What happens when you discover your hidden superpowers?

Curt Mercadante, founder of Gravina Public Strategies. Yes, you are correct, he does resemble a happy version of Shel Silverstein.

Curt Mercadante, founder of Gravina Public Strategies.

Yes, you are correct, he does resemble a happy version of Shel Silverstein.


A couple of nights ago, I spoke with a young teacher who thought he would be an engineer. When he chanced into teaching, he discovered that actually he loves teaching Physics.

It's always heartening to witness someone stumble on the intersection between his natural gifts and a passion for work.

But what if they didn't have to stumble?

What if we could help learners discover, by design, their hidden superpowers? And what if we could help them to convert those latent talents into explicit strengths?

As it turns out, there is an app for that: StrengthsFinder.

Which leads me to Curt Mercadante.

Curt and I have been friends for over 20 years. He attended Benet Academy, one of the top private schools in Chicago, and then went on to U. Iowa. After a hugely successful career in public relations, both in government and then in the private sector, Curt launched his own PR / communications firm, Gravina Public Strategies. For the last nine years, Curt has continued to thrive as an entrepreneur of the first order.

While we don't always share the same political sympathies, there is one thing on which he and I agree—strongly:

The power of a strengths-based approach to individual formation.

I recently asked Curt, "In thinking about your career arc, what advice do you have for someone in high school, who hasn't yet decided what he or she might want to study, much less do after college?"

Here is his answer:

We’ve all been raised in a society that teaches and coaches by focusing on “fixing” our weaknesses. So the first step I recommend is to take the StrengthsFinder assessment.  

Most people don’t know their innate talents. And if you don’t know your talents, you can’t apply them to turn them into strengths.

Gallup [the organization that created StrengthsFinder] has reams of data showing that people who use their strengths every day are more engaged and productive.

So knowing your talents and then building them into strengths sounds like a pretty great way to choose a life and career path.

Also, as an Activator, I have always believed in doing — and failing — quickly. In other words, I try new things, but if I fail, I do so quickly, I don’t dwell on it, I learn from it, and I move on to accomplish something else.

Along the way, I have discerned what I’m good at — and what I like to do.

What if you could help every one of your learners—teachers and students—discover their hidden superpowers? What kind of extraordinary potential would you unlock?

You can read the entire interview with Curt below.

***

Thank you for reading! Want to receive original Basecamp blog posts every Tuesday and Thursday and "Top Reads" every Saturday? Subscribe here.

***

Full interview with Curt Mercadante, founder of Gravina Public Strategies

Q: You attended the elite Benet Academy, went on to U. Iowa, and then held several jobs in government and corporate public relations, before launching your own firm, Gravina. When you look back on that trajectory, what do you think Benet and Iowa did to prepare you, and what could they have done differently?

CM:

On one hand, I loved my time at Benet and Iowa, but I also have a hard time differentiating between how these schools “prepared me” for my career versus how I prepared myself.

When I think of Benet Academy, my immediate thought goes to my history and political science teacher Ed Noel, who taught some of my favorite classes. He had infectious energy, standing on tables, shouting, and joking with us. While I probably differ with him on a great number of political issues, the way in which he taught us about the 60s and “Camelot” made me realize my love of politics. Mr. Noel had us get involved with that year’s political campaigns, and my first-ever political “job” was marching in the Chicago Columbus Day Parade on behalf of President George H.W. Bush in 1991. Marching for a Republican in downtown Chicago was an interesting way to start my political career. I remember having people spit at us and call us Nazis. But that kind of direct action was exactly what I needed to spur me on to become involved in politics.

Benet Academy is a challenging school, and so when I went to Iowa, it seemed as if every class was super-easy for me. That, in turn, led to a lack of engagement, as I felt I wasn’t being challenged.  After trying to appease my need for “doing” with food, beer and football — I decided to be more constructive. I worked for an in-house University political polling company, served as campus coordinator for the Steve Forbes for President (1996) campaign, and then got an internship working for U.S. Senator Charles Grassley’s Cedar Rapids, IA office. Those jobs and internships were the most important part of my Iowa experience.

