five-point scale. The final ordering should give me a roadmap for the strengths I have the greatest potential to develop.