One of the great challenges in life is to determine how much energy to devote to our weaknesses. All of us are bundles of strengths and weaknesses that are exposed in countless situations. I have read two books recently that have me thinking more about this topic.
It may seem odd to consider the fact that we devote “energy” to our weaknesses, but we live in an age where we are told that correcting our weaknesses is a matter of effort and self-discipline. This ethos is brilliantly captured and juxtaposed against the life stories of great historical figures in David Brooks’ new book The Road to Character. He describes how we focus far more effort cultivating our resume virtues than we do our eulogy virtues. In past ages, weaknesses were an accepted outcome of our “crooked timber”, a phrase inspired by Kant (“Out of the crooked timber of humanity no straight thing was ever made”). They were a manifestation of man’s innate sinfulness, an accepted fact of life meant to be hidden behind barriers, such as the manners of Victorian society.
Brooks points out that we now live in the age of “the Big Me”, where we have grown up surrounded by messages of empowerment and countless numbers of self-help books.
I also recently completed Brian Grazer and Charles Fishman’s interesting book, A Curious Mind. The book is about the importance curiosity has played in Brian’s legendary movie producing career and his life-long practice of conducting “curiosity conversations” with interesting people from all walks of life. In the book, the authors relate how Sam Walton would conduct his famous Saturday meetings where employees were asked to stand up and talk about any visits they made to competitors’ stores that week. From the book:
Walton had strict rules for this part of the meeting: participants were only allowed to talk about what competitors were doing right. They were only allowed to discuss things they’d seen that were smart and well executed. Walton was basically curious about why customer would want to shop anywhere besides Wal-Mart. He didn’t care what his competitors were doing wrong – that couldn’t hurt him.
I know that I’m perpetuating a common problem when anything is written about humans, which is the tendency to reduce the complex into simple dualities (strength/weakness, good/evil, smart/dumb, aggressive/passive, etc), but I’ve been taken for some years with this idea that our weaknesses occupy too much of our energies.
One of the blessings of living today is that we have an ability to “shape” our jobs and lives in ways that weren’t possible before. If you were a peasant in the Middle Ages or a factory worker in the Industrial Age, you were not invited to invest your own ideas into what you did. Your job was to weed the field or assemble your piece of an automobile – nothing more or less.
The story of Sam Walton shows us how this plays out in competitive strategy, where he wasn’t focusing on his competitors’ weaknesses (a common way for us to approach competitive strategy), but on their strengths as a means for greater insight into his own market.
My sense is that in the age of self-help and the “you can do it if you try” zeitgeist we are led down a path of focusing too much energy on correcting our weaknesses rather than shaping our lives to suit our strengths. In the past I have written about StrengthsFinder, a simple survey you can take to identify your greatest strengths and – most importantly – consider how to look for situations where you can apply those for the greatest impact. If you haven’t taken gone through the StrengthsFinder, I recommend getting the book, which includes a code for your web-administered survey. You’ll likely find the results interesting.
Sure it’s good to try to improve our weaknesses, but if you’re prone to procrastination it is likely to be a life-long problem, and there becomes a time where your undivided effort to improve merely distracts you from cultivating that which could set you apart from those around you.
If you can figure this out for your own life, I think good things are in store. While others are devoting energy to their weaknesses, you will be shaping work to suit your strengths. While others are centered in a scarcity mentality, you will be centered in an abundance mentality.