We’re taught from a young age that we can be great at anything if we put our minds to it. When paired with the pressure surrounding the college admissions process, this thinking leads many families to spend far too much time focusing on what they perceive as the student’s weaknesses. The highest grade on a report card barely catches the eye as a parent is instinctively drawn to the lowest grade. Students abandon activities they enjoy just because they aren’t excelling in a way they believe will resonate on a college application. And the test-preparation industry is the commercial giant that it is not because higher scores make kids smarter, but because lower scores are deemed an imperfection that can be polished with enough time and money.
This thinking often doesn’t stop once teens become adults. How many working professionals have been in a performance review where your boss spends the first 5 minutes reviewing your successes and the remainder of the hour strategizing about how to improve or otherwise change you? Those interactions might be well intentioned. It certainly makes sense to think that defining areas of improvement is predicated on pointing out flaws.
But it’s all predicated on this idea that the best people are well-rounded, that the key to reaching your potential is just to keep addressing weaknesses until you’re good at everything. And that thinking is woefully misguided.
Lesson #30 of my final 31 posts: Your strengths are your best opportunities.
Early in my career at Collegewise, I discovered Marcus Buckingham’s groundbreaking research as part of the Gallup Organization. And his findings can fundamentally impact your potential, success, and personal fulfillment.
Buckingham’s work focuses on three overarching principles:
1. We can’t all be good at everything no matter how determined we may be. But every one of us has unique strengths where we can be great.
2. Our strengths actually improve more with effort than our weaknesses do.
3. If you want to discover your potential, focus less on improving your weaknesses and more on maximizing your strengths.
Buckingham isn’t arguing that we should all ignore our weaknesses entirely or abandon any notion of self-improvement. Failing biology could impact a student’s chances of graduating from high school, much less getting accepted to college. If you’re a terrible listener, you could damage your relationships with the people you care about most. A refusal to address those weaknesses carries a heavy and potentially long-term price that you’d likely rather not pay. So by all means, let the improvement begin. But it might also be worth abandoning any notion that you’ll one day major in biology or become a family therapist. Why not redirect more sustained efforts into developing those areas where you already excel?
It’s important to make the distinction that a strength isn’t simply something you’re good at—it’s also something that energizes you. The fact that you’re really good at meeting and getting to know strangers isn’t a strength if those interactions exhaust you. But if you’re consistently drawn to talk to people you don’t know, you enjoy your time doing it, and you can’t wait to do it again when you’re done, you’ve got yourself a strength. What a wonderful opportunity to consider how you could bring even more of that out to help you become your best, most successful and fulfilled self.
For 20 years, we’ve embraced this notion of strengths at Collegewise. We encourage our students to do more of what they love and to spend less time polishing perceived imperfections. We hire employees who already have the necessary strengths to thrive in their intended role, leaving our training to fill in the gaps of knowledge that don’t rely on innate talents. When we assign people to projects, or conduct performance reviews, or consider someone’s potential for a new role, we start by looking at those areas where they already excel, the parts of their work that they seem to love doing most and consistently do very well. In return, they get to do what they do best every day. They constantly feel the thrill of progressing towards mastery. And we have some of the most engaged, successful employees in our industry.
We should all be defining ourselves by who we are rather than who we’re not. Acknowledge that your weaknesses exist. Manage around them when they get in your way and negatively impact your work or life. But please don’t spend your life fixing, polishing, or otherwise trying to change who you are in pursuit of being well-rounded. Well-rounded is average. Well-rounded is unexceptional. Direct more time into developing your strengths. You’ll bring out more of the very best in yourself. And that’s the surest way to stand out.