This chapter is a free excerpt from Confessions from an Entrepreneur (Volume 1).

Josh Allan Dykstra: Work Revolutionary, Author & Speaker

In December of 1995 there was a book published called Soar with Your Strengths. Written by Don Clifton and Paula Nelson, it wasn’t an enormous publication—less than 200 pages—but within its pages it told a fascinating short story:

The University of Nebraska had been commissioned to do a study on reading speeds. Over the course of a couple years, they studied how quickly students could read and comprehend written material. As one would suspect, these students arrived with different reading levels. The slowest readers started at 90 words per minute and the naturally fast readers at 350 words per minute. This wasn’t surprising; we naturally recognize that some people read more quickly than others. After going through the course on speed-reading, however, the researchers found something quite surprising.

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Josh Allan Dykstra: Work Revolutionary, Author & Speaker

In December of 1995 there was a book published called Soar with Your Strengths. Written by Don Clifton and Paula Nelson, it wasn’t an enormous publication—less than 200 pages—but within its pages it told a fascinating short story:

The University of Nebraska had been commissioned to do a study on reading speeds. Over the course of a couple years, they studied how quickly students could read and comprehend written material. As one would suspect, these students arrived with different reading levels. The slowest readers started at 90 words per minute and the naturally fast readers at 350 words per minute. This wasn’t surprising; we naturally recognize that some people read more quickly than others. After going through the course on speed-reading, however, the researchers found something quite surprising.

The expectation was for the slower readers to have a marked improvement—and they did, up to 150 words per minute. While this was wonderful, and would certainly be helpful for these students in their university classes, what baffled the researchers was what happened to the fast readers.
  • They didn’t go down.
  • They didn’t stay the same.
  • They didn’t even get a little better.
  • They got a LOT better.
  • They went from 350 words per minute to 2,900 words per minute.
The researchers weren’t expecting this. They had expected the greatest returns to be found in the slower readers. But it wasn’t even close. The slower readers saw a 67% improvement on their initial reading speed and comprehension, which isn’t bad at all. But it’s nowhere close to the 729% gain the already-fast readers received.

There are three extremely important things entrepreneurs can learn from this story:

1. The World is Obsessed with Weakness, But You Shouldn’t Be 

For whatever reason, our society is completely preoccupied with what’s wrong with people. We focus on the low grades on report cards, even if they are surrounded by all “A’s.” We build our organizational performance reviews around helping people to be “less bad” than they were last year. This approach works to a certain point (we certainly need a baseline of skills to be able to just play whatever game we’re trying to play), but after that it’s mostly a waste of time.

As we learn from the reading story above, there is a preconception that making weak things better can somehow lead to great performance. It can’t. The only place it ever gets us is “less bad.”

Entrepreneurs have the desire and ability to do things differently than the norm. You can focus your business around strengths instead of weakness, and it will have very positive results on the performance of your business. Just know that this is extremely uncommon and counter-cultural—but when has that ever stopped you!?

2. You Should Embrace Your Jagged Peaks, Instead of Being Well-Rounded

We tend to spend an inordinate amount of time training people (both students and adults) to try to be good at everything. Passed down over the years there has been a very popular story spread throughout our culture: the tale of the “well-rounded leader.” These are the leaders who can “do it all”—and do it all well. They can sell a vision, they are brilliant communicators, they are people geniuses, and they are finance mavens, all at the same time. They understand operations and marketing. They know how to build amazing teams and they even understand labor laws.

The problem with this story is that it's a complete myth. These people don’t exist in the real world; they are a figment of our imagination. As reported in the book Strengths Based Leadership, there isn’t even a definitive list of qualities that all leaders share. Instead of being well rounded, the greatest leaders in the world embrace their “jagged peaks.” They know that some areas—like reading for the fast readers in the story—will come naturally to them. In these areas the starting point is “350.” Other activities may not come naturally and their starting point is “90.” But great leaders don’t obsess over their weaknesses; they find ways to manage around them.

Entrepreneurs are often adept at many trades and have the capability to “wear many hats” at once. While this is good to a point, eventually it will hold you back. If you want to join the ranks of the greatest leaders in the world, you’ll need to embrace your jagged peaks—which means owning up to the fact that you’re not good at everything. (Don’t worry about it too much; neither is anyone else.)

3. If You Want Greatness, Focus on Strength

Perhaps the clearest lesson from the reading story is about greatness itself. We often expect to be able to “equalize” people—we’ll bring the slower readers up to the level of the fast readers, who will stay the same. But this isn’t how life works. Weakness never begets strength. The path to excellence can never be discovered through the lens of “improving mediocrity.”

If we wish to be exceptional—if we want greatness—the only way to get there is to focus on our strengths. We must find the activities where we naturally excel. We must discover the areas of our lives that give us energy. We must have a deep and intimate understanding of what we are truly passionate about. Armed with this knowledge, we must then deliberately “carve out” a career path where we get to do these strengthening activities as often as humanly possible.

Entrepreneurs are in a perfect position to carve whatever path they desire. In fact, it’s the reason many of us are entrepreneurs in the first place! But we often don’t pay enough attention to our own energy levels: what injects us with enthusiasm and what makes us feel depleted. By spending focused time to learn about our own strengths, we can create a career that acts as a continual source of renewal—and will also provide the best chance for success. After all, working in your areas of strength is also where you have the greatest potential return on investment.

Commit to going against the flow and embracing a philosophy of strengths in your organization. Seek out your own “90’s” and “350’s” and understand them both—just focus the majority of your time on what comes naturally. Over time, continually “carve out” a career path that energizes and strengthens you. You’ll be glad you did.

* * * * *

Josh Allan Dykstra is a work revolutionary, author, speaker, and co-founder of Strengths Doctors, a consulting firm that helps leaders design energizing company culture. His eclectic background spans Fortune 500 companies like Apple, Starbucks, Genentech, Sony, and Viacom/CBS to start-ups, nonprofits, and government agencies. He has an MBA in Executive Leadership from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, and his new book, Igniting the Invisible Tribe: Designing An Organization That Doesn’t Suck, is available now. Connect with Josh online at http://joshallan.com.
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