Scott H Young

Should You Work on Your Strengths or Weaknesses?


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A recently popular subject in the self-improvement genre is focusing on your strengths. The idea is that a jack-of-all-trades is a master of none, therefore you should ignore your weaknesses and build on your strengths. If you’re good at history and bad at chemistry, the supporters argue, you should focus on becoming the best historian in the world and forget trying to become a chemist.

I disagree. While there is some merit in building your strengths, there are some glaring flaws. These flaws are large enough that I’d rather scrap the entire concept and start from scratch.

Do Strengths Ignore Your Passions?

A strength-based outlook assumes that you love doing what you’re good at. And for the most part, this is true. People tend to like the things they succeed in. People tend to dislike things they struggle with.

Unfortunately, this isn’t always the case. I know many people who were extremely good at jobs they hated. I also know people who loved activities they were challenged by. Should I stick with something strictly because I’m good at it? Raw talent isn’t enough to ensure a love for what you do.

Passion Creates Your Strengths

I think the correlation between your strengths and passions has a more obvious explanation. If you are incredibly interested in something, you’ll make yourself good at it. Someone who loves basketball will practice day and night. Someone who didn’t care wouldn’t be able to put in the effort.

Your talents definitely have a genetic component. Your genes might help or hurt you. Until your entire genome is mapped and you have comprehensive testing, you won’t know that. What you do know is your own interests. Rely on that to make a decision.

I have a few personal experiences that fit with this account. When I was a kid, everyone around me said I was relatively shy and introverted. Basic personality tests gave the same picture. Clearly, activities that required me to be outgoing and sociable wouldn’t be my strengths. Instead, I should stick with the academic and solitary activities I excelled at.

Today I’ve received my first two designations for Toastmasters and won awards for public speaking. I’ve also just started on a volunteer position that requires me to be proactive in meeting new people, manage relationships and speak convincingly. I’ve had people tell me I’m a natural at public speaking or that I’m very extroverted. I’m not sure I would have taken on these positions if I tried to stay within my strengths.

What About Strengths You Can’t Outsource?

The origins of the strength-based philosophy goes all the way back to 1776. This was the year Adam Smith wrote The Wealth of Nations and discussed the division of labor. In the book, he wrote about how the best benefit of society came when each person specialized to a particular skill, instead of trying to perform every task.

For your work, this is certainly the case. Having a dozen, poorly-developed skills won’t make you nearly as valuable as having one skill you’ve perfected. But the reason this works is that I can trade my skills for the skills of other people. I don’t know anything about cars, but I can use money to get someone else to build one.

This same reasoning doesn’t apply in your private life. It doesn’t matter how much money I have, I can’t pay someone to improve my social life. I might be able to buy a personal trainer, but I can’t pay someone to make me healthy. I can’t pay someone to enjoy my leisure time, manage my family or keep my mind sharp.

When you can’t easily outsource a task, your weaknesses hurt you. This happens a lot with people who run small businesses. Since the number of employees may fit on a single hand, there are a lot of tasks that aren’t large enough to hire someone new, and can’t be outsourced. As a result, the entrepreneur needs to have a basic skill level. I understand many of the aspects of blogging because I’m not in a position to hire someone else to understand them.

Why Box Yourself In?

The biggest flaw of a strength-based philosophy, in my opinion, is that it labels you. Instead of leaving yourself the possibility of being good at many things, you stick with what you know.

The best example I can use here is with Steve Pavlina. He went from being an independent game developer to a writer and speaker. While there is definitely overlap in those areas, they rely on different strengths. I wonder if someone who didn’t have the same confidence level would have been able to make the jump from one career to another. Especially if they’ve already defined what they are good at.

Replacing a Strength-Based Outlook

I’m not arguing that you should work on everything you’re bad at. I’m not arguing that you should try to be good at everything. I’m certainly not arguing that you shouldn’t master skills. What I am arguing is that focusing on your strengths might not be the best outlook.

I believe a better focus is to keep strengths in mind, but put far more weight on your passions. Before you ask yourself, “Am I good at this?” ask yourself whether you actually give a damn about it. And if you do care, that follow-up question should be a lot less important.


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26 Responses to “Should You Work on Your Strengths or Weaknesses?”

  1. I agree that it’s a mistake to “box yourself in”. I also like the concept of focusing on your passions and taking it from there.

    I’m a mother, and when I read how people labeled you when you were a child, I thought what a disservice to a child it is, to label him like that. Glad you were able to “unbox” yourself.

  2. Scott Young says:

    Vered,

    I’m sure nobody who told me I was introverted meant it as an insult. It was just a statement of fact based on my interests and behavior. People label each other all the time, usually without realizing it.

