Why You Should Design Around Weakness (Rather than Fix Them)

Tip #2: Design your life to "Race Your Strengths" – Part 2 of 3 

IDEA IN BRIEF:

Most people are familiar the idea of "playing to your strengths" as a guideline for a more successful life. However, we are so inculcated from birth to fix our weaknesses, that it becomes instinctual - particularly under pressure - to resort to this mode. Despite rationally acknowledging the notion of focusing on natural talents, most people fail to make the kinds of changes in their lives to truly live in, and through, their native strengths. There are some obvious reasons for this: Challenge 1) in order to design and live a life designed for your strengths, you not only have to know what they are. But, Challenge 2) you also have to know what your weaknesses are and quit or delegate doing those things. Finally Challenge 3), the incentives and benefits for living a life immersed in your strengths are not clear enough for most people to make the changes required. 

 Let's explore each of these challenges in order: 

Challenge 1: Know (and accept) the specific nature of your strengths (last post)

Challenge 2: Know (and accept) your weaknesses  - then quit or delegate themI believe that most driven, successful people are facing down a collective adult neurosis. This neurosis is the erroneous continuation of important programming received as children that becomes limiting to adults: the unwillingness to quit. To paraphrase Scott Adams (author of Dilbert) persistence is awesome, until it is stupidAdmitting and accepting weaknesses, and then actually quitting those activities is anathema to our beliefs, our pride, and our culture. We are wired to tough it out, to never quit, never give in. There exists a special kind of vertigo to stand at the precipice of failure and let go and accept. But, in order to spread your wings and fly you first have to become airborne.

I believe that this unwillingness to admit weaknesses and refusal to quit trying to overcome insurmountable obstacles leads many men and women to lead "lives of quiet desperation," as Thoreau so elegantly described. 

I've written at length about "how to know when to quit" and the two year rule, but even if one rationally grasps the concept, we are hardwired to never give up, so, what to do? 

What to do: ascertain areas in your life that are sucking your willpower or appear to have plateaued. Then quit one at a time… (a small one at first.) Often we pursue things because, "we should." Obviously the "biggest quitter" would be a career (or a relationship). But smaller things might be time-consuming hobbies, activities, projects, committees etc. I think the story of Warren Buffett is a great example of a "should" that he quit. Warren, through his amazing investing skills had become one of the richest men in the world, but until recently, he had not done much in the way of "giving back" in terms of philanthropy and charitable work. In an interview on (CNN) Warren finally admitted his weakness and then in a brilliant move, gave his money to Bill and Melinda Gates to give away.  

“What can be more logical, in whatever you want done, than finding someone better equipped than you are to do it? Who wouldn't select Tiger Woods to take his place in a high-stakes golf game? That's how I feel about this decision about my money.” – Warren Buffet on giving his money to the Gates Foundation

When I first heard this story I started thinking if there were any "should's" I could quit. Suddenly it dawned on me. At the time I was the head coach for a local speed skating club, not because I was good at it or liked it (I was not and did not) but because "I should." The sport had given me so much and so many had volunteered their time for me,that I "should" want to be a coach and give back… Except I wasn't great at it and didn't like it. So I broke it down… I DID like skating with the kids, teaching them technique and relays… what I didn't like was writing a program each week, doing drills and most of all, all the yelling required to get 35 kids to line up and do the program. Quickly I discussed this with the club president and we agreed I would step down as the head coach and instead become an assistant technical coach and focus on what I liked and did best: skating with the kids and providing technical advice. The relief I felt was palpable - I didn't even realize how much guilt I was carrying for not "loving" being a coach… because "I should."

What "should's" can you quit/delegate? Here's a few I've quit and a few more to consider: I've quit: mowing the lawn, shoveling, driving to the airport (Thanks to Uber), driving to the city (Uber/train), my consulting job, and 2 significant long term relationships that had become toxic. Think about it - what can you quit that will allow you to spend more time living in your strengths. The PTA? A school or work or charitable committee? yard work, housecleaning? Snow shoveling, owning (and maintaining) a car? Owning and maintaining a second home – or even a first home? Magazine subscriptions, cable TV, social media accounts… what time-sucking “should’s” can YOU quit?

I'm not suggesting abdicating responsibility or shirking your duties or not having discipline, but what I am suggesting is that you make a purposeful investment of your social energy and willpower as they are depletable resources. If participating in the homeowners association or PTA or coaching little league is leaving you with less energy for your spouse or career or your kids, that may be a poor investment of time. 

  COMING NEXT: Challenge 3 - Does investing in strengths really pay off? 

Strengths are Specific: What are You Best At?

 

Tip #2: Design your life to "Race Your Strengths" - part 1

IDEA IN BRIEF:

Most people are familiar the idea of "playing to your strengths" as a guideline for a more successful life. However, we are so inculcated from birth to fix our weaknesses, that it becomes instinctual - particularly under pressure - to resort to this mode. Despite rationally acknowledging the notion of focusing on natural talents, most people fail to make the kinds of changes in their lives to truly live in, and through, their native strengths. There are some obvious reasons for this: Challenge 1) in order to design and live a life designed for your strengths, you not only have to know what they are. But, Challenge 2) you also have to know what your weaknesses are and quit or delegate doing those things. Finally Challenge 3), the incentives and benefits for living a life immersed in your strengths are not clear enough for most people to make the changes required. 

