We live in a society with a deep fascination with our weaknesses. Few, if any of us, reach adulthood without a deep awareness of where we are lacking or where we need to improve. Regardless
of where we live or how old we are, we prioritise fixing our weaknesses over leveraging where we are naturally strong. Asked to document our strengths and weaknesses, it is an exceptional person that populates the strengths category faster and with more ease. The sad reality is, the majority of us have an unhealthy familiarity with what we perceive as our weaknesses and a very poor grasp of where we have the most potential to shine.
Such is this fascination with fixing ourselves and working on our weaknesses, many of us can go through our entire lives with little or no knowledge of where we are naturally strong and by extension of this, with little understanding of where we have the most potential to excel.
Indeed, neuroscientists argue that being naturally attuned to weaknesses rather than strengths is due to how our brains have evolved. This intense focus we place on risk was previously key to our very survival. Our survival was determined to a huge extent by our ability to remain alert to all threats. A heightened sense of danger was necessary to navigate the daily threats to safety in the wild. In the modern-day, however, this same heightened awareness doesn’t serve us well. Like the appendix, our focus on risk and threats is a useless evolutionary artefact. However, as we evolved and our lifestyles changed, we are not facing daily challenges to our very survival. And while it would certainly not be wise to switch off our antennae to all potential dangers, the extent to which we focus on weaknesses and threats is misguided.
This fascination with our deficiencies is probably most apparent in our bookshops, wherein the rapidly growing personal development section, the overriding theme is how to address our failings or weaknesses. This fixation with our deficiencies has resulted in the growth of a thriving personal development industry worth billions of euros. Headlines abound on the theme of overcoming our weaknesses and how to sidestep the imminent risks that will befall us if we fail to address these failings.
This deficit focus is also apparent from our earliest days in the education system. Even the most well-intentioned educators place more emphasis on ‘mistakes’ - with the red pen is still used to highlight these mistakes- rather than on what the child has got right. As a result of this focus on mistakes, the subjects that we find easiest, which typically are the subjects we have the most talent for and by extension of this have the most potential in, tend to be overlooked.
This deficit focus is then carried forward into the workplace. A failure to focus on the areas that an employee is weak and not showing potential is typically seen as poor people management and ultimately as posing a risk to the business. The demand for the well rounded employee, has resulted in a disproportionate amount of time and attention given to our weaknesses and little time or attention given to where a natural ability or strength. For example, in an annual appraisal, while some focus will be placed on achievements, a greater emphasis will be placed on where we need to improve, what we need to work on. Indeed, no matter how outstanding the employee's performance is, many commentators argue that managers feel obligated to find some "areas of improvement" to include in their feedback. Is this focus on developing the rounded employee - ironing out all ‘weak areas’ - the reason why so many people end up having mediocre academic achievements and average careers?
Path to success
The majority of us get few if any opportunities to discover and hone our natural strengths in life. Yet the evidence is clear, we have the most potential when we focus on building on upon our natural innate strengths. The best way to become more creative, more resilient, and more productive is to focus on our strengths. Focusing on strengths sparks inquisition, our minds open up to possibilities and we feel happier. We are more motivated to grow and learn and more confident to build relationships. Identifying our unique configuration of talents leads us beyond a basic sense of our abilities toward true insight into the “superpowers” behind our consistent success.
The path to a great life is not to strive for expertise in all fields. Seeking to be strong in all fields can only result in mediocrity in all your endeavours. Leveraging our strengths produces excellence far more effectively than trying to raise weaknesses to the level of mediocrity. Why do we feel this pressure to improve upon the areas that we naturally do not excel in and by extension of this, pay scant attention to the areas that we have the most potential? This approach has been described by Marcus Buckingham, the author of Now, Discover your Strengths as ‘remediation’ The process whereby we invest our time and energy in moving the needle from being very weak at something to ‘not being too bad’.
In areas where we are not naturally strong, practice and a deep commitment can help you move from poor to average, but rarely will you achieve excellence unless you have a natural talent.
Everyone is talented, but no one is talented at everything. Being well-rounded is held up as the ideal. But striving to be the most rounded, can result in a failure to excel in anything. There is considerable evidence to support the argument that focusing on where we are naturally strong makes more sense, but this speed reading example provides compelling support. Here is what happened. A US research project examining speed reading among high school students found that practice boosted students' words-per-minute reading rate. The average group—who started with a reading speed of 90 words per minute, improved to about 150 words per minute - a 66% increase in speed. However, those who started out fast, at 300 words per minute at the beginning of the study, made substantially more gains. They improved their speed to 2,900 words per minute— an 828% increase. So while all of the students' speed improved, those already talented at speed reading had the most significant gains. This demonstrates there is the most room to improve in your areas of natural talent than weakness.
Developing a strengths mindset
Building talents into real strengths requires practice and hard work, much like building physical strength. A strengths-based mindset whether for an individual, team or organisation means that you are intentional about developing a deep understanding of your talents and strengths (and using it as a framework for increasing engagement and performance). It is a mindset that creates awareness of your talents and strengths in such a way that you can leverage them and develop them every day to thrive.
Keep up the good work
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This blog is written in partnership with Michelle Wallace, A Better Work