Moving Forward: Focus on your strengths

If you want to attain excellence, you must study and learn from success.

trombone 311 (photo credit: Carl Juste/Miami Herald/MCT)
trombone 311
(photo credit: Carl Juste/Miami Herald/MCT)
Which do you think will help you improve the most – knowing your strengths or knowing your weaknesses? This question was asked of American, European and Asian people. They were young and old, rich and poor, highly educated and less, and the answer was always the same. Weaknesses, not strengths, deserve the most attention.
Marcus Buckingham in his book Now Discover Your Strengths claims that excellence is not the opposite of failure, and that you will learn little about excellence by studying failure. If you want to improve and attain excellence, you must study and learn from success, because all we learn from mistakes are characteristics of mistakes.
Therefore we need to focus on strengths.
The focus on strengths has a significant impact on success in organization and business.
Great organizations position and develop each employee’s natural talents to develop strengths.
The Gallup organization asked the following question of 198,000 people in 7,980 businesses of global companies: “At work do you have the opportunity to do what you do best every day?” When employees answered yes, they were 50 percent more likely to have lower turnover and higher customer satisfaction and be 40% more productive. Unfortunately, only 20% of employees felt their strengths were utilized daily.
A strength is an activity you are able to do very well on a consistent basis. You derive intrinsic satisfaction from the activity and it is something you can see yourself doing repeatedly, happily and successfully. Strengths are defined by people who are achievers, analytical, communicators, empathizers, restorers and strategic.
According to Buckingham, strengths start with God-given talents. Talents are your recurring patterns of thought, feeling or behavior that come to you naturally. Developing these talents to strengths means adding skills and knowledge from lessons learned.
An example of a talent is to be drawn toward strangers and to enjoy the challenge of making a connection with them. Then the ability to build a network of supporters who know you and are prepared to help you is a strength. To build this strength, you have perfected your innate talent with skills and knowledge.
You identify your greatest potential strength by stepping back and watching yourself. Try an activity to see how quickly you pick it up, and how quickly you skip steps in the learning process. See whether you become absorbed in the activity to such an extent that you lose track of time. On the other hand, if you are doing something and can’t wait to be “over with it,” you can be assured it is not a strength or talent.
“The same man cannot be skilled in everything; each man has his special excellence” – Euripides.
BILL GATES had a tremendous strength, or even genius, at taking innovations and transforming them into user-friendly applications. On the other hand, his ability to maintain a business and build it into a global power in the face of global market challenges was a weakness. Therefore, he hired Steve Ballmer to be his COO.
Focusing on weaknesses has been a habit we have learned from childhood. A common example happens when a child returns home with a report card. The Gallup organization set up a scenario in which a child had grades of A in English, A in social studies, C in biology and F in algebra. It then asked parents which of these grades would you spend the most time discussing with your son or daughter – 71% of parents chose to focus on the F in algebra; only 6% on the A in English.
If our weaknesses interfere with our strengths, we need to develop strategies to manage around them. Yet, we must remember that casting a critical eye on our weaknesses and working hard to manage them will only help us prevent failure.
It will not help us reach excellence. Improving in algebra will not lead to excellence in English.
From this point of view, to avoid your strengths and focus on your weaknesses isn’t a sign of humility, it is a sign of being irresponsible.
The most responsible way of being true to yourself and the most honorable thing to do is face up to the strength potential inherent in your talents, then find ways to realize it.
Although you have undoubtedly experienced some moment of success and fulfillment in your life, the secret to a successful, happy life lies in being able to replicate these moments time and again. The difference between someone whose performance is acceptable and someone whose performance is consistently near perfect is very slight. The near perfect performer is rarely dong something dramatically different. It happens because he is so involved and motivated to repeatedly do the activity he enjoys that he invests extra time. The extra time and practice, coupled with his natural talent, lead to excellence and success.
In the world of work, the difference between the struggling salesperson and the great one might be just three extra calls made each day or two more signals picked up during a presentation.
No matter what your profession, the secret to consistent near-perfect performance lies in these kinds of subtle refinements.
While the pursuit of strengths seems so positive, fear holds us back. This can be fear of weakness, of failure or of who we are to the world.
You may not believe that your true self is much to write home about. Despite your achievements, you wonder whether you are as talented as everyone thinks you are. You are likely to take your strengths for granted. Since we live with them every day and they come so easily to us, they cease to be precious and we are surprised when others can’t do them as easily.
Bruce is a good example. He won one of America’s most prestigious awards for teachers. He was brilliant at creating a caring environment for learning. One of his strongest talents was empathy. This enabled him to pick up on the feelings of each student and make each one feel heard and understood. When it was explained to him how wonderful a trait that was, he was confused. “Doesn’t everyone do that?” he asked.
Bruce had fallen into a trap that catches so many of us. He couldn’t help but spot the clues that revealed each student’s emotional state. And because he couldn’t help it, he didn’t value it. It was easy and so it was mundane, commonplace and obvious. “Doesn’t everybody do that?” Another major fear is the feeling of inadequacy and of failing. For many of us, it can be too threatening to put all our energies into one strength and then find out we are rejected or not good enough. That is one reason why the process of developing strengths should be gradual.
It is a recurring process that includes a continuous cycle of steps to act, learn, refine and act, learn, refine again. Being successful means identifying our strengths, listening for performance feedback from the outside world and then being bold and going ahead.
“To be what we are, and to become what we are capable of becoming, is the only end of life” – Baruch Spinoza.
Dr Mann is a Jerusalem based clinical psychologist and certified life coach who helps teenagers, adults and executives achieve positive goals.