Strengths and Weaknesses

I just finished reading First, Break All the Rules, and it has been a real eye-opener.

I used to struggle to answer the question, “What are your strengths and weaknesses?”

In school, I was expected to do well in every subject, and I always succeeded in graduating with a very high GPA, having taken a variety of courses. I was “well-rounded,” exhibiting above-average performance across the board. I approached new challenges, physical and intellectual, head-on. I prided myself on learning—and excelling at—new skills, whether I truly enjoyed them or not. At job performance review time, I was careful to describe development and training plans by which to strengthen areas in which I seemed to lag my peers.

I believed that other people could also learn and excel at new skills, with the proper carrot and the proper stick. I did learn early on (the hard way) not to change people who didn’t want change. I never took delight in forcing a square peg into a round hole. I accepted and found reasons to appreciate people the way they were. But if I sensed a modicum of desire for change, I was ready to provide help, guidance, and motivation along with my own time, skills and expertise. It never occurred to me to ask, “Although this person is open to change, is it wrong to allow it, much less encourage it? Is it worth my time to help them change?” I never seriously asked such questions, never seriously considered that a person may just be wrong for a role he wants. This seemed an affront against the infinite potential of human beings. This suggested it might be better to fire people than to train them. And as for teachers or managers who resisted helping me to change, I resented them for not believing in my own potential.

As a result, I tried to train other people to overcome their weaknesses, and trained to improve myself wherever I lagged my peers. This is not so bad except that, as the book points out, it distracted me from putting the strengths of other people to productive use and from developing my own strengths. Consequently, it became less clear what my strengths and weaknesses were.

As I entered into various adult relationships—husband, manager, parent, even pet-owner—I began to question the “infinite potential” assumption about other people and about myself. I wanted to encourage my children as I had been encouraged, by telling them, “You can do anything!” but I realized it set them up for failure to say, “You can do everything!” It seemed a sacrilege and an admission of failure to say, “He’ll never change; that’s just the way he is.” But when circumstances left me no choice but to accept such absolutes about people, I discovered that the results were not so bad. I sought changes elsewhere, and found that these were easier and more natural. Eventually, everybody was happier.

(Perhaps Albert Einstein had a similar experience when he allowed that the speed of light might never change no matter who observes it. Other assumptions about mass, space, and time had to change, but eventually, everybody was happier with the predictive power of the theory of relativity. This is not to compare my IQ with that of the greatest mind of the 20th century, but only to draw some inspiration and validation from one of his achievements.)

First, Break All the Rules also challenges the “infinite potential” assumption, questioning whether it is a good idea for people to change or be changed. It says to stop obsessing over weaknesses and to invest in understanding, exercising and developing strengths. It facilitates this investment by presenting a novel definition of “talents.” The book says that great managers define talents as “recurring patterns of thought, feeling, or behavior that can be put to productive use.” I would never have defined talents in this way. My definition would be something like “exceptional abilities and competencies exhibited by people with relatively ordinary training and experience,” but it is still an interesting and useful definition.

So, if you’ll pardon the introspection, I’ll spend the next couple of posts discussing my own talents.

Tags: Business, Philosophy, Reading

Updated at: 8 July 2007 12:07 AM