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Can Our Strengths Change? Answering the Big Question

Can Our Strengths Change? Answering the Big Question

by Stephen Shields

Recent academic and popular literature regarding the human brain often tout the brain's ability to change. CliftonStrengths coaches and enthusiasts often wonder to what degree, then, an individual's strengths can change over time.

The brain's ability to change is called neuroplasticity. Our strengths develop during a period of enhanced neuroplasticity that begins at age three. Scientists used to believe that this period of more rapid brain development ended at or around 16 years of age. Furthermore, in the past neurologists thought there was no real creation of new neurons or new synaptic connections between neurons after that age.

However, in the last several decades, scientists have developed new ways of studying the human brain. Imaging tests like PET scans and functional MRI's have given us a better view and understanding of the brain's capabilities. These assessments have revealed two key discoveries regarding brain development:

  1. The period of enhanced neuroplasticity lasts around nine to 10 years longer than previously thought and actually tapers down -- though not off -- in our mid-20s; and
  2. We have a wonderful characteristic called adult neuroplasticity that we retain our entire lives. Which means we stop developing only when we decide to.

Think about it: Benjamin Franklin invented bifocals when he was 78; Mary Fasano graduated from Harvard when she was 89. I went to Manhattan and saw the Guggenheim Museum for the first time -- Frank Lloyd Wright designed that when he was 90!

These developments in our understanding of the brain beg the questions: Is there any consistency over time in our strengths? How much, in fact, do our strengths change throughout our lives? To answer these questions, we must first understand that there is a seasonality to our brain's neuroplasticity.

After we exit young adulthood, while our brains still have the ability to change, this malleability or plasticity isn't nearly as significant as it was when we were younger -- during the period of enhanced neuroplasticity.

Gallup's test-retest statistical correlation studies of CliftonStrengths assessments yield a correlation hovering around 0.7. A correlation of "1" would mean every single time you take the CliftonStrengths assessment your Full 34 would be in exactly the same order. (That'll never happen.) But a 0.7 correlation implies relatively consistent personality traits -- i.e., strengths -- over time. I've seen this play out with my clients who take the assessment multiple times: they may have a #4 strength drop to a #7, but they won't typically (there are statistical outliers) have a #4 drop to #31.

So here's the balance: Your strengths won't typically change very much after age 25 (give or take a couple years). But while that's true, because of adult neuroplasticity, you can deepen and widen your strengths your entire life.

Are you a nurse who leads with Empathy? You can develop a new vocabulary to speak with more specificity to patients' families who are in a very emotional place. Are you a manager who has Developer? Pick up new coaching strategies to help your team members improve their performance.

As Dr. Don Clifton, Father of Strengths Psychology and Inventor of CliftonStrengths, once said: "You can't be anyone who you want to be, but you can be more of who you are."

Learn more about using CliftonStrengths to help yourself and others succeed:


Stephen Shields' Top 5 CliftonStrengths are Input, Maximizer, Individualization, Activator and Ideation.

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