“My best friend and I are arguing about strengths. I say that building on strength is the way to success. He says if you don’t fix your weaknesses, you’ll never get where you want to go. Who’s right?”
Justin’s email summarized an argument I’ve been hearing since I first read the advice to “build on strengths” 50 years ago. Some folks think it’s the secret to success. Other people think that if you don’t take care of your weaknesses, you’re courting disaster. Both sides are right. And there’s even more.
Building on your strengths is important. It’s the route to joy and effectiveness. Dealing with your weaknesses is important, too. That helps you prevent pain and disaster. There’s one more thing. You must always consider the context.
Build on Your Strengths
You’re probably good at many things. Not all of them are strengths that you want to build on for your career. You can identify important career-building strengths by asking three questions.
Are you naturally good at it?
Do you enjoy doing it?
Can you be paid enough money for doing it?
There are things that you will be good at that you don’t want to make a career of. I know several people who are fine musicians but who choose not to follow that passion for a career. They want to keep that talent for personal enjoyment. They don’t want to “have” to do it.
There will be things that you love to do but aren’t very good at. I love to sing. I sing all the time. I sing enthusiastically, joyfully, and badly. Despite hours of coaching, I sing badly. So, there won’t be an opera career in my future.
There will be things that you’re good at and enjoy but you can’t make enough to live. I made the mistake of taking a job like that once. I was good at the job, but the stress of not enough money nearly killed me.
So, if your strength is something you love, something you’re good at, and something you can get paid enough for, how do you build on that? Make the strength the focus of your development. Devote time and money to it. Seek out opportunities to improve your skills. Try to get a little better every day.
Dealing with Your Weaknesses
Dealing with weaknesses is important, but you don’t want to make the mistake of trying to eliminate them. That usually takes too much time. You’ll be using time to eliminate weaknesses that you could be using to develop your strengths.
Don’t try to eliminate your weaknesses. Make them irrelevant.
You can make a weakness irrelevant two ways. You can get “good enough.” You don’t have to turn your weakness into an area of high performance. Just get good enough and devote other time to developing your strengths and doing your job.
You can also make your weakness irrelevant by getting someone else to do it. That might be outsourcing. If you’re a member of a work team, ask another team member if they can handle the area of weakness for you. You can reciprocate.
If you’re growing plants, climate makes a difference. If you’re growing people, context makes a difference.
If you want to be as productive and successful as possible, find a context where you’re likely to succeed. Look for places that have values like yours. Look for places where they appreciate the kind of good work you do. Look for places that offer growth opportunities.
This Is Not One and Done
You don’t want to stay in the same position all your life. You want variety, growth, and greater success. That’s why the process of sorting out strengths and weaknesses in context is never done.
Look at where you are today. Think about where you would like to be next. What strengths do you want to use?
Focus your development around building on your strengths. Look for opportunities that offer you a context where you’re likely to thrive. That context might be in the organization where you are now, but a different position. That context might be in a totally new situation.
Build on your strengths. Make developing your strengths the core of your personal growth plan. Evaluate every situation in terms of how best to use your strengths and how to make your weaknesses irrelevant. Be on the lookout for contexts where you can thrive. Avoid the places that make you less effective.