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How to flex your strengths and deal with weaknesses

Reading Time: 9 minutes

Weakness. Most of us cringe inwardly even just hearing that word. We’ve been taught that weaknesses are something to be ashamed of, and there are plenty of people who seem to live by the belief that the truly great amongst us don’t have weaknesses. That’s about as far from the truth as we can get!

I have previously written about focusing on your strengths, not your weaknesses. I still wholeheartedly believe that playing to our strengths is a fantastic strategy. But I am also convinced that responding effectively to our weaknesses is something anyone can master.

In this post, I going to expand my thoughts on how you can get clarity about your key strengths and weaknesses, and then decide whether to flip, delegate or ignore your weaknesses.

Get clear on your strengths

In my earlier post, I suggested a couple of methods for discovering your strengths. I’m a firm believer in gathering independent data because I can almost guarantee that you have strengths you don’t realise. When we operate in our strengths, they feel so natural that we simply assume everyone else has them too.

I thoroughly recommend the free Via Character Strengths Survey (non-affiliate link). I have completed it five times since 2011. Several strengths show up consistently in my top-10: love of learning (5 times), perspective (5 times), hope (5 times), and curiosity (4 times). My top strength each time was either love of learning & curiosity.

What does this tell me about my strengths? That I:

  • love mastering new skills and knowledge, and go about this in a systematic way (love of learning)
  • can offer wise counsel to others and help them make sense of the world (perspective)
  • expect the best and work towards it, believing that a good future can be brought about by deliberate action (hope)
  • appreciate experiences for their own sake, take an interest in new topics and enjoy exploring and discovering (curiosity)

You can also ask friends, family and colleagues to tell you what they see as your strengths. It can feel really weird to ask people for this information, but most people are more than willing to tell you at least one thing that you do well. The longer you’ve known someone or worked with them, the more accurate their assessment is likely to be, because they will have seen you in a variety of situations over time. So, if they call out a strength that surprises you, take them at their word!

Validate the results

Once you’ve gathered your data, note your top 3-5 strengths. Then, write down how each strength shows up in your life, and how you invest in it. There are three primary ways we can “invest”: time, money, and energy (including the physical, mental, emotional & spiritual domains).

Three images: a clock, a piggy bank and a plasma ball, illustrating time, money and energy.
You’re likely to find your strengths where you invest your time, money and energy.

When I look at how I spend my time, money and energy (and where others tell me I excel), there is a significant overlap with the strengths identified in the Via survey.

Love of learning and curiosity: I read a lot of non-fiction books. And I often “fall down the rabbit hole” after discovering a new topic, reading many more books on the same subject. I invest time and energy in reading books and listening to audiobooks, and money in purchasing books. I’ve also invested time, energy and a lot of money undertaking formal study (such as my Masters degree and spending a month going to language school in Italy to improve my Italian).

Perspective: I speak several languages and have lived in three countries, feeding into how I make sense of the world. I regularly invest money, time and energy in travelling, practising the languages I speak, and connecting with people from different cultures and belief systems. A substantial portion of my work is involved in helping people make sense of the world in new ways that empower them to take action (merging perspective and hope).

Hope: I hold an undying belief that we can make a difference and achieve our dreams if we work for them. I invest my time and energy in making my dreams come true and achieving the goals I set for myself. And I encourage others to see that they have the power to do the same for themselves.

Flex your strengths

Now you know what they are, get busy with your strengths. Find ways to apply them to your current job and hobbies, and lean into them to build the kind of career or personal life that makes you happy.

Share them with people around you. Ask your boss to put you on a special project where you can work to your strengths. Volunteer them for a charity or sports club. Mentor someone in your workplace or at a local school.

Do anything you like that puts you in a position of flexing your strength – it will give you satisfaction, and will help others out at the same time.

A ballpoint pen resting on an open notebook, with three plants in the background

And now for the weaknesses

It is completely normal to feel “icky” about admitting to our weaknesses. In part, that’s because our culture is thoroughly committed to mocking and hating weakness. And we unconsciously carry that attitude into the way we think about ourselves and others. But it doesn’t have to be this way. The key here is to view these as things that are challenging for us, rather than personal or moral failings.

Most of us are all-too-aware of our weaknesses. They’re the things that trip us up on a regular basis, that leave us thinking “I wish I’d done X differently”, or that appear regularly on report cards and performance appraisals. But we don’t always openly acknowledge them – and what we aren’t clear about, we can’t work with.

Make a “relevant weaknesses” list

Lists are great at giving us clarity. So I suggest writing down 3-5 weaknesses that are relevant to your life right now. Please, do not be tempted to write down every single weakness, failing, and character flaw that you beat yourself up about, especially if the voice you hear it in is not your own – this is not an opportunity to rehash all the criticisms you’ve ever received! Stick only to the small handful of weaknesses that have a direct impact on you, your family and friends, colleagues, or dreams and goals.

You might ask for feedback from people who know you well, or that might not sit right. Do this exercise in whatever way seems best to you. You’ll need that list to make the most of what I share in the next section. I’ll share a couple of my weaknesses, and use these as examples for flipping, delegating and ignoring.

