From a young age, we are taught to strive, to work harder and be better. Everything from Disney movies to the “American Dream” reinforces the idea that, “if you dream it, you can achieve it” as long as you are willing to work for it.
But how realistic is this?
Can we really always get what we want if we just invest a little more time and put in the elbow grease to make it happen?
You may have heard that if you work to improve your weaker areas, you can be successful and accomplish your goals. This weakness-fixing perspective is prevalent among many cultures, especially those that encourage a strong work-ethic and self-discipline to get a job done. Based on this mindset, many people blame their failures on a lack of personal effort, claiming that if they just had worked a little harder, they could have been successful. And this mindset is only reinforced when we are given negative feedback at our jobs or criticised for the things we’ve done poorly in our relationships and families.
Now contrast this mentality with a strengths-building perspective. According to a survey of over two million people (1), Gallup researchers discovered that while weakness-fixing can prevent failure, it is strengths-building that actually leads to success in the short and long-term. They claim that while you can develop certain skills through hard work, there are some that naturally come easier based on your personal strengths.
Working from a position of weakness while striving to be at your best is like signing your name with your non-dominant hand. It’s unnatural, messy, and often frustrating or even stress-inducing. Yet, so often we continue to pour our time and energy into these areas of weakness just to improve a little bit. However, the resources at our disposal – time, energy, money, etc. – are finite and we can only do so much to improve before we get burnt out or frustrated.
It doesn’t help that most of us are told from a young age that we need to develop our skills to be “well-rounded.” Sadly, this often results in us forcing ourselves to try and perfect things where our natural talent does not lie. Alex Linely, the Director of the Centre for Applied Positive Psychology, labels the phenomenon of trying to perform well in almost every area of life the “Curse of Mediocrity” (2). When you’re trying to be good in everything, you are great in nothing. It’s like the popular saying, “Jack of all trades, master of none.”
If you’re still a little skeptical of all of this, you’re not alone. It’s natural for most people to take a problem-focused approach to life, spending their time, energy, and money fixing the things that aren’t right, instead of maximising the things that are. And in many cultures, focusing on your strengths may be perceived as arrogant or self-focused. Below are some reasons we don’t naturally look at our strengths (3):
- We are not always aware of our strengths.
- Even when we are, we often don’t get feedback on our strengths.
- We are encouraged to be humble based on social norms.
- We may not have opportunities to use our strengths.
- The problems we face are too pressing or require an urgent response that doesn’t allow us time to develop or apply our strengths.
- We feel that our areas for weakness are our best potential for growth.
But is this where we get the biggest bang for our buck? Both research and personal experience shows that it’s our strengths, not our weaknesses, that bring us the biggest returns. You can tell you are working from a position of strength by the burst of energy you gain from the activity. Just like working from areas of weakness, going against your strengths is uncomfortable and requires a huge investment of energy. Imagine the radical changes you could make just by shifting your attention away from concentrating on fixing your weaknesses and instead investing that same energy into developing areas of potential strength to achieve personal mastery. Now that’s mind-blowing!
Consider what it would be like to position yourself to work from your strengths and do what you do best everyday. How would this impact your performance?
Research also shows that people who use their strengths more embody the following qualities (4):
- They are happier
- They are more confident
- The have higher levels of self-esteem
- The have higher levels of energy and vitality
- They experience less stress
- The are more resilient
- They are more likely to achieve their goals
- The perform better and are more engaged at work
- They are more effective at developing themselves and growing as individuals
These qualities arguably are beneficial to enhancing your performance and overall life satisfaction. It is also important to share that adopting a strengths-based approach to your work and life doesn’t mean that you give up on improving your weaknesses entirely. In fact, ignoring your weaknesses is a huge liability in the work of improving your strengths because these are the areas that will continually trip you up as you strive to move forward.
Rather, a strengths-building approach helps us make conscious choices about where we want to invest our energy to get the results we desire. Remember, it’s all about personal choice and the actions that follow. And while it might be tempting to work on improving your weaker areas – remember that working on your weaknesses may keep you from losing – but maximising your strengths will always help you win!
1. Buckingham, M. & Clifton, D. O. (2001). Now, discover your strengths. New York: The Free Press.
2. Linley, A. (2008). Average to A+: realizing strengths in yourself and others. Coventry, UK: CAPP Press.
3. Biswas-Diener, R. (2010). Practicing positive psychology coaching: Assessment, activities, and strategies for success. Hoboken, New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.
4. Linley, A., Willars, J., & Biswas-Diener, R. (2010). The strengths book: Be confident, be successfully, and enjoy better relationships by realising the best of you. Coventry, UK: CAPP Press.