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.