“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:
- The weakness is not a requirement.
- 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