Scott H Young

When You Should Fix Your Weaknesses


Cracked

“Focus on your strengths,” is now standard advice. Along with “be yourself” and “follow your passions”, it is one of those snippets of wisdom we rarely question. Unfortunately, it’s also wrong in enough cases to be worth questioning.

A better question to ask would be: when should you focus on your strengths?

If you understand the logic behind following your strengths, you can also more easily see where it doesn’t apply. It’s not a complicated analysis either. You should focus on your strengths, and ignore your weaknesses, whenever:

  1. The weakness is not a requirement.
  2. You can outsource the weakness to someone else.

If those two cases don’t apply, then focusing on your strengths can actually be bad advice. These two cases cover a lot of ground, but there are enough gaps created that it often pays to fix your weaknesses instead of just enhance your strengths.

I’ll explain the logic behind each of these two cases in more detail.

Case One: The Weakness Isn’t a Requirement

The first case where the mantra to “focus on your strengths” makes sense, is when your weakness isn’t a requirement for success.

Consider dancing ability. Being a great dancer might be wonderful. It may give you confidence and enjoyment. But it’s hardly a requirement—you could easily live a satisfied life without knowing how to dance.

Compare that to social skills. Lacking social skills will hurt the quality of your life in almost any situation. Unless you’re an independently wealthy hermit, social skills are critical. It’s much harder to ignore this as a weakness.

The distinction is about the ability to substitute one skill for others. If you’re not a great dancer, you could substitute that with skill in programming, writing or chemistry. Lacking social skills is significantly more difficult to substitute.

Case Two: You Can Outsource Your Weakness

The second case where focusing on your strengths is wise, occurs when there’s a broader system encouraging specialization.

The reason “focus on your strengths” works so much in career dimensions, is because markets reward specialization. If I’m great a programming, but terrible at bookkeeping, I can focus on programming and hire someone else to maintain the finances.

Even businesses themselves, to a lesser extent, can follow the “focus on your strengths” mindset, because there will be market niches that emphasize cost, quality, service or some other attribute more than others. If you fail in one dimension you effectively outsource that weakness to your competition.

Applying this rule is trickier when outsourcing could exist, in principle, but it is difficult to do. If you run a small business, you may have to become a jack-of-all-trades because you don’t have the funds to hire someone else to specialize in a facet of your business.

I’ve found in my business, for example, having core strengths is important. But I can’t completely ignore weaknesses if I’m unable or unwilling to outsource them. Better advice for people in situations like this would probably be, “focus on your strengths, but have at least basic competence in your critical weaknesses.”

When Should You Focus on Your Weaknesses?

Anytime a situation doesn’t fit the above two questions, it’s worthwhile to seriously question the advice to “focus on your strengths.”

First, if a skill is a requirement, and cannot be outsourced, then some basic competence may be necessary. Health, social skills, ability to sell your ideas and time management are all probably good candidates for necessary skills.

Necessity is a matter of degree. The more a skill can be easily substituted without impacting your success, the less important it is to fix your weaknesses. But the reverse is also true—when substitution is difficult and outsourcing impossible, fixing weaknesses is important.

I remember listening to an interview with Steven Covey. Covey expressed the common mantra to “focus on your strengths” and used himself as a personal example. He claimed that he wasn’t good with new technology, but that he didn’t worry about it.

However, Covey’s example is misleading because it very neatly fits into the two above cases. Knowing technology, as a consultant and speaker, is not much of a requirement, and to the extent that it is, it can be easily outsourced.

I very much doubt Covey would have made the same claim about being bad with people, having lousy time management.

Having beliefs that say, “strengths=focus, weaknesses=ignore” isn’t useful unless you understand the assumptions behind those beliefs. Almost no good advice is universal, so without the context that underlies an idea, it becomes a meaningless platitude.

Image courtesy of Nina Matthews Photography


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17 Responses to “When You Should Fix Your Weaknesses”

  1. Scott, thanks for sharing your views on this. I agree with you on this one. As a co-founder of the Paid to Play Academy, a company that teaches people to focus on their passions, this is a great topic for me to have found.

    I think that focusing on your weaknesses when they are necessities is great advice. I work with a lot of people who miss the point.

    Focusing on your strengths can help you become great, but focusing on weaknesses that are hindering you is also a must.

    Thanks again for you words of wisdom.

  2. kay says:

    I really don’t like this pop up that you introduced. Is there a way you don’t make it pop up every time I go to your website? Not only do I already get your emails, I already said once that I am not interested. Should that not be enough?

  3. kay says:

    …by the way, just so you know, I am a big fan of your website. There is no other blog that I follow.

  4. Al fred Hung says:

    identifying assumption behind a claim is always difficult……
    esp. if it is from a famous popular speaker……

  5. Nick says:

    Scott-
    Helpful, quick article. I was pondering last week when, if ever, you should work on your weaknesses. You’ve provided two good guidelines. Thanks.