Two of my Top 5 CliftonStrengths talent themes are “Learner” and “Activator.” So I love to learn, but I also love to “do.” Naturally I’m a huge advocate of “Learning by Doing.” In fact, it’s what has propelled me in my career and it’s something I think is greatly lacking in today’s educational equation.

I could write an entire treatise on this notion, but instead I’ll refer you to a great organization, Praxis, run by an entrepreneur here in Charleston, SC named Isaac Morehouse. The Praxis philosophy is “learning by doing” and they provide a 6 month bootcamp for aspiring apprentices, who then pitch themselves to dozens of companies looking to hire apprentices.  Instead of going to college and learning from professors who “don’t do” — they pay Praxis $11,000 per year (and then get paid $14,000 per year in return by the employer) to learn skills by working for actual companies. At the end of the apprenticeships, they have new skills and a job—instead of spending 4 or 5 years to come out with no skills and triple-digit student loan debt.

Not surprisingly, Praxis and Isaac have come under attack from the higher ed establishment. His biggest obstacle, however, might just be parents who can’t get past their dreams of having their kids get a 4-year degree.

But I digress.

Bringing it back to my own experience, another one of my Top 5 CliftonStrengths talent themes is “Intellection.” Which means I not only like “Learning by Doing” …. I like “Learning by Doing on My Own.”

Hence, my earlier response about schools “preparing me” versus me preparing myself.

Q: You've posted often on social media about how your career reached a kind of breaking point a few years ago, when you were incredibly successful but also deeply anxious and maybe even unhappy. What in your education or other personal formation enabled you to diagnose the problem and choose a different way forward?

CM:

Yes, I’ve had a successful career, and run a successful business.  Despite that success, I was near burnout maybe 9 years ago or so.  It wasn’t only stress due to the amount of work, it was anxiety due to a lack of confidence in my future—where was I going to find clients two and three years down the road?

First, I lacked a clear vision, which led to uncertainty. Finding that vision was step one. Aligning principles with that vision was step two. The vision has changed a bit as my company’s services has changed. First it was “Helping my clients win," but as I did less political work it became “Tell Your Story to Audiences that Matter."

That vision helped me determine what I really wanted to do for my clients, while my principles helped me determine how I was going to work, and what types of clients I was going to chase.

Then, I read Four Hour Workweek by Tim Ferriss. This book isn’t about working less. It’s about putting in place processes that help us focus on the 20% of our work that produces 80% of the results. This philosophy taught me to say no to certain projects. It taught me how to outsource (when possible) tasks that are not my strengths, or aren’t profitable. It taught me to cut out busy-work, not be a slave to email, and to enjoy life.

Finally, having awareness of my strengths, and then applying those strengths to everything I do — to reach my goals—has been a huge help.

What in my educational or personal formation enabled me to diagnose the problem and choose a different way forward? I think it was my top 5 CliftonStrengths talent themes:  Learner, Context, Activator, Responsibility, and Intellection.

Intellection led me to seek space and alone time to think about a path forward.

Learner and Context gave me the strength to look at what others in similar situations did.

Activator gave me the strength to act quickly once I made the diagnosis.

Responsibility gave me the strength to know that, for the sake of my health and my family, failure was not an option.

Q: Recently you have been writing about the power of a strengths-based approach to life and work. How does it affect the way you approach both?

CM:

I hinted in the previous question about how I use a strengths-based approach with my own work.

Let me provide some other examples.

As I mentioned above, I am an Activator. That means I love to start projects and get them done.

It also means I can be very impatient to move stuff “off my desk.” Sometimes, that means I can send stuff out with typos or grammar because my impatience can cloud my editing. This knowledge of my Activator strengths has led me to look for team members who perhaps are more Deliberative or have the Focus theme — who love to sit still and take their time editing.