    -Scott

  3. I’ve written about both extremes before, using these examples:

    – It would be pretty dumb for Tiger Woods to run for president while Hillary Clinton took up professional golf (lesson: working on your strengths is usually a good idea)

    – Michael Jordan initially showed no talent at basketball, and Einstein was once thought to be dumb (lesson: working on your weaknesses might pay off big)

    I tend to side with working on your strengths, though I don’t disagree with your points here, and I don’t think a strict rule of “only work on your strengths” is a good idea. Also, I think that passion counts as a strength regardless of raw talent.

  4. Scott Young says:

    Hunter,

    Obviously it doesn’t make sense to completely discount your strengths. I just feel there are some weaknesses to using this as a starting point. Passion and outsource-ability should be bigger concerns than whether you’re initially good at something.

    Another factor is whether you need to be the best in the world or only good at something. If it’s the former, strengths and genetic talent matters a lot. If it’s the latter, then almost anybody can become decent at something with a bit of practice, so a strength-based argument doesn’t apply.

    The point of this post is to break away from what I see as strength-based dogma.

    -Scott

  5. Amy says:

    I’m good at writing A grade English essays in the British Education system within a few hours of recieving the topic and the books. I hate essays! I hate being catagorised into careers the teachers think will suit me based on my strengths. I don’t see being good at a certain thing specific skill a benefit, my strengths lie in my passion for learning and self-improvemnt in my opinion.

  6. jackmo says:

    Hi Scott,

    Long time reader, first time poster.
    I totally agree. Also, everyone has to start somewhere: the only way to improve is by failing and learning from those mistakes. If you take on the belief that you should ignore your weaknesses then you will never improve.

    Thanks for all the top articles.

    cheers,
    Jackmo

  7. Scott Young says:

    Amy,

    That’s exactly my point, but many “focus on your strengths” enthusiasts seem to miss it.

    -Scott

  8. Charles Sielicki says:

    Scott:
    -Interesting post on Strengths

    What I recently found very helpful was StrengthsFinder 2.0 [Gallup/ Tom Rath]. The survey gave me insight to my “Top 5” strengths, or perhaps a better descriptor would be: “innate talents”. The author argues that a strength is talent plus investment in that talent.

    I noted that my “Top 5” have permeated my entire life and have helped explain why I have experienced instances where I have excelled in something I really didn’t like: to do the job I was using talents that were in my “Top 5” (but using them in a task I didn’t like)!

    The author believes that there is an over focus on weaknesses and corrections of weaknesses in our society. He argues for you to know and manage your weaknesses but you will find a focus on your strengths most rewarding and effective towards your goals.

    Thanks for the outstanding web site material!

    Best

    Charlie

  9. Scott Young says:

    Charles,

    Correcting your weaknesses might be a problem, but I’ve noticed that weakness avoiding is another popular strategy. And, as I’ve pointed out in the article, that isn’t always a great strategy either.

    Focusing on your strengths is important. I’m just not sure whether it is important enough to come before considering your passions or ability to outsource.

    -Scott

  10. [...] H. Young stellt die gleiche Frage, die ich auch schon vor ein paar Wochen gestellt habe: “Should You Work on Your Strengths or Weaknesses?“. Während ich der Meinung bin, dass es geschickter ist, sich auf seine Stärken zu [...]

  11. Bruce says:

    The “real” idea behind the strengths revolution is that you should draw on your mental assets—your talents—not ignore your weaknesses (the very definition of a weakness relevant to strengths is that you *can’t* ignore it).

    “What you’re good at” is not a strength; you can be good at something and have it not draw on your talents. Likewise, your weaknesses are not “what you’re bad at”; you can lack skill in something and it can still be a strength.

    Personality tests can be useful, but they don’t effectively measure your innate talents—the well-established synaptic connections in your brain. Not even your talents are strengths, though.

    A “strength” is the label you apply to consistent ways of thought, feeling, and behavior, usually contained within an activity or a way of going about a particular activity, that draw on your talents and the assets (knowledge and skills) associated with them.

    I’m not sure what sources your sources were for writing this article, but they don’t seem well researched.

    I recommend looking into work by Marcus Buckingham; other sources seem to work with very vague definitions of “strengths.”

    – Bruce

  12. Scott Young says:

    Bruce,

    I’ve never seen “strengths” being defined that way. Perhaps I’m misusing the term.

    In my defense, most of the people I’ve seen using the term strengths are using it in exactly the way I’d describe as being “what you’re good at”.

    -Scott

  13. [...] path where it is needed extensively. I came across an article from Scott H. Young titled “Should you work on your strengths or weaknesses?“. Scott agreed that people tend to like the things they succeed in, and they tend to dislike [...]