"IF YOU ARE OVER 25 AND STILL TRYING TO FIX YOUR WEAKNESSES, THAT SHIP HAS SAILED!" 

Let's explore each of these challenges in order: 

Challenge 1: Know (and accept) the specific nature of your strengthsI believe that most people wander through life stumbling into the first thing in which they have some interest or initial talent, and fail to discover the true artist, physicist, poet, mathematician, athlete or musician within. What a great loss to humanity! Our strengths, as it turns out, tend to be very specific. Let me share two strengths as an example: consider the talents of a) an athlete and b) a business person. In my case, I was described as "fast" in the first case, and the second as "a good communicator." 

Sure, I was "fast" as a child and I was pretty competitive in most sports at a young age. However, most sporting activities for young kids are of a very short duration, and as I got older, I began to notice that I was only "fast" in short events and I was pretty useless at any sport requiring hand-eye coordination. For example, in eighth grade I managed to play an entire season of basketball without scoring a point, and in high school I eventually quit the cross country running team after 2 years of suffering and mediocre performances. I was mystified at the time, but now it is clear - I'm not fast at everything - I'm only fast in short events. I am a sprinter.*

*One sad side note here is that many true endurance athletes may end up quitting sports before they have a chance to shine. Because they are naturally slower in the short-spurt gym events like basketball, baseball, soccer and track, these slow twitch athletes may conclude they are "bad at sports" before they've had a chance to run the mile, a 5K or participate in a triathlon. If your young child is "bad at sports" consider the possibility that they may be unstoppable endurance machines when it comes to longer events.

By high school I had the realization that I was sprinter and switched from cross country to track and field to run the 100m, 200m and long jump. However, even there I eventually determined that I was only regionally competitive, but, when it came to sports requiring intense bursts of power against resistance, I could compete at a national, even world class level. By my twenties I finally honed in on the specific nature my strengths starting from the initial generic label of "fast."

Here's the breakdown:

"Fast" -> as a sprinter -> against resistance - > in events requiring short bursts of immense power - > followed by short rests - > while balancing - > and traveling at high speeds - > in a pack of people trying to kill me 

That's a pretty specific strength. If I had stayed with the broad brush of "fast," I would most likely never have achieved any success in sports. In fact there are only a two sports that require the above unique combination: short track speed skating, and cycling - the two sports in which I have competed at the world championships. I'm pretty terrible at most other sports.

 

Now, using the same process, lets analyze the "good communicator" strength. This is another very generic description leading to a series of questions: A good communicator to whom? About what? Best with large groups? Medium sized groups? Small groups? Best with one-way "keynotes" or facilitating two way dialog? Best at taking complex information and making it simple? Or best at taking simple things and expressing the innate complexity? Best at storytelling? Or better at sharing data and analysis? Best with highly motivated groups of individuals? Or best at motivating people that need inspiration? Best one on one? More of a coach? More of a challenger? More of a listener? If you have been painted with the broad brush of "communicator" and you don't know the answers to these questions, then you cannot leverage your superpower to achieve breakthrough performance. 

Sadly I was in my forties before I truly figured out my career superstrength - I am a:

"Good communicator" -> to large audiences -> taking complex topics and simplifying them through metaphors - > and expressing them via storytelling -> to high achievers - >  seeking innovative ways to improve their lives.  

I only discovered this less than two years ago, when, on January 28, 2014, I gave my first paid keynote. Now, this is my full time job. I live in my strengths more than 90% of my day now.  

What to do: ascertain the highly specific nature of your strengths and design them into your life. How? Take tests and assessments. Ask others. Look at your weaknesses and identify their inverse - sometimes the best way to identify a hidden or latent strength is to look at the antonym of a weakness. As an athlete my weakness is low aerobic capability, low endurance, high production of lactic acid. This is a result of type 2b fast twitch muscles that fatigue quickly. The inverse is also my superpower - to generate massive power for short intervals, process the lactic acid produced and recover quickly. In business there are a number of great assessments - cognitive, personality, and conative. Take them, study them, find the patterns of "flow" in your life and thread them together. Here's a partial list of assessments with links: 

  • Kolbe (conative - measures drive) http://www.kolbe.com/
  • Myers Briggs (personality) http://www.myersbriggs.org/my-mbti-personality-type/
  • Strengthsfinder (personality/cognative)  http://strengths.gallup.com/default.aspx
  • ZTPI (temporal perspective - personality) http://www.thetimeparadox.com/zimbardo-time-perspective-inventory/
  • DISC (personality) http://discpersonalitytesting.com/free-disc-test/
  • LSI (personality - leadership) http://www.human-synergistics.com.au/Solutions/DevelopingIndividuals/LifeStylesInventoryIndividual.aspx
  • Enneagram (personality) https://www.enneagraminstitute.com/guide-to-all-riso-hudson-tests/
  • Authentic happiness (personality - happiness - multiple free tests) https://www.authentichappiness.sas.upenn.edu/testcenter
  • Insights Discovery (personality - work preferences) https://evaluator.insights.com/

 

COMING NEXT:  Challenge 2: Knowing (and accepting) your weaknesses  - then quitting or delegating them