By the same token, let’s say you have a team with a manager that is very Deliberative. If she is partnered with someone who is an Activator, that could make a very powerful team — one that likes to examine options, but that doesn’t suffer from analysis paralysis.

It’s a powerful approach in how people and teams interact — and also in how individuals can see more clearly how they may need others with different talents to help them get things done.

For example, my Activator theme leads me to want to get a lot of stuff done, but my Responsibility theme sometimes can cause me to take on too many tasks.  In that case, I need to use my Communicator (#6) theme to craft a friendly response explaining why I can’t take on their task.

Each talent theme is pretty cool.  Watching how those talent themes can work together is awesome.

The first step is knowing your talents.  But they only mature into strengths if we apply them thoughtfully, like anything else we might practice.

Q: You have decided to homeschool your children, but at some point they will likely encounter a traditional school. What are you doing now to prepare them for that culture shift?

CM:

I’ve been thinking about this question a lot, and I’ve determined that the premise of the question is flawed.

For example, I could turn the question around by asking, “At some point kids in traditional schools will encounter real life. What are you doing now to prepare them for that culture shift?”

The way we approach our kids’ education is that they have a broad variety of touchpoints with the real world every single day.

I am willing to bet they have a wider variety of interactions with different adults each day than kids who attend traditional schools.

They go out on boats with actual marine biologists to learn about the ocean.  They meet with historians at the museum to learn about the Civil War.  

Our four children learn to interact with each other, which allows them to learn to team up with kids of different ages, rather than act like they are “too cool” for kids younger than them.

They learn how to get themselves up in the morning, study on their own, self-direct a lot of their learning, and take an entrepreneurial approach.  These are skills that are very useful in college (I certainly didn’t have them) and also in the “real world.”

When we tell people we homeschool we invariably get one or both of the following responses: 1) “I knew homeschooled kids when I was growing up and they were weird”; or, 2) “What about socialization?”

To both remarks, I usually invite the questioner to walk through the hallway of a traditional school to tell me the ratio of kids they would consider “weird” or “unsocialized” to those whom they would consider "normal" or "socialized."

Suicide rates, rates of alcohol and drug use, and depression statistics show that traditional schools need to worry about their own “socialization” issues.

So, in terms of your question: I don’t think there will be a “culture shift” because we are already preparing each of our kids for the wide variety of situations that will be thrown at them throughout their life, rather than what I see as a “cookie cutter” approach of traditional education.

When I say these things about traditional schools, I do so without ill-will or malice. It’s just that I have come to believe in an approach that takes into consideration the individual talents of each and every student.

For example, our son learns and comprehends information much differently than our daughter. In a traditional school, they would be forced to learn from the same curriculum from a teacher who teaches them both in the same way (not the teacher's fault, but she has a lot of other kids to teach).

As such, I think we need to overhaul the way kids learn.  That’s the topic for another day, but for a primer on what I mean, watch Sugata Mitra’s TED talk, “The Child-Driven Education.”  I’d also refer you to Conor Boyak’s book, Passion Driven Education.

Q: In thinking about your career arc, what advice do you have for someone in high school, who hasn't yet decided what he or she might want to study, much less do after college?

CM: 

We’ve all been raised in a society that teaches and coaches by focusing on “fixing” our weaknesses. So the first step I recommend is to go to StrengthsFinder.com.  

Most people don’t know their innate talents. And if you don’t know your talents, you can’t apply them to turn them into strengths.

Gallup [the organization that created StrengthsFinder] has reams of data showing that people who use their strengths every day are more engaged and productive.

So knowing your talents and then building them into strengths sounds like a pretty great way to choose a life and career path.

Also, as an Activator, I have always believed in doing — and failing—quickly. In other words, I try new things, but if I fail, I do so quickly, I don’t dwell on it, I learn from it, and I move on to accomplish something else.

Along the way, I have discerned what I’m good at — and what I like to do.