When Strengths Become Weaknesses

I have long been fascinated with the application of strengths in a person’s life. So often in our lives, especially in regards to work, we are told what is “wrong” with us and we are made to focus solely on improving our weaknesses disregarding our strengths.

Math is a subject that I have struggled with my entire life. It took me an exceptionally long time to learn the multiplication tables. Mostly, my brain doesn’t function in a “math” sort of way, I cannot seem to grasp the logic of it. And to a much lesser extent as a child I had several teachers that did very little to help me understand the subject. In second grade though my teacher, parents, and I worked extremely hard for me to learn multiplication. And my gosh, I am really good at multiplication now. I still remember how I learned the process and I can multiply with little thought and better even than I can add and subtract. Yet, even so, as a whole Math is not a subject that I grasp easily.

In Adam Grant’s most recent TED podcast, he spoke about “When Strength Becomes Weakness.” A concept that I found captivating and even today a week later I am sifting through it in my mind.

In the podcast Adam speaks with Marcus Buckingham, author of most recently “Nine Lies About Work: A Freethinking Leader’s Guide to the Real World” and perhaps best known for co-writing “Now, Discover Your Strengths”. According to Marcus we are living in a remedial world (hopefully the song is now stuck in your head as well), it’s the idea that we can examine our weaknesses, and take concrete steps to fix them. Concrete steps would be the constant focus that I put on multiplication as a second grader. But according to Marcus, remediation is really just a way to help people go from bad to average at a particular activity. I went from not knowing how to multiply at all, to being able to rattle off the tables pretty quickly. Now, mind you, I can’t go past 11 very well, so I would say that I am probably average-at the very best.

“Marcus started to recognize that any job done in excellence wasn’t because people spent all their time trying to repair their weaknesses. It was usually because someone was working from a natural or developed strength.”

Marcus Buckingham & Ashley Goodall in “Nine Lies About Work”

“A strength is a broader aptitude you have (or build) for solving problems, getting things done, influencing people, or building relationships.” Adam’s belief is that any strength overplayed becomes a weakness, yet Marcus’s premise is that we can use our strengths unintelligently-not use them too much. According to Marcus a strength isn’t good or bad, it’s morally neutral. You can use it for ill or for good. You can never have too much of a strength; you can only use it poorly. Which honestly, blew my mind. I personally lean more towards focusing on my strengths and to a degree ignoring my weaknesses.

Logically, I will never be adept at Math. I have a basic understanding so that I am able to pay my bills and know how much money I have. Yet, I use TurboTax to file my taxes and I use my phone to calculate tips at restaurants. I don’t think that I would ever be great at Math, even if that’s the only thing I focused on. In this instance I would agree with Marcus, that you don’t remediate your way to excellence. “Strengths aren’t just qualities you have. They’re things you do well at key times-actions you take in certain circumstances.” “A strength isn’t just a thing you’re good at, but an activity that makes you feel strong.”

According to StrengthsFinder, one of my top five strengths is intellection, intellection is essentially to enjoy thinking. I love to think, specifically I love to think about concepts and solutions. For instance, the American states of California, Texas, Nebraska, and Oklahoma could feed all of China’s 1.3 billion people and still have crops left over (1). So how would a country go about providing in that way, is it even necessary for one nation to help another-especially if said country is so diametrically opposed to the former. How advantageous is it for the US to sell crops to China? China must feed 22% of the world’s population with just 10% of the world’s cultivatable land (1); is that why China is investing so heavily in Africa- since Africa has 60% of the world’s land capable of growing crops? (2) Refining that thinking over time can lead to solutions (please know that I don’t think that I can solve the issue of food shortages across the world, even though it’s a worthy aim) and refining the thinking helps to guide future actions. Often though, my thinking can become all consuming and obsessive, lacking direction and purpose. In this way my strength has become a weakness, a hindrance – when it is being used in an unintelligent way. Also, I have found a work-around to combat my weaknesses….other people. There is always someone around you, whether it be a friend, a family member, or a coworker whose strength is your weakness. When we pull together people that are willing to work and grow together and leverage our strengths we are able to accomplish so much more.

Back to the money situation, I have a number of friends that are very skilled with finances. Since I am not, I ask as many questions that I can think of. I ask how they budget, how do they save their money, how do they use their credit card, how would they invest…in that way I have gathered lots of practical advice from people that I trust, people that I know have good finances as one of their strengths and I use it to pad my weaknesses. Obviously that doesn’t equate with implementing those pieces of advice but I have also found that the more time I spend with friends (and any other people) who have different strengths, it spurs me on to focus on practical ways that I can work on my weaknesses. 

So what about you? Do you prefer to focus on your weaknesses by making them less weak? How about focusing on your strengths and using them intelligently like Marcus suggests? Or do you prefer a mixture of the two, where you spend some time strengthening your weaknesses and more time on your strengths?

I am curious to hear what you think about when strengths become a weakness.