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Business Journal

Are You Afraid of Your Weaknesses?

by Gallup

Obstacles to building your strengths (part 1), originally excerpted from Now, Discover Your Strengths

Although now out of print, Now, Discover Your Strengths launched a worldwide strengths revolution. Since the book's release in 2001, Gallup has continued to dedicate countless hours to developing our strengths science, the brainchild of the late Don Clifton, the Father of Strengths Psychology. Part of that investment resulted in a refined upgrade of the original assessment for discovering your strengths that you can now find in StrengthsFinder 2.0.

Aside from the policies of your organization, there is one obstacle barring your progress: Your own reluctance.

This probably sounds strange. Why would anyone be reluctant to build on their strengths? The truth is that many people are reluctant. Many people don't concern themselves with the intricacies of their strengths; instead, they choose to devote their time and energy to investigating their weaknesses. We know this because we asked them this question: "Which do you think will help you improve the most: knowing your strengths or knowing your weaknesses?"

Whether we asked the question of the American population, the British, the French, the Canadian, the Japanese, or the Chinese, whether the people were young or old, rich or poor, highly educated or less so, the answer was always the same: weaknesses, not strengths, deserve the most attention. Admittedly, we did discover quite a wide range of responses to this question. The most strengths-focused culture is the United States, with 41 percent of the population saying that knowing their strengths will help them improve the most. The least strengths-focused cultures are Japan and China. Only 24 percent believe that the key to success lies in their strengths. However, despite the range, this general conclusion holds true: The majority of the world's population doesn't think that the secret to improvement lies in a deep understanding of their strengths. (Interestingly, in every culture the group least fixated on their weaknesses was the oldest group, those fifty-five years old and above. A little older, a little wiser, this group has probably acquired a measure of self-acceptance and realized the futility of trying to paper over the persistent cracks in their personality.)

Of all the research we conducted for this book, these discoveries were perhaps the most surprising. They require an explanation. Why do so many people avoid focusing on their strengths? Why do weaknesses prove so mesmerizing? Unless we face up to these questions and resolve them now, your efforts to build your strengths might peter out before they have had a chance to gain momentum.

There are as many reasons as there are people to concoct them, but all these reasons seem to stem from the same three basic fears: fear of weaknesses, fear of failure, and, fear of one's true self.

Fear of weaknesses
For many of us our fear of our weaknesses seems to overshadow our confidence in our strengths. To use an analogy, if life is a game of cards and each of us has been dealt our hand of strengths and weaknesses, most of us assume that our weaknesses trump our strengths.

For example, if we excel at selling but struggle with strategy, it is our difficulty with strategy that gets the attention because an inability to think strategically will surely hurt us somewhere down the line, won't it? If we build trusting relationships with ease but falter when it comes to making presentations, we sign up for the ubiquitous public speaking class because public speaking is a prerequisite for success, isn't it? Whatever the weakness, whatever the strength, the strength is just a strength -- to be admired and then simply assumed -- but the weakness, ah, the weakness is an "area of opportunity."

This fixation with weakness is deeply rooted in our education and upbringing. We presented parents with this scenario: Say your child returns home with the following grades: an A in English, an A in social studies, a C in biology, and an F in algebra. Which of these grades would you spend the most time discussing with your son or daughter? Seventy-seven percent of parents chose to focus on the F in algebra, only six percent on the A in English, and an even more minuscule number, one percent, on the A in social studies. Obviously, the algebra grade requires some attention because to progress in school and secure a place at a college or university, the child cannot afford to fail a subject. But the question was phrased quite carefully: Which of these grades would you spend the most time discussing with your son or daughter? Despite the demands of today's education system, does the most time really deserve to be invested in the child's weakness?

This weakness orientation persists in the fields of research and academia. In a recent speech to his professional colleagues, Martin Seligman, past president of the American Psychological Association, reported that he had found over forty thousand studies on depression but only forty on the subject of joy, happiness, or fulfillment. As with the algebra example, the point here is not that depression should not be studied. Depression is a deadening disease, and those who suffer from it need all the help that science can offer them. (In fact, as a result of science's passionate focus on mental illness during the last half century, treatments for fourteen distinct mental illnesses have been discovered.) The point is that our balance is off. Our perspective is so skewed toward weakness and illness that we know precious little about strength and health. In Martin Seligman's words, "Psychology is half-baked, literally half-baked. We have baked the part about mental illness. We have baked the part about repair and damage. But the other side is unbaked. The side of strengths, the side of what we are good at, the side . . . of what makes life worth living."

Each of us has weaknesses, of course. Activities that are effortless for some may be frustratingly difficult for us. And if these weaknesses interfere with our strengths, we need to develop strategies to manage around them . . .. To clear our skewed perspective, however, we must remember that casting a critical eye on our weaknesses and working hard to manage them, while sometimes necessary, will only help us prevent failure. It will not help us reach excellence. What Seligman is saying -- and what many of the excellent performers we interviewed are telling us -- is that you will reach excellence only by understanding and cultivating your strengths.

Back in the 1930s, Carl Jung, the eminent thinker and psychologist, put it this way: Criticism has "the power to do good when there is something that must be destroyed, dissolved or reduced, but [it is] capable only of harm when there is something to be built."

Next week: Are you haunted by a fear of failure?


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