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Forget Your Weaknesses

By Adrian Furnham

We all have strengths and...developmental opportunities. The politically correct, counseling, self-esteem police banned the concept of "weaknesses" years ago. So you have strengths and things you can turn into strengths.

And, we were told, through training and therapy, learning and feedback, that we could abolish our weaknesses and turn them into strengths. So adults who never mastered math in school could, through courses called "Financial management for non-financial managers," understand balance sheets. Near Asperger's Syndrome, IT people could become highly emotionally intelligent and all of us could easily become creative.

So we rejoiced in our strengths and put effort into our weaknesses. If we were lucky and senior and young enough, we might have the resources of the organization behind us. Expensive business school courses, personal coaches and job-enrichment experiences could turn us into anything we wanted.

Despite the fact that it is glaringly obvious, few admit that individuals don't change much after their mid 20s. After that, what you see is what you get. You are not going to get any taller or any brighter. Have you ever seen a course called "Become More Intelligent"?

Yes, trauma, intense training, perhaps therapy can lead to some change, but the cost is high. So, is it worth all that effort, trying to learn things and do things you don't like or are not good at?

The emergence of positive psychology has changed the emphasis on personal weakness. Rather than accept our strengths and work on our weaknesses, we should put our efforts first into finding our strengths and then, exclusively, playing to them.

Perhaps we are more aware of our weaknesses than our strengths. Formal schooling certainly exposes us to a variety of exercises that really test our metal. The lobby, the library and the science lab as well as the gym give us ample opportunity to find out what we can and cannot do.

Children and some teachers can be cruel. They pick on you if you fall outside the rather narrow norms. If you are a different shape or color to most, you are teased. Worse, you may have a disability, however small—a mild stutter, a facial tick, a squint. You have to endure those "Sturm und Drang" teenage years acutely conscious of all your inadequacies from poor skin to tone deafness.

The question is: what to do about your weaknesses in adulthood? It largely depends on what they are. Some are clearly much more debilitating than others. And, of course, you might be wrong about them in the first place.

So what are your options?

  1. Hide them: Some people expend massive time, money and psychological effort in hiding their self-perceived weaknesses. They effectively become phobic, avoiding all possible situations that may possibly reveal them. It can be a high cost indeed, a life sentence, possibly based on a small defect.
  2. Ignore them: This is a lesser form of denial. It's about pretence. There are stories about blind people who behave as if they are sighted. Of the lame who think nothing about a long walk. The strategy is that rather English-minded approach, "Let's not talk about it or go there." Pretend you don't have weaknesses.
  3. Accept them: Acceptance is not only about realization but about reality checks. We all have weaknesses for many different reasons; biological, social, moral. We are dealt a hand in life; the die is cast. So be it. This is what we have and we should try our best to get on with it.
  4. Work on them: This is what coaches, therapists and trainees told you to do. Go to courses, learn skills, you can do it. So the stutterer becomes a public speaker; the cripple an athlete, the illiterate a poet. See weaknesses as a challenge to be overcome: to focus energies, to invest time and effort.
  5. Expose them: One way of coping is to let them all hang out: to expose your problems, issues, disabilities to the world. You "come out" as being different, or deprived or whatever. The philosophy is: Don't waste energy in hiding or disguising how you are weak—accept, reveal and move on.
  6. Rejoice in them: This is the most extreme version of dealing with weaknesses. This is about seeing your difference as a strength. By not having, paradoxically, you have more: by being different, you are unique.

After a SWOT analysis (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats), business managers are encouraged to put their resources behind their strengths and to withdraw from markets where they cannot compete (weaknesses). As in business, so in life: play to your strengths and put energy into minimizing weaknesses only so that they do not hinder your progress. To do otherwise is pointless—weaknesses are expensive and difficult to change; the same resources put behind your areas of strengths pay much greater dividends. So find out what you are good at, and stick to it. But discovering your strengths? Now, that's a different story.

Adrian Furnham  is Professor of Psychology at University College London.


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