National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation is an iconic holiday movie. Most people I know can quote many of the movie's lines, but one particular scene always piques my interest.
Clark has spent days putting up thousands of lights and decorations on and around his home. Though at times frustrated with the pace, you can see he enjoys the work. With the project finally complete and "Oh, Come All Ye Faithful" playing in the background, Clark embraces each of his family members as they stand outside the house and gaze lovingly at 25,000 incandescent lights. As Clark wishes a "Merry Christmas" to his father-in-law, Art simply states, "The little lights are not twinkling." All of the enthusiasm drains from Clark's face as he replies, "I know, Dad, and thanks for noticing." Of all the lights burning brightly, his father-in-law can only point out the lights that are not working.
While this scene brings smiles and laughter to many of us, there is a lesson to be learned here. How many times do we point out what is not working in a person's life? In our lives? Rather than begin a conversation about what is right with someone, we immediately point out the "little lights that are not twinkling" instead of the "25,000 bright lights" that are.
Don Clifton told a story of a family having breakfast. The table is full of delicious food just waiting to be consumed. As the family begins to eat, the little boy spills his milk and you can see milk snake all over the table. The first thing the father says is, "Do you know what you have done? You have spilled your milk." The mother then says to the little boy, "Do you know what you have done? You have spilled your milk." Finally, big sister chimes in and says, "Do you know what you have done? You have spilled your milk." When telling the story, Don would give the audience a few seconds to think and laugh at this scene. Then Don would say, "By the way, when the milk was spilled, WHO KNEW IT FIRST … the little boy!"
Most of us have been reminded all of our lives about our shortcomings, and that we should "fix" our weaknesses. This feedback not only comes from others -- it can also come from within.
In the April 2016 edition of Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, psychologists Andre Mata and Andreas Steimer discuss their findings on the motivation of strengths and weaknesses. Across six studies, the authors found that individuals perceive their weaknesses as more malleable than their strengths. The research also found that most people believe their strengths will be constant into the future but expect their weaknesses to improve.
Psychologists who study "false hope syndrome" find that, in general, people are overconfident about their ability to change and thus set unrealistic goals. This makes me think about the many individuals who allow their strengths to lie dormant while spending a lifetime trying to improve their weaknesses.
Dr. Martin Seligman, past president of the American Psychological Association and a founder of the Positive Psychology Movement, investigated what was later termed "learned helplessness." This is the belief that humans have no control over their lives and there is essentially nothing they can do about it.
I wonder how many people feel this way, in part because they are constantly told to fix their weaknesses instead of soaring with their natural strengths. Because of his studies into learned helplessness, Seligman began to research what he later coined "learned optimism" -- the belief that humans can control many aspects of their lives, such as joy and happiness.
I am not advocating ignoring weakness if it gets in the way of your relationships and productivity. Attending a class, seminar or some other means of improving is the right thing to do. However, spending too much valuable time and energy attempting to bring weaknesses up to the level of your strengths potential will be frustrating. Gallup research shows that successful individuals focus most of their time on their strengths, not their weaknesses. Focusing primarily on weakness is like shoveling sand against the tide: You expend a lot of energy with minimal positive results.
Most of us know what we are not good at or what is not working in our lives. We know when the "little lights are not twinkling" or when we have "spilled the milk." Strengths coaches help turn the conversation around by pointing out what is bright and what is right about our clients.
We turn the conversation from weakness-fixing to strengths-building and use CliftonStrengths as the foundation to help move individuals from "learned helplessness" to "learned optimism." Great strengths coaches help clients look to a brighter future by focusing on their talent, then help turn that talent into strengths around performance.
While it may not be a subscription to the Jelly of the Month Club, strengths-building is a gift that keeps on giving the whole year.