We tend to use the categories ‘strengths’ and ‘weaknesses’ very easily. And I think they can be valuable: it can be useful to recognise that we do some things well, and that we have major problems with one or more areas of our lives.
There is a stream of thinking too about playing to our strengths instead of working on our weaknesses that I find very attractive. My preference is for a life of quiet ease rather than noisy struggle – yes, I’m an introvert.
All this means that the division into ‘strengths and weaknesses’ can be useful and helpful. However, I also have some problems with it.
1. Says who? Is being poor a weakness? It may be for me – it certainly means I can’t do some things right now that I would like to, but would Gandhi, or Mother Teresa or Jean Vanier agree? What is seen as a strength or a weakness can be a value judgement of which we are unaware.
2. What if we don’t enjoy our strengths? A friend of my partner was a brilliant cello player, studied at music college, got a job in an orchestra, and then left to study art because that is what she really wanted to do. My best subject in high school was economics and I have gladly never looked at another economics book – to me it most assuredly was ‘the dismal science’.
3. What if we never will be any good at what we do enjoy? Many people pursue painting knowing they will never be one of the greats (or even as good as they want to be). Does this mean it is not a strength or that this makes the pursuit a waste of time?
4. What if success isn’t the criteria? Speaking of strengths and weaknesses often means criterion is joy? Or fun? Or sacrifice in a noble cause? Or preserving the tradition we are inducted into as a sacred trust?
I don’t think that success is always the criteria, but I think it frequently is.
5. What if we change the perspective? A personal example [skip to the next paragraph if you aren’t interested in blogging and my struggles with it]. Blogs are meant to be narrowly focused. Thinks make good sense: People usually go online looking for something very specific; type something general into google, like, “How can I be healthy?” and the billions of hits that result aren’t going to be much use. So focusing on all aspects of health is seen as a weakness for this blog. (So, why do I do it? I’d just feel bored and hemmed in if I had to stick to just one topic.) What if I change my perspective? Perhaps the general is a specialisation of its own! Perhaps if I’m interested in the general there are other people interested in it too (how to let them know I exist is another story). Perhaps the general could stand out among all those focused on something specific. Perhaps it is my approach that is different. Perhaps the generality can be a strength in some way – or some aspect I haven’t even thought of could be a strength.
6. Sometimes working on our weaknesses can pay off. I felt quite socially inept in my adolescence and early adulthood (and suspect I still am). As a way of dealing with this I worked hard on listening. I got lots better at listening and can now, usually, pretty easily understand where someone is coming from. It probably means that I am somewhat less socially inept but the depth that listening has added to my relationships is a far larger benefit.
7. Sometimes we need to work on our weaknesses to achieve what we care about. You may be a very shy person who wants to get publicity for the cause you believe in – and so you may need to find a way to do public speaking. Your shyness is a weakness as far as getting the word out goes – and you learn to cope with it; you may never become terribly comfortable with public speaking but you learn to do it (and perhaps to do it well) anyway. Sometimes our strengths, values and passion(s) don’t coincide.
My guess is that ‘playing to our strengths’ is good advice most of the time, and a good rule of thumb. Especially when most of us have suffered schooling – where the focus was on our weaknesses (as measured by someone else’s standard); an emphasis on our strengths can be a helpful corrective and positively liberating.
Sometimes though, we are playing to our strengths and being successful and we are still not satisfied. In this case I think it is worth asking a couple of questions: 1) Is success what will satisfy me? and, 2) Do I need to look again at how I see my ‘strengths’ and ‘weaknesses’?
Perhaps you’ve had times when you have had to develop a weakness or have found it much better to play to your strengths. Perhaps talking about strengths and weaknesses doesn’t make any sense to you. I’d like to hear from you about your experience of your ‘strengths’ and ‘weaknesses’. Please leave any comments that you wish.
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That Which Doesn’t Kill Us . . . Can Leave Us Maimed
Would you like to feel less stressed?
Could you do with more joy in your life?
The answer is living authentically. Buy the book or sign up for the course now from my Living Authentically website.
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