Know your strengths and learn to like your weaknesses

Human beings are complex. We don’t understand our strengths. We never receive any proper help in identifying them. Let alone to speak them out loud. We view weaknesses as dark spots on our personalities that are best left hidden. Here is my model on how to look at yourself – and others – which is both forgiving and useful.

Growing up, I believed old age automagically infused us with wisdom. In my teens, my mother started working at a retirement centre for retired tearaways (Swedish: pensionerade värstingar). Ah, the stories! I learnt we behave in all sorts of ways as we grow older, which can be both troublesome and filled with dark sense of humor. Even though we do change, the bigger problem in my view is that we don’t give much thought about how we can improve our strengths and weaknesses – our ”pluses and minuses.” We run around blindly and end up in situations with a vague understanding of both ourselves and what a new job might need. There are ways to grow your self. You don’t have to wait until the years have passed.

We have strengths and weaknesses. Understand and handle them both. Remember to place them in the right context for best result.

We have strengths and weaknesses. Understand and handle them both. Remember to place them in the right context for best result.

We tend to view our personalities as fixed with limited ability to change. I argue that we cannot avoid evolving. Our only option is to understand and try to improve both the pluses and minuses. Moreover, and maybe more important, we need to find a context where this matter. You might be awesome, but if nobody cares, it doesn’t matter how good you are.

The Pluses

On many occasions, I have helped people recognising their strengths. As a consultant manager, I typically analysed my team member’s CVs to improve their sales pitch. I would look for the short list of ”what I sell” on their first page. As an exercise, I would ask them for the three to five keywords that defined their strengths as seen from a potential customer.

It turns out, it is difficult to name those strong sides that we do own. We have never received any training, and we don’t dare to ask around. I do recommend the latter though. You are probably going to be positively surprised when you ask some trusted colleagues.

Exercise 1: Talk to a couple of close colleagues. Ask them for your ”top three strengths. Check your CV: Can you find them on the first page?”

The guys in my teams (yup, usually all-male teams) could think of several good words. That’s not hard, but picking just the few that describes you is a lot more difficult. In my experience, only a (very) few arrived at two keywords.

Exercise 2: Form your own top 3-5 words that define ”what you bring to the table”. Show them to a different colleague and get their feedback. Probably you need to redo your CV.

Have you tried the exercises above? Good. By now you should have a small(er) set of value words that feel good and sharpens your professional edge. You understand your core strengths better. Moreover, you have solicited the help of others. Being out of your comfort zone didn’t feel too bad, did it?

At this point, it could be tempting to compare your strengths to people you know and respect. Chances are some of your pluses pale in comparison. Try to resist that urge. Remember this is about you and how to make you the best you. There are always people more intelligent, more beautiful and more friendly than you (and me). I say: Let them buy the next round of drinks and be content with that level of revenge.

It is not only the level of your strengths that are important. The combination of different positives makes you unique. Say you’re a decent programmer, an adequate team lead, a modest speaker, and you listen to your colleagues. None of the skills are excellent by themselves, but the combination of them makes you outstanding.

The Minuses

You have spent thousands of hours honing your core skills. Adding another day’s worth of sweat will not break new grounds or up your levels. You should still do it, but it’s continuous investment so these fortitudes do not slip.

Weaknesses are usually best left forgotten. Right? Wrong. Since these are flaws, you don’t like to parade them. Chances are you haven’t spent much time on them at all. Adding just a couple of hours ’upgrading’ should have a dramatic upswing. The more you suck, the better the effect!

Exercise 3: Ask the near and dear for their advice. What should you improve? Arrange the minuses from small to tough-to-fix. Take the easiest and just do something, whatever, to alleviate it. Rejoice! And repeat.

I’ve talked a lot with my family about this aspect of improving weaknesses. Recently my 13-year old son Bix coined the ”10 hour rule”. He had figured out the actual number to rectify a ‘light’1 flaw.

  • If you spend ten hours, then it will make you better. A single hour doesn’t help, he assured me. So I watch ten hours of YouTube, he continued.

True that. Thanks Bix.

My second son Felix told me that he got beat in chess in 7th grade. His number to get even was 20 hours of chess intros on Youtube. After binge-watching, he went back to school and beat everyone including those two years his senior. Oh, and that includes humiliating me.

Exercise 4: Find a ’good’ weakness. Practice or learn about it for ten hours – not just a single hour. You now officially suck less.

Find the one or two most ’easy’ minuses that you can improve. Think of the smallest step you can take to address them. Can you make that change rewarding? Now you’re on an active path to a better version of yourself. Keep going.

I view weaknesses in a different light than most. I don’t like them at all, but improving them is gratifying and usually cheap.

The context

By now, you should have some kind of understanding of your strengths. You view and handle your weaknesses in a better way. The next step is critical to get the most out of you.
You need to find the context – job or whatever – that is the better fit for you. When you thrive, your company (or marriage or child or…) will benefit. We tend to forget this vital part when we only look inward and examine our abilities.

A colleague of mine was not highly regarded by management. She was typically sent on single person assignments which weren’t sought after by the other programmers. Management didn’t think bad of her. She just was “medium” in their eyes. Always cheerful, she would toil away and not complain much. As chance sometime does, she was put on an in-house project for one of our big customers. After a while, the other programmers would go over to her desk for help or clarification. She had become the goto-person, and even the customer noticed. For the next project, they specifically asked for her. Both she, the project and her bank account were happy.

Exercise 5: Take your plus and minuses. Map them to your context – job, marriage whatever. What does (not) match? Start improving your context, one facet at a time. If all fails, you might have to switch context.

Let us take a more far-reaching example. Many years ago, I noticed that some of my fellow programmers displayed a combination of traits that I found intriguing. They were bad at spelling and at the same time had an intuitive knack for coding. Their solutions seemed to come from some lateral thinking that slipped me by. It turned out they were dyslexic. Why this odd combination?

I hypothesised that they had to use other types of problem-solving for reading and writing. I believed this somehow affected their thinking when coding. More than a dozen years later, I found a doctoral dissertation where they performed intelligence test on dyslexic youths2. The levels for reading and writing were below average, as expected. But, to my joy, the study found the equivalent or higher ability for problem-solving!

Could it be that my dyslexic colleagues, by chance or choice, had chosen a field where spelling matters less? Remember, a programmer usually writes two characters and hits cmd-space to select a word from the menu. Given the context of the code, the choices are few and easy.

Whenever I find that a programmer has consistent spelling errors, I err on the positive side. I expect to see more creative solutions.

Finally; I used the word forgiving at the start. I subscribe to ’growth mindset’3, as opposed to a fixed mindset (your abilities are there from birth and do not change). I believe that it is possible to improve yourself. We all have flaws. We only need to decide to try do something about them. It might not be easy, but it does work.

  1. Obviously this 10-hour rule just doesn’t work for some bigger weaknesses. Choose wisely among the lighter ones. Check out Mike Boyd’s “Learn Quick” https://www.youtube.com/user/microboyd
  2. Ingesson, S. G. (2007). Growing up with Dyslexia: Cognitive and Psychosocial Impact, and Salutogenic Factors. Department of Psychology, Lund University, Sweden, 2007https://www.spsm.se/globalassets/funktionsnedsattning/avhandlingar/growing-up-with-dyslexia-ingesson-gunnel.pdf
  3. Basically, we can change. See Carol Dweck and Growth Mindset: https://www.ted.com/talks/carol_dweck_the_power_of_believing_that_you_can_improve?language=sv

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