Should You Work on Your Strengths or Weaknesses?

by Mark on March 9, 2010 · 2 comments

There is a lot of debate over whether you should work on your strengths or your weaknesses. You are in luck, because I am going to answer the question for you. Should you work on your strengths or your weaknesses? ABSOLUTELY. Okay, so that’s probably not the answer that you were looking for, and you might be asking yourself “What kind of answer is that?”

The problem is that we are looking for a cut-and-dried answer where none exists. I think too often we are interested in looking for the holy grail of rules of thumb that apply universally and spare us the need to think. Unfortunately, they don’t exist. Rules of thumb tend to be very suboptimal because they are not very responsive to varying situations.

Strengths vs. Weaknesses

In the book The 4-Hour Workweek, Tim Ferriss writes:

β€œIt is far more lucrative and fun to leverage your strengths instead of attempting to fix all the chinks in your armor. The choice is between multiplication of results using strengths or incremental improvement fixing weaknesses that will, at best, become mediocre. Focus on better use of your best weapons instead of constant repair.”

With all due respect to Tim Ferriss, I think this is extremely overgeneralized. Sometimes our weaknesses can wipe out any possible chance of success. One extreme example is that of someone who is addicted to drugs. Odds are that focusing on strengths is not going to be enough to overcome this weakness. The weakness would likely doom this person to failure.

If your weakness is that you live beyond your means, increasing your means (i.e. your income) isn’t likely to make you successful. In fact, it will just get you into bigger trouble. Just look at all the celebrities and athletes that end up in bankruptcy. When you consider the multimillion dollar incomes that they enjoy, it seems crazy that they ever could go bankrupt. It happens all the time because they use debt to spend even more than they earn.

An Example from My Own Life

One of my weaknesses was — and still is, although to a lesser extent — a lack of patience. I ended up bouncing around from job to job mainly because I didn’t have the patience to stick with them. I would always get frustrated and stressed out until I finally quit. It was never because I couldn’t do the job, but actually quite the opposite. I did a great job and was too impatient (and often bored) to rise through the ranks

Interestingly enough, I ended up becoming a corporate controller at the young age of 30, but lost my job when my company was acquired. My impatience almost ended up working in my favor in this case, and I’m probably actually fortunate that it didn’t, or else I might not have learned an important lesson.

Unfortunately, I never had another job lined up when I would quit, and I wasn’t eligible for unemployment benefits, so I began to accumulate debt. I always rationalized the debt by telling myself that I would soon have a good paying job, and it would be no problem. After the dotcom crash, jobs were much harder to come by, especially jobs that I was interested in.

Eventually, I tried to start my own business, but it was more out of frustration and impatience than anything else. The business was poorly planned and capitalized, which also led to a lack of commitment on my part. I soon found myself in a heap of debt.

My financial difficulty was severe enough that it caused me to do some soul searching. I wanted to figure out the underlying causes behind my situation. I came up with a number of answers. I had never been extravagant, so that wasn’t the cause of my financial difficulties. The main problem was a lack of consistency when it came to working, which was driven by a lack of patience.

Once I addressed this root problem, I was able to turn things around. Now I’m completely debt free with a decent cash buffer and a 2008 Subaru that I bought new and paid off already.

The point is simple. Fixing certain weaknesses can be critical to your success.

What about your strengths?

It should be pretty clear that we need to focus on some of our weaknesses, but this doesn’t mean that we should just ignore our strengths. For one thing, Tim Ferriss was right when he said that it is more fun to leverage our strengths. We tend to be intrinsically motivated to do things we are good at.

Aside from the enjoyment of focusing on our strengths, it is also an area where we can create competitive advantages. Sometimes even small improvements over the competition can have a huge impact on your success. Think about runners in the 100 meter dash. The top runners are those who consistently beat others by only fractions of a second.

So should you work on your strengths or your weaknesses?

ABSOLUTELY. It’s not one or the other. Use your ability to reason to determine what areas would most benefit you. Focus on the weaknesses that you think have the greatest chance of really holding you back while also remembering to focus on the strengths that you can really use to move forward.


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