  6. This was a good read; being able to objectively discern one’s strengths from one’s weaknesses requires a certain level of maturity and experience.

    If a weakness is realized by oneself at the wrong point in time, exemplified as simply as a teenager being overly concious about their appearance – or worse yet, if it is brought to light by an external source, it can quickly transform into a sore point which subsequently requires an exponentially increased effort to be considered objectively.

    There’s one thing about weaknesses I’d like to add, and that is that I personally consider failure to be the cornerstone of success. Most weaknesses can be overcome with sufficient effort – yet, naturally, there is a cost-benefit aspect to whether said effort is worth making. The question is whether the reward is worth the effort, or if it is indeed simpler to merely outsource the issue (which, in many cases, will ring true).

    Also, I enjoyed the clever point you made regarding Covey – I’m afraid I can’t remember the exact phrase for what you described, but it’s the process of adapting facts to suit one’s own situation as opposed to viewing them objectively. Perhaps someone else can coin the exact term; at least for now, it eludes me.

  7. Scott Young says:

    Jorgen,

    Well I wouldn’t claim he was be intentionally misleading. Simply that his strengths happened to be well-located–they were of the difficult-to-outsource, requirement kind. Therefore he forms the ideal example, not the edge case where the rule of thumb ceases to apply.

    -Scott

  8. David says:

    Glad I found your blog again.

    Anyway, I believe that working on your weaknesses is absolutely essential if the weakness in question involves character (lack of honesty, anger management issues, ungrateful, bullying behavior)

    As for all other issues, by all means focus, on your strengths.

  9. I agree with Jorgen, that weaknesses can often be overcome, and transformed into strengths with enough effort. There should therefore be another dimension to your ideas, which balance the long term benefit of changing a weakness into a strength. As you correctly point out, some weaknessess are more important to focus on that others. In that sense, a kind of cost-benefit analysis is necessary to determine which weaknesses can be substituted or outsourced, and which you should work on.

  10. Focussing on your strengths in order to cloud you weaknesses is of course a good idea. Most of all because your strengths are also the things that you actually LIKE to do.

    Another point though, is when you are an entrepreneur, it can be a good thing to learn everything. For instance, I have a blog, but I don’t know how to code. In the past two years I did learn some coding, basicly because I couldn’t outsource everything (and couldn’t affort it as well). Right now I am in the executive board of a student conference and we needed to make some changes to the website. The PR person couldn’t do it, but I could, with my very little knowledge of coding, but that very little knowledge was enough!

    So as you’ve already pointed out, have some basic knowledge about everything you need to do. The experts can do the rest, but you need to know something.

  11. Anass Farah says:

    I totally agree with what you said Scott, fixing our weaknesses is also important in some situations. I liked the example you give about social skills, social skills and mastering social interactions is crucial to success, and without this skill you will face a lot of problem in your life, I experienced this, so I can really understand how much this is important, I was very good at maths and other technical stuff, but without those social skills, I was feeling a lot of pain, and i think with connections and relations i would never succed.

    Thank you for this great article, and hope to see you soon :D

    Anass Farah

  12. Broderick says:

    I agreed with the whole article. The only thing I disagree with is the standard advice. Normally, I hear “Focus on your strengths, manage your weaknesses”, so this article would go hand in hand with that.

  13. Amanda says:

    hi!
    im 15 years old and i know that’s young to be reading a self improvement blog, but i find yours to be so so interesting. i’ve definitely learned a lot- just in this past month i’ve been more efficient with homework, altogether quit drinking soda, and i’ve stuck with my goal of running everyday throughout the cross country off-season. so i just wanted to say thank you! and keep writing (:

  14. Leigh says:

    I guess we first have to define weaknesses. I subscribe to Marcus Buckingham’s definition, “A weakness is an activity that drains you or weakens you, even if you’re good at it.”

    So, for me, I’m not interested in fixing my weaknesses. Which often means choosing to go in the direction where my weaknesses aren’t required. Or outsourcing ‘em. Both are choices I make.

    I’ve found very few circumstances where I’ve had to focus on my weaknesses. Then again, I’m very intentional about my life & work and create opportunities for myself. One of those non-conformist, entrepreneur types. ;)

    Definitely an interesting read – got my brain buzzing.

  15. Scott Young says:

    Leigh,

    I’m no longer sure we’re still talking about the same thing.

    Marcus Buckingham seems to me to have redefined weaknesses from the standard understanding of “things you’re not good at” to “things you don’t like to do”.

    It’s an interesting point, and perhaps I’d have to explore his logic in more detail, but I’m not sure I agree with it. I can think of numerous cases where it would obviously be in my best interest to work on “things that weaken or drain me”.

  16. shreevidya says:

    scott , u said it right, balancing strength and weakness is very imp.

  17. […] Covey, the author of New York Times best seller, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, mentioned about focusing on strengths and ignoring weakness. He does says about this but whether to accept this is up to individual […]

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