How to Stand Out and Discover Your Unique Genius

The StandOut book and assessment by Marcus Buckingham is meant to help you discover your strengths, uncover your unique genius, and yes, stand out.

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The StandOut Assessment by Marcus Buckingham

Michael was a software engineer who worked his way up to team leader. His strengths were as an explainer—his Buddha-level patience never wore out when it came to his team—and as a fair boss.

Michael was so loved that he was promoted to project manager.

The strengths required for a PM role were very different from his old job. His new job required him to design, test, and redesign constantly. On top of that, he had to spend more time glad-handing the clients rather than coaching his team.

Michael struggled with both. He hated it when the software didn’t do what it was supposed to do, and then having the client see it not do what it was supposed to do, and then having to charm his way through the meeting so that the client wouldn’t feel panicked, and then having to repeat the whole horrible process at the next update meeting. Each time the software wouldn’t do something it was supposed to, and each time he would have to find the right way to dance around it and put the client at ease.

It’s not that Michael couldn’t do these things. He was a sharp guy and a hard worker. But the new role drained him.

Day by day it dragged him down, slower and slower, until one day he stopped altogether. In his words: “One morning I just couldn’t put my key in the car door.”

That day was fifteen years ago. And he hasn’t worked since.

They say that burnout happens the same way that bankruptcy does: gradually, then suddenly. This was certainly true for Michael. In the project manager position, he found himself day after day being asked to have strengths he didn’t have. He became weaker and weaker, until suddenly one day he broke down. That day is where he is today. Fifteen years have gone by, and though he has fought hard—harder than I think I might have done if my life had emptied me out—he hasn’t moved.

What’s sad about this story is that none of this would have happened if Michael had only stayed in his old role, where he excelled.

Michael’s anecdote and the quotes above come from Marcus Buckingham’s 2011 book StandOut: The Groundbreaking New Strengths Assessment from the Leader of the Strengths Revolution.

In it, Buckingham argues that not only are your personal strengths surprisingly specific and non-transferable, but that you’re often blind to the unique value that you contribute. Like his other books, Buckingham’s approach requires that you focus on playing within your strengths, not on compensating for your weaknesses.

Genius Is Surprisingly Precise

StandOut Book Cover

Cover image via The Marcus Buckingham Company. Used under fair use.


Ever notice how geniuses in one context struggle to become barely competent in another?

No matter where you look, you can find examples of how surprisingly precise genius is. Ellen DeGeneres is a stellar entertainer? Well, no. Ellen is a gifted comedienne, but move her even slightly off her game and put her behind the judges’ desk of American Idol and her brilliance fades. Likewise, Jon Stewart is a funny, ironic, and always winning host. Well, yes … of his own political commentary show. Ask him to host the Oscars and his irony translates as condescension, so the jokes aren’t funny and the audience is lost.

What happened to DeGeneres and Stewart is what happened to Michael, albeit on a much smaller scale (perhaps not from the perspective of Michael and his family).

Thus, a genius coder and boss can flounder as a client-facing project manager.

We see this dynamic play out when it comes to an organization’s most common HR dilemma: Should an A+ level employee be promoted to manager?

Everyone who works in a corporate setting can think of an example of a highly competent co-worker who failed as a manager. And it turns out people are quite self-aware when it comes to their limits. A September 2014 survey conducted by CareerBuilder showed that only one-third (34%) of workers actually wanted to be promoted into management positions. What’s going on?

It turns out that executing your job and managing others who do the same job are two very different things. But we always lazily assume that someone who is good at their job automatically knows how to manage, train, and coach others to do the same job. They often don’t.

For many first-time managers, the game is even more rigged. Not only are they asked to manage a team for the first time ever, they’re also asked to continue to do their old job, often at 100% of the output that was expected before adding their managerial duties.

It sounds insane when you write it down and read it aloud, but how many of our organizations do this exact same thing every year when promotion time rolls around?

