Each of us has our own set of strengths and weaknesses but we never take the time to figure out what they are. Even if you did would you know what to do with the information?
You’ve probably heard that you need to identify weaknesses so you can fix them. After all, if you’re already strong in an area there’s no need to hone that skill, right? You should focus on your weaknesses so people don’t point and laugh at you when you try to…do whatever it is you’re weak at. Right?
That’s what most people think, but I’ve found this approach to be a recipe for mediocrity.
Becoming World Class
People who become world class at something begin with a strength in that area.
Tiger Woods had some kind of pre-disposition to be a decent golfer. Paul McCartney had some kind of innate musical talent before he picked up a guitar, Yo-Yo Ma was likely a tiny bit better playing stringed instruments than his classmates, and Albert Einstein had something unique about his brain chemistry before he ever thought about the cosmos.
But these strengths take time to develop. To become world-class (or to take it one step beyond and re-define that term in your field) you have to invest thousands of hours of focused practice into that strength. This is known in psychology as the ten thousand hour rule, and Malcolm Gladwell ruined it for the rest of us by beating this idea to death in his book Outliers.
But the idea is that you need something on the order of 10,000 hours of focused practice to master something like the cello, golf, songwriting, or theoretical physics.
Perhaps Paul McCartney is particularly deficient in the skills needed to properly operate a motor vehicle. I don’t know this to be true, let’s just suppose for the sake of argument.
Suppose that when Sir Paul was young that instead of spending hour upon hour playing music that he had instead focused on learning the skills necessary to drive a car. He practiced steering, using the gas pedal, shifting, etc… all with the hope of becoming a Formula One driver.
He would have become a better driver, but it’s almost certain that he would never have become world class at an activity where he has a particular weakness.
Instead of becoming one of the best known singer/songwriters of all time he would have become a second rate driver.
By focusing on something where he already had an innate strength (or innate passion) he was able to become one of the best of all time. And the same story can be applied to Woods, Einstein, and Yo-Yo Ma.
Football vs. Track
One more example and then I’ll get back to talking about software and entrepreneurship.
In high school I played football because that’s what the popular kids did, but I wasn’t well suited for it. I worked my butt of at becoming a good football player. Every Saturday my dad would take me and my brother down to a park to run routes, practice diving, do speed drills…things that none of my teammates were doing on the weekends.
And I got better. But I was never, and could never have been, great. The skills required for football were particularly lacking in me, and although I was able to improve through literally hundreds of hours of practice, I was never as good as the best receivers in the league.
The track was another story. With my height I was well-suited for the long hurdles and winning races became almost second nature. I worked at it, but the improvements were dramatic as I invested time into running.
I excelled at it from the start and ended up setting a school record, winning the league, and going to the state championships. A far cry from my mediocre performance on the gridiron.
I’ve always wondered how much better I could have been on the track had I never played football, and instead invested that time into becoming a better runner.
Now Back to Software
Let’s translate this to being a software developer / entrepreneur.
Most people have no idea about their strengths and weaknesses. So that’s the first step – learning what they are.
And secondly, when most people find out they have a weakness they want to improve it.
“Oh my gosh, I’m a terrible public speaker…I need to become better at it!”
But this is the polar opposite, 180 degrees off, wrong way to approach it.
Instead, figure out your strengths and re-configure your career to amplify and build on them. Avoid any position that requires a lot of public speaking, but instead take that job (or start your own company) where you do a lot of solo coding (if that’s what you’re good at). Some people excel at not needing social interaction and being extremely productive on their own.
After struggling for years, wondering why I was unhappy at most of my jobs I came to realize that they were pushing me to improve upon my weaknesses. After a few years of introspection I decided to change my career path and became a Micropreneur. Micropreneurship fits well with my strengths and has lead to more career happiness than I’ve experienced in years.
Now Back to You
Most people, and developers in particular, are unhappy with their jobs. And I conjecture that much of that is because you’re doing something that requires you to utilize one or more weaknesses, and at the same time not taking advantage of your strengths.
If you’re not a good public speaker and you don’t enjoy it, don’t take a position in management where you have to present to executives every month.
If you’re not a good writer and don’t enjoy it, don’t start a blog.
It’s not only more productive to capitalize on your strengths, it’s way more fun. You’re good at it from the start; better than most, in fact. So you will experience a lot of victory in that area. This will mean the activity will be enjoyable from the start.
So what can you do? Spend $13 to buy StrengthsFinder 2.0 (or any other book that helps you find your strengths – this one isn’t magic; it just happens to be the one I’ve used). For a more fact-based justification of this entire approach read the pre-cursor to StrengthsFinder called Now, Discover Your Strengths.
Take the test and figure out your strengths.
Consider making a change in your career path.
It may mean you need to change jobs. You may need to do something rash like start a startup or start building apps on the side and become a Micropreneur. Or you may be amazingly lucky and your current situation is already making you extremely happy (and ask yourself if it’s because it’s amplifying your strengths so you know how to find this optimal situation in the future should things change).
But whatever you do, don’t focus on improving a weakness. I’ve been there. It doesn’t end well.