I Wish I Had Known: Leverage Your Strengths, Manage Weaknesses

“Enter every activity without giving mental recognition to the possibility of defeat. Concentrate on your strengths, instead of your weaknesses… on your powers, instead of your problems.”

Paul J. Meyer

This recommendation comes from Alex Huras – and I couldn’t agree more.

I Thought It Was All About Mastering Your Weaknesses

It is something you hear for at least the first 20 years of your life (perhaps more, unless you are fortunate enough to have someone tell you how it really is).

When you are in grade and high school, it happens on your report card. Maybe you get an A+, a couple B’s, and a C. Rather than focusing on your A+ (a clear area of capability), parents and teachers alike focus on the C – how to improve it, how to increase your mark, etc. etc.

When you get to university, it happens again – this time in your GPA. Some interviewers like to focus on your GPA and the underperformance outliers; why did you get a C in this course? Why in that course?

Meanwhile, during this entire process, there is one thing that is being engrained into your mind: focus on your weaknesses. Unfortunately, there could be nothing further from the truth when it comes to the real world. If you take the approach of focusing on your weaknesses, you are essentially admitting that people will judge you based on your biggest area of shortfall.

Remember, no one will ever hire you because you aren’t bad at something – that sounds ridiculous! Can you imagine an interviewer explaining to her boss “well, he was the least bad at mathematics out of all the candidates, so he should be a great fit for our design firm.” No, people hire you because you are the best at something, not because you are the best of the worst at it.

I Learned It Was All About Mastering and Building Your Strengths

One of the reasons I love music and symphonies is because of their innate focus on strengths. You learn one instrument – and that instrument alone. Maybe you can play a few others, but none as well as your core instrument. Every instrument has its role – maybe rhythm, high notes, low notes – but they all have a defined roll. Can you imagine how chaotic it would be if the percussion switched to strings half way through a song? Musicians inherently focus on their strengths, and so should we.

Now, don’t get me wrong – there are weaknesses worth addressing – but the key is that you are simply managing them, rather than focusing on them. You want to be sure a particular area is not holding you back, but you don’t want it to detract from pushing ahead in your core competency; we all only have 24 hours in a day.

Yesterday I was introduced to the ‘T’ model at IDEO. The key to the T model is that they look for people that know a little bit about everything, and a LOT about one thing. That is the same approach we should all take – have a broad base of knowledge, but a core competency.

However, most of us have been trained to try and be a block; someone with a wide and deep knowledge base. The problem with that is you will end up having neither – you will have a shallow and narrow knowledge base. It is impossible to master everything at once, and that is why we need to focus.

When you graduate University and enter the real world, you will immediately face this reality. Not many firms hire people because they are ‘pretty good’ at a lot of things. Most firms hire you because you are very good at one thing – whatever that is.

I used to joke that a high GPA (average) meant you were very good at being average – and I still hold that belief (unless you are an unnaturally smart person, than all the power too you!)

If I Could Go Back

If I could go back, I would have acted accordingly – know what your strengths are, and act on it. A factor of knowing your strengths, is also knowing what is important to you ultimate career and goal. If you are going into a numerical/mathematical job, don’t be too worried about getting 95% on that History essay – focus on mastering all your math courses. If you are striving to become a publicist, don’t worry about linear algebra – focus on the writing courses.

The second piece of this wisdom is to know your story too. You don’t want to walk in to an interview and not know why you didn’t get a 90% in all your courses – that just makes it look accidental. However, if you can walk into an interview and succinctly and confidently explain that you only got a 75% in linear algebra because of your passion for writing, any interviewer worth their salt will be amazed.

It is SO rare to find someone with the passion and conviction to be that clear about their ultimate goals. Additionally, you should follow up the explanation with how you have focused on your strengths – what extra courses have you taken, what groups have you gotten involved with, how have you done, etc. etc.

Focusing on your strengths will unlock more ability and potential than focusing on your weaknesses ever could – so chose wisely which you will give your attention to.

Caveat, if You Don’t Know What You Want to Do: If you aren’t sure whether you would be happier as a publicist or a mathematician, you really can’t make the decision to focus on your strengths, because after all, they might differ depending on your array of talents and interests. Most people have a general idea, but aren’t always sure where in particular they see themselves.

In this case, you don’t know what weaknesses might disqualify you, so it’s a good idea to keep a strong base in everything that might be applicative – cover your bases. It’s better to have wasted a bit of time in an area that turns out to be irrelevant, than to have a door closed because you couldn’t be bothered.


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