The lesson of StandOut is that genius is surprisingly and stubbornly precise. A superstar in one context is a fraud in another. Implementing a solution and managing a team are two entirely different skillsets, requiring different strengths and personalities.

The secret to uncommon success is therefore discovering your unique genius and maximizing it to the fullest.

It’s Hard to See Your Own Uniqueness

The precision of genius wouldn’t be a problem if you could clearly see it for what it was.

But just as many of us are out-of-touch with our own feedback loops, we also stumble through life with no clear sense of what our specific genius is:

Certain things come so naturally to you that you don’t see your ability to do them as unique; you just think it’s you. Or rather, you don’t even think anything. You just do what you do because it comes to you too easily to require any analysis. It’s not that you don’t value your uniqueness; it’s that you don’t see it. You may even assume that your abilities are no big deal because everybody must have them.

But this internal blindness gets doubly problematic when you try to evaluate the strengths of other people:

Which points to a second challenge: other people don’t care what makes you unique. As oblivious as we can be to our own strengths, it’s even easier to ignore the particular and unique strengths of others. We assume that if we have a talent or inherent ability, everybody else does too. Or if we’re not naturally drawn to doing something, we find it hard to understand why anybody else would be.

The “double-blindness” to our unique strengths leads to people taking jobs they won’t possible enjoy, or delegating tasks to colleagues who are woefully underqualified to perform them.

There isn’t any magical shortcut for discovering your true strengths (or the strengths of others), except for good old-fashioned trial-and-error. But knowing what we should be striving for is the 80/20 of the battle.

The Way to Channel Your Genius Is Learned, Not Ingrained

The specificity of genius shows up even when you take two people who nominally have the same exact job:

Two engineers in one of the social media giants offer us another example. David writes code. And he’s a certain kind of coder. He is a “massager.” Give him ten or more hours of uninterrupted coding time and he will massage the code, working and reworking it until it is so efficient and so elegant that others will read the code just to admire it. He refuses to come to the office. He works from home, along with his dog, bit. His secret sauce, he said, is extended solitude.

Not so for Luke. He’s another exemplary engineer at the same company, but he’s not a massager. He’s a “salvager.” He takes one person’s failed coding experiment, reconstructs what the person was trying to do, combines it with another person’s experiment, and creates something neither had initially intended. His genius—although he’d be uncomfortable with that label—is asking probing questions without making the original designer defensive, a practice he calls the “Guessing Game.”

There’s no employer out there who’s going to help you figure out whether you’re a code “massager” like David or a code “salvager” like Luke. Companies these days are too cheap, too overloaded, and too busy fending off disruption to meaningfully help you develop your skills to the point that you know where your specific genius lies.

This is career development, yes, but it’s also personal development—no one is responsible for this stuff except you. Period.

Though your genius is ingrained, the right way to channel it is not. This final challenge is that even if you do cut through the noise and identify what unique strengths you have to offer, that’s still not enough. To be truly your best, it isn’t sufficient merely to understand that you’re unique or even to understand what makes you unique. Sustained success comes only when you take what’s unique about you and figure out how to make it useful.

The StandOut Assessment

The StandOut Assessment is an online test that comes included with the book. The Assessment helps you figure out which of the following 9 “Strengths Roles” best fit your personality:

  1. Advisor
  2. Connector
  3. Creator
  4. Equalizer
  5. Influencer
  6. Pioneer
  7. Provider
  8. Stimulator
  9. Teacher

I won’t go into too much detail about what each of the nine Roles means. Suffice it to say, the names give you some idea of what to expect. The book spells it all out before you take the Assessment—but I won’t spoil it for you.

I will say that my top two roles came back as Advisor and Creator, which made a lot of sense for me.

The StandOut Assessment is packed with advice tailored to your top two Roles. If you like personality tests and want to better understand your strengths, then StandOut may be exactly what you need.

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