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Work on Your Strengths, Not Your Weaknesses

Why it's more important to develop your strengths than improve on your weaknesses

By Jessica Greene · May 9, 2019
how-to-find-your-strengths primary img

Think of something you want to improve about yourself. How would you categorize the thing you chose: Is it a strength or a weakness?

In all likelihood, you chose a weakness. A study from 2016 found that we tend to see weaknesses as more changeable than strengths—which means we're more inclined to try to improve where we're weak. But various studies have shown that when we focus on developing our strengths, we grow faster than when trying to improve our weaknesses. Plus, people who use their strengths are happier, less stressed, and more confident.

So if you're finding that you're consistently failing or falling short on the goals you've set for yourself, it may be time to consider trying to improve where you're already strong rather than focusing your efforts on getting better in the areas where you're weak.

A Growth Mindset for Your Strengths

small plant growing in concrete

When someone says "focus on your strengths," it's easy to read that as "just do what you're good at and you won't need to improve." But that's what Stanford professor and researcher Carol Dweck calls a fixed mindset: Believing that your talents are innate gifts.

That's opposed to Dweck's growth mindset: Believing that your talents can be developed.

Dweck argues that both strengths and weaknesses can be improved, and she says that people with a growth mindset "tend to achieve more than those with a fixed mindset because they put more energy into learning." In other words, people who believe they can improve put more effort into improving, which, in turn, helps them improve.

So to grow professionally and personally, it's not enough to identify your strengths and use them. You also need to believe that those strengths can be improved.

How to Find Your Strengths

The first step in growing your strengths is identifying them, and that can be a tricky task. Weaknesses are obvious. You're asked to give a speech, but you feel miserable with anxiety anticipating it. Or you're asked to document a process, but you always did poorly in your writing classes in school, so the blank page mocks you.

Weaknesses often carry vivid reminders of some past suffering. Exercising your strengths, on the other hand, tends to feel more like moving through day-to-day life. That can make it hard to identify what it is you're really good at.

If you're not sure what your strengths are, here are some ways to identify them.

Pay attention

research writing award

"Pay attention" may seem like generic advice, but we sometimes ignore signs of our strengths because we're so invested in improving our weaknesses.

For example, in college, I wanted to become a creative writer. Every year, the cluster of colleges in my area ran a writing contest for students of local universities. And every year, I entered something in every category: fiction, poetry, creative nonfiction, and research.

I only entered something in the research category because I wrote so many research papers. It seemed silly not to enter since winning came with a small cash prize. But year after year, I won in the research category—not the creative categories. And year after year, it upset me. I didn't want to win in the research category. I wanted to be a creative writer.

Life was telling me that I was a talented research writer, but because I wanted to excel as a creative writer, I ignored the advice.

Here's another, more subtle example. In an annual review, a former boss told me: "You need to speak up more in meetings. Sometimes, I can tell you want to say something, but you seem hesitant to jump in. When you do jump in, you have great ideas. I'd like for you to speak up and share your ideas more often."

It was a criticism, and at first, I took it that way. I've never been the type of person who was comfortable interrupting tense group conversations. But when I took a step back and thought about the conversation some more, I realized there was a strength buried within the criticism: I have good ideas. If there was a place where I could share my ideas (strength) without the expectation that I'd have to scream them louder than others (weakness), I might thrive.

Sometimes you have to look at things a little deeper to find your strengths. Unexpected praise for something you didn't put much effort into could be a sign. So could a compliment buried within a criticism. If people talk your ear off, you might be a good listener. If people consistently come to you for advice, you might be a good leader or problem-solver.

Life has a way of showing you your strengths if you pay attention.

Think about how different activities make you feel

In his book Go Put Your Strengths to Work, Marcus Buckingham says we often identify our strengths and weaknesses in the wrong way. We think of strengths as things we're good at and weaknesses as things we're bad at.

