I would like to ask you to go back in time for a moment to when you were in school. Imagine you brought your school report back home and had received a bunch of A’s and B’s next to one or two unsatisfactory grades.
Now imagine the reaction of your parents and answer the following question:
My own experience looked like (b) “Well, it looks great, but what is wrong with maths? If you could just turn it into a B…”
But my maths did never really get better. I tried and failed throughout the years. When the time came closer to my matriculation, I finally let go of attempting to become good at every subject and instead focused my energy towards my best subjects. Those were strong enough so that I achieved a result that was overall still very good.
However, I’ve had countless recurring dreams in which I have to write a maths exam and fail. This failure is burnt into my brain while my academic successes, tests in which I shined greatly because they drew on my strengths, are blurred.
Keep your own story of handling weaknesses in mind as you read further.
One of the must-read books in the field of Positive Psychology has shed a different light on these experiences and opened a new framework on how to think about strength and weakness for me.
The core theory of the book “Now, discover your strengths”, can be summed up as follows:
- Because of the way our brain develops in early childhood, every person has a certain set of unique, natural talents. They correspond with strong pathways in our brain and are stable throughout our lives.
- If we gain knowledge and skills in an area of talent, we will develop a strength. An ability is defined as a strength if we enjoy performing this activity and consistently reach near perfect performance in it.
- People can attempt to gain a strength through excessive training and the attainment of knowledge, but improvements will be modest if there is no natural talent in this area. Therefore each person’s greatest room for growth is in the areas of his or her greatest talent.
What are the implications of this?
Research showed that people who are successful and fulfilled know their talents and cultivate them into strengths. We encounter them in roles and jobs whose core activities allow them to draw on those strengths every day. They deal with their weaknesses by finding ways of getting around them. They do not try to be good at everything, but outsource where they lack talent, for example by finding (business) partners that will take those unloved tasks over.
This makes sense as we have only a limited amount of time and resources available to invest in our own growth. If you are not extroverted, if you do not like talking to people, then the best sales training and knowledge about a product might help to to make some sales, but you will never excel in this role.
Of course, sometimes we can not get around certain activities for which we lack talent and some training effort might help with damage control. But trying to build a career around a weakness will never get us far.
This might sound logical and known, but is in fact contradictory to many assumptions in society where it is generally believed that a person can learn to be competent on almost anything and the greatest room for growth is in his or her areas of greatest weakness. Here two examples:
Organizations spend most of their training money on trying to plug the gaps in employees’ skills and competencies. The myth that excellent performers are well rounded people being good at everything, makes managers take their employee’s strengths for granted and encourage them to identify, analyse and correct their weaknesses. This is a waist of resources as it would be better to place people in jobs that suit their specific strengths pattern and then develop those to mastery.
Within traditional careers, demands often change completely as we climb the corporate ladder. For example, an excellent software developer will often not be an excellent project or people’s manager because these roles draw on completely different strengths. Yet, the classic reward for great accomplishment in the workplace is in most companies the promotion into a different role connected with more status.
The conclusion of the book is that we will excel only by maximising our strengths, not by fixing our weaknesses. We must look inside ourselves to find out what our strengths are, reinforce them with practice and learning and then find or create a role that makes use of them every day.
This process should start in school, where the foundation for our future successes are being laid. An overall final mark is not the best indicator whether someone has the right qualities to study in a certain field, but instead the areas of greatest potential which often stay undiscovered. Not surprisingly, surveys show that only 20% of employees agree that they have the daily opportunity at work to do what they do best.
The book is a great assistance for anyone interested in finding his or her individual pattern of talents or on how to manage people accordingly. It contains an access code that enables one to do do the strengths finder test on the Internet.
“To be what we are, and to become what we are capable of becoming, is the only end of life.” Robert Louis Stevenson
Marcus Buckingham and Donald O. Clifton. Now, Discover your Strengths – How to develop your talents and those of the people you manage. Published by Pocket Books.