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Should We Maximize Our Strengths or Minimize Our Weaknesses?

Strategies and goals

If you were to carefully interview 1.7 million workers to figure out how people became successful, what do you think you would learn? This is exactly what the Gallup group (best known for their polls) did over 25 years. What they came up with from this massive research effort was a catalog of personal strengths and a rich understanding of how successful people use those strengths.

Strengths psychology
The Gallup research is part of a relatively recent branch of psychology known as “Strengths Psychology.” For many years, psychology as a field has been primarily directed toward identifying and fixing problems–phobias, anxieties, fixations, and so on. Strengths psychology (and other varieties of what has come to be called “positive psychology”) is much less interested in people for whom things are going wrong than in people for whom things are going right. The Gallup group identified 34 personal strengths amounting to general strategies for getting things done that can be successful in many situations. Some examples are mentoring others, competitiveness, and putting things in context of what has happened before. In the Gallup book Now, Discover Your Strengths and the follow-up Strengthsfinder 2.0, they offer a test for determining a person’s greatest strengths, concentrating on an individual’s top 5. The idea is that everyone has a small set of strategies that work best for them, strategies they adopted early in life and have used for many things since then. Knowing what strengths we have–and what strengths we don’t have–gives us an opportunity to choose tools we already know how to use to get things done.

A related strengths system called “Strengths and Virtues” offers 24 strengths that have much in common in some ways with the Gallup system. I hope to be able to talk about this system in more depth soon.

Increase strengths or fix weaknesses?
Significantly, Gallup’s investigation into individual success resoundingly supports the idea that really successful people are ones who make the most of the strengths they have instead of trying to compensate for weaknesses. There’s a limitation to this, which is that if any weakness is actively dragging a person down (for instance, if a person is so non-competitive that they are scared away from trying to succeed whenever they see someone else trying to do the same thing), it’s important to work on those until they are no longer creating serious problems. But apart from that, the recommended approach is that it’s completely unnecessary to try to do everything well, that some things are better delegated or left alone or done in a different way.

For example, let’s say you’re put in a situation where you’re expected to schmooze with a lot of people at a networking function–but you don’t like schmoozing and aren’t good at it. If you have strengths instead in areas like communication or coming up with novel ideas, you might find other ways to connect, for instance by coming up with an interesting freebie that advertises your business and that you can give out at the function, or by giving a talk rather than circulating.

In the end, each of us has specific strengths and resources to bring to bear. By looking at our tasks and challenges in the light of our strengths, we can steer more of our efforts into the areas where we’re most effective.

Photo by stttijn

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True or False? There’s Only One Way to Succeed

Strategies and goals

This past weekend I went to a half-marathon to cheer on some friends who were running seven mile relays in it. This was my first experience of a running event like this, and spending some time at the halfway point and some time at the end, I was struck by what I saw in the runners’ faces, attitudes, and running styles: everyone was running the same course, going the same distance in the same weather over the same terrain on the same day … and yet everyone was running a different race.

Some people crossed the finish line looking like they could go forever, like they wouldn’t at all mind turning around and running the whole thing over again just for kicks. Others crossed the line looking like they had spent everything they had and then some, staggering to a bleary-eyed halt as soon as they crossed the line. Some ran smiling, some complaining, and probably some swearing. When they got applause crossing the finish line, some lit up with happiness while others looked like they didn’t even notice. Even among the people I knew who were running, there was a lot of variation: one had been training for a year, another for only a few months, and another used to run more seriously but hadn’t trained lately at all. Among those who ran the complete half-marathon, there was a 10-year-old and a 64-year-0ld, people whose fitness was worthy of Greek statuary and people who were substantially overweight, robust people and skinny people and everything in between.

There is no single way to succeed, and anyone who tells us differently is selling something.

When I think about it, I realize the same is true of book contracts among writers I’ve met. My friend Lee worked hard at writing adult fiction for years (and has seen more and more success from it lately), but her first book sold was an overwhelmingly fun children’s book that came to her more or less in a flash. Orson Scott Card started writing with plays and Mormon journalism, eventually finding his way to much wider success with the science fiction he wrote on the side. Stephen King worked at whatever jobs he could find and submitted story after story to rejection after rejection until he began to see real success. And so on.

For anything we might be trying to accomplish, it’s likely someone else has already accomplished it, and odds are that they’ve accomplished it through different means, at a different age, under different circumstances, with different skills. Research in strengths psychology (for instance, see the book Strengthsfinder 2.0) offers convincing support for the idea that there are many different strengths a person can have, and that different people with different sets of strengths can achieve similar goals if they each leverage their own particular way of getting things done.

Photo (of a different half-marathon than the one I watched) by KhE 龙

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