Where I confess my weaknesses

The report cards from my school years have a consistent theme: “this mark does not reflect Daria’s true potential – she would do much better if she applied herself fully”. I didn’t “apply myself fully” because I have a high craving for novelty. So I quickly completed whatever tasks were assigned, and then wanted to move onto something new and different (which always felt more interesting).

I also absolutely loathe following instructions that seem stupid or counter-productive (ask me about how I’m totally at peace with the time I got detention in high school for jumping across a piece of grass we weren’t allowed to walk on!). Eventually, I came to realise this is because I won’t engage if I don’t see the point. I really want to understand the meaning or purpose of an activity.

These weaknesses have the potential to derail my efforts if I’m not mindful about my approach, and how to accommodate them. I’ve come up with three ways to deal with my weaknesses: flip, delegate or ignore.

Flip, delegate or ignore your weaknesses

In my earlier post, I suggested the method of going neutral, not nuclear with areas of weakness. I still recommend that approach when it fits the situation. However, there are three additional ways to respond to weaknesses that crop up in our lives. These are to flip, delegate or ignore.

Flip

In the above section, I highlighted a couple of my potential weaknesses. I say “potential” because weaknesses can be strengths in disguise if we know how to flip them. I have been able to flip the two potential weaknesses above into strengths.

My high craving for novelty is linked to my curiosity and love of learning. I don’t want to be stuck with something if I’m not making progress. But I will bull-headedly stick with a skill or knowledge until I “get it”. I’ve applied this in my career by mastering knowledge and skills through reading, learning from people around me, and practising until I’ve nailed whatever it is I’m working on. Then I put my mastery together with my perspective to help others see new pathways to solve problems.

My sense of perspective and curiosity are linked to the way I won’t engage if I don’t see the point. It isn’t (always!) just senseless rebellion! I need to understand the meaning and purpose of what I am asked to do, and once I’ve got that (and it is aligned with my values), I’m 100% committed.

In the grass-jumping example above, my interpretation was that the rule was intended to keep us off the grass to avoid damaging it and turning it into a mud pit in winter. So, not touching the grass by jumping over it fulfilled what I understood as the intent. If the teacher had been able to make a decent argument for why it was wrong to jump over the grass, I would have accepted the detention with good grace. But all he did was repeat the rule, without explaining how ‘jumping over’ was equal to ‘walking on’. I went to that detention with a sense of injustice, because I didn’t see why I was being punished. (And I suppose the fact that I’m still telling the story more than two decades later suggests that I’m not quite over it yet!)

Delegate

Cartoon of a woman saying "Well, that takes care of the housework" while the house behind her is on fire.
That’s my kind of housework! Artist unknown (let me know if you have the source credit)

I hate housework. Like really, REALLY hate it. It’s a major weakness (no potential weakness here, this is an actual weakness that I have no intention to flip). Which means that when I do it, I have a tendency to be half-hearted (resulting in generations of dust bunnies under the bed). I now delegate it to wonderful people who gain satisfaction from cleaning and have made it their business. It’s a win-win.

I’m an enthusiastic advocate for delegating potential (or actual) weaknesses that would take too much time and energy to flip. Delegation doesn’t have to involve money. You could “swap” your weakness with someone who has a weakness in one of your strengths. I did this for years with a colleague – I would proof-read his letters, and he would help me see when I needed to take a firm stance on a personnel issue.

My high craving for novelty means I usually want to move on before I’ve properly finished a task. To help me with this, I set goals and write to-do lists to keep me on track. And for certain tasks, I ask a colleague who is great at finishing things to check my work. I know I’ll hear about it if I haven’t crossed all my t’s and dotted all my i’s!

A note of caution for managers:

If you are a manager, use delegation judiciously – it’s not an excuse to farm out key parts of your role, and you can’t simply off-load tasks to your team under the guise of developing them (you don’t get paid the big bucks to pass the buck!) However if a team member’s strength can support one of your weaknesses, find ways to leverage that, ensuring that they benefit from it.

Ignore

This one is probably the hardest to do. But sometimes we simply have to choose where we are going to fail. Jon Acuff suggests that we should “choose what to bomb” in his excellent book Finish (non-affiliate Amazon link).

Much as it troubles this recovering perfectionist to admit, we can’t be all things to all people, and we can’t be excellent in all areas. Take a good look at your weaknesses, and decide if there are any that you can’t or won’t flip or delegate. Congratulations! You’ve just created your “ignore” list!

One of the areas that I have chosen to ignore is tasks that require repetitive activity. I could never be a scientist. My high craving for novelty means that doing an experiment multiple times to prove its repeatability is my worst nightmare! So I self-select out of roles that involve that sort of activity and am up-front about this weakness any time it might be relevant to the work I’m doing. This gives the people I work with the chance to decide if this is a deal-breaker.

You might need to have some tough conversations with family, friends, boss and colleagues about where you’re going to bomb. But if you can’t flip it, and you can’t delegate it, the only option left is to accept that it will always be with you, and no amount of time, energy and money will resolve it.

Long story short…

Once you know your strengths, go crazy with them – life feels so much better when we’re working to our strengths. And choose what you’ll do with your weaknesses – flip, delegate or ignore them. Life’s too short to keep beating yourself up!