It’s a classic question: should you work on improving your strengths, or should you work on addressing your weaknesses? It’s a question with good arguments on both sides, but the best answer is that you should focus on your strengths.
Now that you have the answer, you can now go out and be the best you that you can be. If you need some more convincing on why you should focus on improving your strengths instead of addressing your weaknesses, then allow me to explain.
Winning Requires Competitive Advantage
As much as we want to improve our weaknesses to avoid failure and loss, it’s really our strengths that help us win. Being well rounded might be a good quality to have, but in a competitive situation, the winner is defined by whoever can best achieve a specific goal.
Think of your favorite restaurant. Most people pick based on how much they enjoyed their favorite meals, not on the quality of the other meals on the menu that they would not order. It’s a simple analogy, but it’s applicable for any competitive situation. Victory depends on doing certain things extremely well, rather than doing a lot of different things merely at an acceptable level.
Great will win over mediocre. People will choose impressive over acceptable. People naturally gravitate towards what makes them enthusiastic. The marketing guru Seth Godin tells us to be remarkable or else someone else who is remarkable will win instead of us.
You Are Most Happy When You Enjoy What You Do
Achieving goals are external reasons to focus on your strengths, but there are inner motivations as well. A strength is a natural ability, an innate quality that comes instinctively. According to the renowned psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi who studied happiness and productivity, full happiness is achieved only when we are fully using the physical and mental talents given to us. Csikszentmihalyi describes this state as being in “flow.”
Have you ever worked on something that relied one one of your strengths and was so involved that you lost track of how much time went by? Do you remember the sense of fulfillment you had after you finished? My friend, that experience you had was flow.
Is There Enough Emphasis on Strengths?
Unfortunately, not enough people are applying it in practice. In Go Put Your Strengths to Work, Marcus Buckingham describes how a worldwide Gallup survey of employees in large corporations show that only 20% of people regularly apply their strengths at work. Buckingham believes a major reason for this is that society puts too much effort on addressing weaknesses rather than improving strengths.
I believe an additional reason why there’s not enough emphasis on strengths is that we have a natural tendency to focus on our personal insecurities. We are often our worst critics, and what we see as our weaknesses seem to be much more glaring to us than the strengths we possess. This kind of thinking can lead to being a jack of all trades but master of none. We need to set aside our personal egos in order to truly appreciate both our strengths and weaknesses and to recognize where we will get the most bang for the buck.
Should You Ignore Your Weaknesses?
Although my suggestion is to focus on strengths, we may not always have the option to ignore weaknesses. For example, if you are taking a driving exam, you may be a world-class driver if the car is moving forward, but if you don’t know how to handle a car in reverse, you will fail the driving exam.
While your priority should still be on your strengths, here are some strategies to address your weaknesses:
- Improve it to just an acceptable level: For this strategy, you’re not trying to be good at it. You’re only trying to improve it to the point where it doesn’t affect you negatively anymore.
- Offload it to another person: Collaborate with a partner who can work on this weak area for you, or find someone that you can delegate it to.
- Offload it to a system: Instead of a collaborator or an assistant, a system can help you do something you’re not naturally good at. For example, Getting Things Done is a system that can help with personal management.
- Use your strengths to overcome the weakness: Sometimes your strengths can compensate for your weaknesses. Going back to the restaurant example, my favorite restaurant is below average when it comes to customer service, but that doesn’t stop me from waiting almost an hour to get a table to order my favorite dish.
- Ignore the weakness altogether: I debated about putting this strategy first, because in my opinion, many people spend too much time trying to improve on something that they not only dislike and are not good at, but oftentimes are also things that are misperceived to be relevant.
Arguments Against Focusing on Strengths
Scott H. Young wrote that there is too much emphasis on strengths, and suggests instead we should focus on things that we are passionate about. Scott makes an excellent point that whatever we are good at may not align with what we are passionate about. Marcus Buckingham (of Go Put Your Strengths to Work who also worked with StrengthsFinder) addressed such an argument by saying that strengths must include knowledge, skills, and talent, and true talent (defined as the natural born abilities) energizes you when you do it rather than drain you from the effort.
I don’t quite agree with Buckingham’s explanation, but instead, I believe strength and passion are two independent qualities as Scott H. Young explained. Only when strengths align with passion is when you get the fullest experience of the work. Rather than choose passion over strengths as Young suggests, I believe passion should guide us on the strengths that we should most focus on.
Also, Steve Pavlina believes that you should work from your strengths but improve on your weaknesses. His argument is based on the importance of having balance in your life. I agree with Steve that balance is indeed good and that balance is a goal we should all strive for. I also agree with Dr. Csikszentmihalyi that ultimate happiness is when you do things that you’re good at. Balance doesn’t mean doing all things equally well, but instead, balance means doing activities in proportion to how much they add value in your life.
How To Find Your Strengths
This question has been one that interested me for several years. I sincerely believe that we are not properly taught how to discover our true strengths, partly because there is no single, absolute best way for people to discover their strengths.
There are a number of personal traits tests that can give us some idea what our strengths are, but before any of these tests are taken, it’s important to realize that there is no good or bad strengths. People’s strengths are neutral - there are positive ways these strengths can be applied as well as negative ways. Understanding your true strengths require sincere honesty and knowing that good or bad only has meaning when it’s based on how the strengths are applied.
The Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) test is an effective one which categorizes people from a total of 16 personality types. The StrengthsFinder 2.0 is another traits test and is attributed to Donald Clifton’s study from surveys conducted on over 2 million people worldwide through the Gallup Organization. StrengthsFinder 2.0 has identified 34 different themes that each person has at some level, and their tests help identify your top five traits. In addition, the psychologist Martin Seligman has identified 24 character strengths, which are a new criteria in the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM). Links about these personality traits tests are given below (note that StrengthsFinder 2.0 is not free).
- 41 Questions - A free online test for the 16 personality types of the MBTI/Jung typology.
- What Are Your Signature Strengths? - GoodlifeZen.com on Seligman’s 24 character strengths test.
- 24 Character Strengths Online Test - Dr. Martin Selig’s test requires free registration.
- StrengthsFinder 2.0 - Purchasing the book is needed to get the access code for the test.
- Take Control of Your Career and Your Life - Marcus Buckingham created an online workshop through Oprah Winfrey’s website.
- The Animal School - A popular children’s parable that illustrates the mistake of focusing on weaknesses over strengths.