  14. [...] Getting to “I Can Do This” – How do you build confidence? Ben shares a few tips such as, “Accumulate small wins. Successfully take baby steps.” and “…demystify the accomplishment. If you want to start a company, read tons of first-hand accounts.” He points out, however, that being skilled is only half the question, if you’re not passionate, your strengths don’t matter. [...]

  15. [...] 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. [...]

  16. [...] your passion Scott H. Young has one article that question us, “Should you work on your strengths or weakness?” We often think too much about which ones are our strengths and weaknesses that we forgot a [...]

  17. Kakalina says:

    I never used to think of myself as good at sports, but then my phys ed teacher told me that I would be if I was interested in it. Then I blocked his spike during a volleyball match during school, and kept saving peoples errant passes, so now I love volleyball!

    lesson learned: never assume that you are bad at something, because there might be an area in that subject that you’re really good at (a little rough, but you get the idea ;P)

  18. [...] your passionScott H. Young has one article that question us, “Should you work on your strengths or weakness?” We often think too much about which ones are our strengths and weaknesses that we forgot a more [...]

  19. [...] H. Young stellt die gleiche Frage, die ich auch schon vor ein paar Wochen gestellt habe: “Should You Work on Your Strengths or Weaknesses?“. Während ich der Meinung bin, dass es geschickter ist, sich auf seine Stärken zu [...]

  20. Peter Levin says:

    Scott,

    Excellent article. I just come it across today. Thank you for that.

    I just want to bring some point.

    You talked about labels here. I think you use term strength not as some people might use it.

    You talked about extrovert vs. introvert here. Being an introvert doesn’t make you a poor at public speaking. This is misconception. It is what I called a surface thinking.

    There is a difference between intuitive strength and surface strength.
    In my opinion the best and easiest way to find out about intuitive strength is either by talking test (the only really worthy one so far I found is KOLBE Index A and maybe Strength Finder 2.0 worth a look) or become aware of patterns. THIS IS THE KEY. Things you do over and over and over again can be your intuitive strength or weakness.

    (Here is one of my patterns) For example I know that whatever I do in any area I see the big picture and do not pay attention to details.

    That is the reason I do not like accounting, I don’t like numbers, I don’t enjoy math or physics that much, my logic is not great. (Do you see pattern here).
    But I can see big picture, I can pick up on people emotions, can see if relationship is going to work out, can recognize a lot of traits just by looking on someone face without knowing any details and so on. (pattern opposite to first one)

    That what I assume by strength. How I use this information depends on me and you don’t have to box yourself in by some concepts, but it is still clear to me that we must focus on our strengths but at the same time we need to be aware of our weaknesses (not focus on them, just aware) and manage it accordingly.

    In Steve Pavlina example I think you made clear point that you can excel in more then one area and, which i totally true but what is example is not showing is that to do that Steve must have been using one of his core strength to excel in all of those areas.

  21. Scott Young says:

    Peter,

    Agreed. It all depends on how you refer to strengths, and in your picture it may be accurate.

    However, a less sophisticated use of the term strength often boils down to “what you’re good at” and weakness as “what you’re not good at.” Few people make the core vs surface distinction you’re talking about.

    Some people say things like “I’m not good at drawing,” implying that they don’t draw well, never have and never will. When in truth, the big difference separating stick-figure’s to art is practice. Limiting yourself based on your current “strengths” and “weaknesses” is dangerous.

    -Scott

  22. Peter Levin says:

    Scott,

    Good point, in context you using this term – you are absolutely right
    We just have to be careful using words, because it is jut labels and we may assign different meaning to it

    Because I am interested in subject of personalities and so on, I have totally different meaning to the term “strength”.

    Love reading your blog

  23. Kim says:

    I agree with your overall premise; I think if you really want to get good at something if you put the effort in, you can do it. Also I don’t think the strength based model applies to subjective strengths and weaknesses. For example, a person’s sense of humor, artistic ability, and such are often subjective. If it appeals to a certain audience, then by all means, do it.

    Also, what about the traits that are neither outstanding strengths or horrible weaknesses? Again, I think if you have a passion to improve it, you will, eventually. Also Marcus Buckingham just put up a tweet that sometimes certain tasks don’t get easier to do over time, despite continuing effort. Should you refrain from what is difficult for you? Even if you really want to do it?

  24. sahil says:

    you just answered the seepest question in my life.thank u so much for that.

  25. sahil says:

    but how can u not beliving strength philosophy say that you are an excellent visual learner in your ebooks?

  26. […] Should You Work on Your Strengths or Weaknesses? @ Scott H. Young […]

Debate is fine, flaming is not. Pretend that this comment form is a discussion taking place in my house. That means I enjoy constructive criticism and polite suggestions. Personal attacks, insults and all-purpose nastiness will be removed especially if it is directed at other readers.

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