My Review of “Find Your Strongest Life: What the Happiest and Most Successful Women Do Differently” by Marcus Buckingham

October 5, 2009

I do not recommend this book.  The title leads you to believe that Marcus Buckingham applies his “decades of research” to once again tell us how simply finding your strength will make you a happier and more successful woman.  Don’t fall for it – he doesn’t prove anything close. 

I volunteered to read and review this book as part of the Thomas Nelson Book Review Bloggers Team.  In all fairness, I must reveal that I have read another one of Buckingham’s books, First Break All the Rules, and I hated it also.  That book started the employee engagement frenzy that I have written a lot about, most recently in my article Boosting Engagement.  Buckingham is extremely well known for his other books on strengths, and he is a very good writer, so I predict this book will also sell very well.

The book is divided into three parts. Part I is entitled “Something’s got to give” and details the unique challenges and stressors that women face. This part is actually pretty good.  Buckingham makes some very important points in this section, the most important being that “over the last few decades, women have become less happy with their lives, and as women get older, they get sadder” (p. 21).  That conclusion appears to be supported by independent research. 

Buckingham’s explanation for this is that women are not focusing their attention: “the challenge of all the different roles you play is not that you don’t have enough hours in the day. The challenge of all these roles is that during the hours you choose to work you have too many different things going on at any one time to focus properly no each of them. Your time isn’t stretched; your attention is.” (pp. 41-42).  He supports this conclusion based on the work of Barry Schwartz The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less (2005).

Chapters one through three are pretty well supported with notes and references that can be found in the back of the book. The next five chapters, where he presents his strength based solution to the problem he identified in Part I have no notes – none.  We don’t get another note until chapter nine and the last six chapters have very few notes to support his claims and advice.  So much for a book “packed with research.”

Buckingham tells women that they need to be strong, and he defines this as 1) successful, 2) instinctively looking forward to tomorrow, 3) growing and learning, 4) needs fulfilled.  He never tells us how he developed and verified this construct definition.  He also measures this with only five questions:

  • How often do you feel an emotional high in your life?
  • How often do you find yourself positively anticipating your day?
  • How often do you become so involved in what you are doing that you lose track of time?
  • How often do you feel invigorated at the end of each day?
  • How often do you get to do things you really like to do?

I won’t bore you with psychometric theory, but I seriously doubt these five items hang together in a measure that is both reliable and valid. And we will never know how reliable and valid this measure is because Buckingham does not point us to the citation that shows where this measure has been subject to a peer-reviewed evaluation.  That is a HUGE problem, and makes everything else he says from this point forward (p. 55) unsupportable. 

If you don’t know it already, whenever someone that has something to sell tells you that they have data to back it up, you should be very, very skeptical.  This is consulting data, so of course it is only going to tell the positive story those that sell the concept want you to believe.  Unless the data is published in a peer reviewed journal (and sometimes even then!), it’s snake-oil. 

According to Buckingham, if only women knew how to find their strengths and focus their attention on them, they would be happier. Sorry, I don’t buy it – it is way too simplistic.  He offers no research evidence to support his advice, which is necessary because it lacks face validity.  Let me give you an example:

To solve the problems in your life – whether a hostile work environment, a sister-in-law who passively-aggressively criticizes your mothering technique, or a husband who doesn’t help our at home – you must do the same: focus your attention on what “working” would look like, organize your life to create a few more of these “working” moments, and then celebrate them. (p. 178)

Buckingham tell us to try to see any behavior, whether good or bad, as a thread of strength.  Benevolent distortion and positive illusion are other terms he uses to label this technique.

So if you work for a bully boss, the pathway to the positive is to find the strength in what they are doing, focus on that, and celebrate it?  Give me a break.  If you have a bully boss at work, your misery is not caused by your failure to understand strength-based philosophy.  It is a dysfunctional corporate culture that is allowing people to behave badly.  The way out is not to change your perspective on the abuse, but to change your situation – work with your company and its leaders to help change the culture or get the hell out of there!

The final sixty-three pages of the book are suggestions for tactics to lead a strong life.  There is some appealing advice in this final section, but you should take it for exactly what it is – anecdotal advice.

I strongly recommend you do not waste your time with this book.

If you are seriously interested in happiness, check out my series of articles from the book The How of Happiness.  There you will find solid evidence-based advice from a real scientist. 

Related Posts:

Engagement Soup

Boosting Engagement

Measurement Happens

The How of Happiness: My Interview with Dr. Sonja Lyubomirsky

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Comments (8)

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  1. Lori says:

    I could not agree more. Great analysis and review. I am sad this book was promoted by Thomas Nelson and Women of Faith, two organizations I believe in. I pray they were not caught up in only the monetary value of publishing and promoting this book. I have not read Buckingham’s other books, but I know I will not read any more in the future.

    Bret L. Simmons Reply:

    Lori, I appreciate you taking the time to share your thoughts. I concur with your concern about why these folks are promoting this book. It is a strange union because the only thing the book tells you to have faith in is your unique strength. Not sure why they went with this, but can’t dismiss the power of $$$. Thanks! Bret

  2. Hi Bret,

    Thank you for the review. I never considered reading this book as I also disliked Buckingham’s previous book, which you cited.

    Buckingham was a co-author of the Gallup’s Now Discover Your Strengths bestseller, and a companion to it, the Strengthsfinder Index which is an assessment that is widely believed to provide a “read” on an individual’s top strengths. Interestingly, the pyschometric data to back up the assessment is pretty light (which may be an understatement).

    What scares me is that managers are making decisions for themselves and others in their organizations based on the assessment results. And, the book and assessment, although aging (2001) have spawned a whole industry of consultants who take advantage of the inexpensive book/assessment to consult, coach and train on “strengths”.

    And so the money machine continues, it appears. There is money in the strengths game, and Buckingham and the publishers know how to find it.

    Thanks for being a voice for science and quality.

    Bret L. Simmons Reply:

    Mary Jo, I share your concern about managers making decisions based on these assessment results. Your point about the industry that has been spawned by these books is right on- I hope folks grasp this point. Thanks!! Bret

  3. Catherine says:

    So, how do you really feel about Buckingham’s work : )

    I know we’ve conversed about this before: I think the danger of any program is when it is used as a quick fix for organizational problems instead of doing the work to identify root causes. Plus, I believe assessments should never be used as a substitute for good management and leadership practices.

    BTW: I’m seeing Marcus in person tomorrow in Alexandria, MN. I’ll be sure to say “hi” : )

    Bret L. Simmons Reply:

    Catherine, guess you could tell I have strong feelings about this strength based stuff. 🙂 I don’t mind it being positioned as advice – we all give that. But it is way oversold; made to sound like research makes it a slam dunk and that is just not true. That bothers me, as it should anyone that cares about the legions of regular folks trying to make the best out of their work lives. Thanks for sharing your thoughts! Give Marcus my love 🙂 Bret

    Catherine Reply:

    Hey, you raise some excellent points and I like people who are secure in their opinions. I think it’s important to research all sides of a theory or program before accepting it as “the answer.” From my perspective, there is no one answer to finding fulfillment in life – work or personal.

    Bret L. Simmons Reply:

    I concur. People need to see this for what it is – big business consulting. The fact that we can’t see all the data makes it bad science. Thanks! Bret