But a better way to think of strengths and weaknesses, Buckingham argues, is to figure out what energizes us. Strengths make us feel strong; weaknesses make us feel weak. So, he says, one way to identify your strengths is to think about how activities make you feel. Something is a strength if:

  • It makes you feel successful.

  • You're drawn to it, even if you don't know why.

  • It fully engages you; when doing it, you often find yourself in a flow state.

  • After doing the activity, you feel energized, fulfilled, and powerful.

In his book, Buckingham gives the example of a man who, as a young boy, showed incredible talent as a swimmer. His mom noticed his talent and got him on the swim team. He was on the swim team for many years and won lots of awards, but he hated it. So in high school, he quit the swim team and started pursuing something that energized him instead: making music.

It's definitely possible to be good at something you hate doing, but that's not the type of strength you necessarily want to improve. Instead, think of the things that energize and excite you—even if you don't excel at them yet. Those may be the strengths you set out to develop and grow.

Crowdsource it

It may be hard to see your own strengths, but the people in your life probably see them quite clearly. Ask your friends, family members, boss, coworkers, or a mentor to tell you what they think your strengths are. Some people may be uncomfortable responding, and that's okay. Others may respond in a way that's unhelpful (my mom says I'm good at everything). That's okay too.

The goal is to identify things that you wouldn't have thought of on your own—or to find patterns.

Then, consider the responses: Do any of the strengths people reported make you feel excited and energized when you exercise them? If so, those may be the strengths you want to grow.

Take a strengths or personality test

CliftonStrengths results

Another option is to take a test designed specifically to identify strengths. Gallup's CliftonStrengths test is a popular option that's used by both individuals and companies. You can take the test and see where you land on all of the 34 possible strengths the test measures for $49.99, or you can pay a little less—$19.99—to uncover your top five strengths.

For a free option, you can take the HIGH5 test. It asks 100 questions, each showing you a statement. You weigh in using a scale from strongly disagree to strongly agree as to how well the statement describes you. When you're finished, you get a brief report listing your top five strengths, each with a short description.

HIGH5 personality test results

Then, if you want more detailed information, you can download a more comprehensive report for $29 after you've completed the test.

Finally, strengths tests and personality tests share a lot of the same qualities. If you don't find what you're looking for after taking a strengths test, consider taking the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator ($49.95).

In addition to providing information about your personality, your results will tell you some jobs that are often compelling to people who share your personality type, which could help you brainstorm some possible strengths.

MBTI career recommendations

Create a list of your accomplishments

In The Introvert's Complete Career Guide, Jane Finkle recommends an exercise where you think of your proudest accomplishments to identify your interests, skills, and values. But the exercise is also a way to identify your strengths.

Think back over all of the accomplishments you're proud of. It could be something like getting a promotion, getting a book published, or even teaching yourself how to change the alternator in your car. Think about accomplishments that energized you—they don't necessarily have to be things you'd include on a resume—and try to narrow down your list to only three.

Then, look at those accomplishments and try to determine what each says about you. For example, my favorite accomplishments are:

  • Getting published in a national poetry anthology when I was in middle school.

  • Teaching myself how to use Photoshop so I could get a job as a marketing manager.

  • Getting my master's degree while working full-time and raising a young child.

If I look at those three things together, creativity comes across as a theme. Love of writing does as well if you consider that I was studying English in graduate school. It's also clear that I like learning and that I'm dedicated to doing the work that's required to get what I want.

Any of the insights you gather by looking at your proudest accomplishments side-by-side could be your strengths, particularly if those strengths match up with what others told you your strengths were or the results of one of the tests recommended above.

How to Develop and Grow Your Strengths

After you've identified your strengths, the next step is creating a plan for how you'll grow those strengths.

If the strengths you found were things you haven't focused on before but uncovered through the exercises above, your first step may be as simple as starting to learn more about your newfound strength. You can start with something simple like taking a class or reading online tutorials. Then, move forward from there.

