Most of us have a poor sense of our talents and strengths, yet are acutely aware of our weaknesses and flaws.
Throughout the education system and subsequent careers, there’s often been much more attention paid to how to improve and fix our shortcomings rather than enhance our strengths. “Most Americans do not know what their strengths are. When you ask them, they look at you with a blank stare, or they respond in terms of subject knowledge, which is the wrong answer.” —Peter Drucker, management expert.
Parents, teachers, and managers are well versed in spotting deficits. In fact, most people — partners and spouses included — consider it their duty to point out our weaknesses in the hope of helping us improve. As a result, most of us have become experts in our weaknesses and spend our lives either trying to fix these flaws or accept them as permanent character defects.
Consequently, our strengths lie dormant and neglected. The research, however, is clear: we grow and develop by focusing on our strengths, rather than trying to correct faults. Over the last decade, coaching and leadership professionals have been placing greater emphasis on developing personal strengths. The goal is to help individuals work with what they have and build on their natural talents. Large corporations like Wells Fargo, Intel, Best Buy, Toyota, and Yahoo now require that employees take surveys measuring talents and strengths. Their CEOs recognize that company success depends on leveraging what already works instead of trying to fix what’s broken.
A Gallup poll investigated this phenomenon by asking Americans, French, British, Canadian, Japanese, and Chinese people of all ages and backgrounds this question: “Which do you think will help you improve the most: knowing your strengths or knowing your weaknesses?”
The majority of people don’t think that the secret to improvement lies in a deep understanding of their strengths. The most strengths-focused culture is the United States, but still only a minority of people–41 percent–felt that knowing their strengths would help them improve the most. The least strengths-focused cultures are Japan and China. Only 24 percent believe that the key to success lies in their strengths. Interestingly, in every culture older people (55 and above) were the least fixated on their weaknesses. Perhaps they’ve acquired more self-acceptance and realize the futility of trying to be what they are not.
A Focus on Faults
Why do so many people waste time trying to fix themselves and others? Weaknesses are fascinating and strangely mesmerizing, like watching characters in soap operas and on reality TV shows. The attraction lies in the fact we deeply fear our weaknesses, our failures, and even our authentic selves. The human brain is wired to pay attention to fear and danger. However, if you do not investigate your strengths you will miss out on becoming who you are really meant to be.
Strengths vs. Weaknesses
Often a strength can be a weakness, and vice versa, a weakness can be a strength. Here are some characteristics to watch for in yourself and in the people you work with. (Sources: Peter Urs Bender’s Guide to Strengths and Weaknesses of Personality Types, & Brinkman, Rick, and Kirschner, Rick (2002), Dealing with People You Can’t Stand: How to Bring Out the Best in People at Their Worst, 2nd ed. McGraw-Hill.)
- Do you recognize yourself as fitting into any of these general personality types?
- Can you identify your strengths?
- Are you able to see how they can also turn into weaknesses?
The Courage to Use Your Strengths
Most of us take our talents for granted. They are so embedded in us, we aren’t aware of them. We assume everyone else is just as capable. This way of thinking excludes developing and becoming stronger and more brilliant. You can’t develop what you don’t recognize. “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure…We ask ourselves, `Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous?’ Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small doesn’t serve the world.” —Marianne Williamson, spiritual teacher
The first step for self-improvement is to identify your strengths. WorKuno.com offers a free online strengths test, and the book StrengthsFinder2.0 includes the Gallup assessment. Several excellent books can walk you through the self-assessment process:
- Now, Discover Your Strengths by Marcus Buckingham and Donald Clifton (Free Press, 2001)
- StrengthsFinder 2.0 by Tom Rath (Gallup Press, 2007)
- Go Put Your Strengths to Work: 6 Powerful Steps to Outstanding Performance by Marcus Buckingham (Free Press, 2007)
- Strengths-Based Leadership: Great Leaders, Teams and Why People Follow by Tom Rath and Barry Conchie (Gallup Press, 2013)
Once your five top strengths are identified, you can examine how they manifest in your life. It may be easier to develop your strengths by working with a professional coach. A coach can help you to identify your talents and strengths and then work on expanding them, putting them into deliberate practice with action steps.
Discovering your strengths is the path toward personal improvement and success. When you pay attention to your deficits and try to overcome them, you over-emphasize your weaknesses. You wind up living a second-rate version of someone else’s life rather than a world-class version of your own.