It's more difficult to figure out how to grow your strengths when you've been actively using them for a while. You may feel like you're already proficient and there's no more room for growth.

But there's always room for growth. Here are some ideas to consider.

Think about constructive criticism you've received

Two emails written to Jessica, the author, about how her writing is too formal

You can be really good at something without being an expert in every part of it. For example, my greatest strength is writing, but for a long time, I received the same criticism from my editors: "Your writing is excellent, but it's a little too formal."

To improve my strength, I spent a few hours every week for several months reading authors whose writing was less formal. I analyzed their styles and sentence structures and tried to work some of those concepts into my own writing. And while I still wouldn't call my writing style informal, it's less formal enough that I haven't heard that criticism in a long time.

If you can't think of where you need to improve on your own, ask the people you work with for feedback. People are usually more open to providing constructive criticism when they know you're looking for ways to improve.

Develop a related skill

If you're truly an expert at what you do, another option is to develop related skills.

For example, if you're an excellent blogger, you could turn your attention to learning related fields like SEO, videography, or graphic design. If you're a talented developer, you could learn project management to build your leadership skills. Learn something that will make you better at your core strength, even if that secondary skill never becomes a main area of focus for you.

When developing complementary skills, it also helps to consider your long-term goals. What skills will you need to get the job you want to have five years from now?

One way to figure this out is to browse the LinkedIn profiles of people who have jobs you'd like to have in the future. See what skills they have that you don't. You might even consider asking those people to talk with you about the skills that they thought were the most helpful in growing their careers.

Use your strengths

In Go Put Your Strengths to Work, Buckingham notes that only 17 percent of people say that they spend most of their time at work playing to their strengths. While you might not be able to go to your boss and create your own role that's solely focused on your strengths, Buckingham suggests the following:

  • "Push the people at work toward your strengths and away from your weaknesses."

  • "Push for more training around your strengths."

  • "Push for inclusion on teams or projects that could really use your strengths."

  • "Push to spend time with colleagues who share one of your strengths and are even more adept than you at applying it."

At the beginning of every week, he says, think about ways you can use your strengths a little more than you did the previous week. By doing so, you can grow the percentage of time you spend on your strengths at work gradually over time.

After all, the more you use your strengths at work, the more people will recognize you for those strengths—and they may even start coming to you anytime there's a need for someone with your unique skill set.

Teach someone else

Mentor and mentee at a table

There's a concept in pedagogy known as the "protégé effect": People learn the material better when they have to teach what they've learned to others.

Several research studies have found out why: People who expect to have to explain what they've learned do a better job of organizing their knowledge and recalling it. Plus, as they teach, they "identify knots and gaps in their own thinking."

Consider hiring an intern or taking on a mentee. By walking someone inexperienced through something you know inside and out, you may uncover things you don't know as well as you thought you did, things that you could improve upon, or new ways to do things you thought you perfected long ago.

In itself, focusing on developing your strengths can help you accomplish more. At Mindset Works, an organization focused on studying Dweck's growth mindset, researchers performed an experiment on students who were performing poorly in school. They split the students into two groups: One group learned about the stages of memory, while the other group was taught about the growth mindset.

After the experiment, the students in the group that learned about the growth mindset were more motivated and put in more effort, and their grades improved. On the other hand, the grades of the students who learned about memory continued to decline.

So if you've made it all the way to the end of this piece, you've already taken your first step toward growth.

Related reading:

  • How to Start Doing a Thing When You Really, Really Don't Want To

  • The Decision Matrix: Make Better Decisions With This Spreadsheet Template

  • Reach Any Goal This Year with a Spreadsheet, a Calendar, and the SMART System

  • Master Your Time: 5 Daily Scheduling Methods to Bring More Focus to Your Day

  • Cognitive Bias: How Your Mind Plays Tricks on You and How to Overcome That at Work

Plant image by Stanislav Kondratiev via Unspalsh. Teaching image by NeONBRAND via Unspalsh.

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