I spoke in my last post about comfort zones, strengths, and growth from within areas that we are already relatively comfortable. It was a pretty straightforward account of how knowing what are strengths are can help us to build on and expand those strengths into new areas. The problem, of course, is that this viewpoint presupposes that you actually do know what your strengths are.
There are a few issues worth considering here. I suppose the first would be a consideration of what a strength actually is. Some people would distinguish between a strength and a personality characteristic, for example. In such a scenario, the former may be something more of a skill that can in some quasi-quantifiable way be improved over time (i.e. writing, planning, organizing), while the latter might be more of a stable, enduring quality or trait that is in some sense automatic (i.e. charisma, quick thinking, adaptability).
At first, that distinction appears to make good sense. Yes – strengths are usually things that involve skill and that can be improved over time. But could a personal quality not also be a strength, in that it is something you are uniquely good at that not everyone else is? A strength could also be considered anything that uniquely sets you apart from others, in a good way.
To illustrate, I’ll use myself and my fiancee Caitlin as examples (without her consent, of course. Love you Caity!). Over the years, we’ve become very familiar with the fact that some of our strengths go in very different, even opposite, directions. She will often ask me something like, “how is it that you never seem to worry about anything?” in reference to the fact that, well, I guess I do my best not to worry about things and generally go with the flow of day to day life. You might say in that case that adaptability or stress-tolerance or something like that would be a strength for me.
Of course, that strength also has a corresponding weakness of sorts, in that there is a thin line between worry and excitement. I’ve received feedback more than once on how it sometimes seems like I’m not really getting that excited about exciting things in my life. It’s just that my baseline for “arousal” (and I use that term in a psychological sense only) seems to be much lower than most people, meaning that I’m usually pretty laid back and low-key. For those that don’t know me well, that calmness can be misinterpreted as disinterest, which is not a good thing.
Being the great, supportive partner that I am, I might say to Caitlin, “how come you get so worried all the time?” when I see that she’s reacting to something that I normally wouldn’t. Yes, she is more of a worrier than I am, but that’s really only taking into account one side of the picture – just like someone might look at me and wonder why I’m so disinterested. The reality is that Caitlin has a strength that allows her to be much more in tune with her immediate surroundings and how they affect her emotionally. I think she’s an incredibly emotionally intelligent person – she is also very intuitive about other people and their own emotional states. One way of looking at the difference between me and her would be to say that we have different sensitivities to certain kinds of stimuli. Like a dog can hear frequencies that people can’t, she can sense things emotionally that I might not, or might take me longer to. That gives her the ability to be incredibly empathic and helpful with others, while at the same time alerting her to more things that might cause her to worry.
So now we get to the core of the issue, that being why self-awareness is important. Given the traditional “get out of your comfort zone,” “improve your weaknesses” mentality, I might focus on trying my damnedest to be more excited about stuff, while completely ignoring how that very quality is the reason that I’m so laid back. One possible outcome would be that I start to get very stressed out, without knowing why. Why am I suddenly stressing out about things that I normally wouldn’t? It’s because I’m not nurturing that strength – I’m taking energy away from it, in fact, to try to improve something that doesn’t come naturally to me.
Similarly, Caitlin may focus very intensely on just getting less worried about small things, but what happens then to her strengths of intuition and empathy? She might find it harder to focus in social interactions, or that she starts to understand people a little bit less. Or it might be something else – I’m just guessing here. Regardless, the notion of improving weaknesses for the sake of improving weaknesses alone is a problematic one.
People are highly nuanced, complex things. Just as Newton illuminated that every action has an equal and opposite reaction, we should be aware that our own qualities are something like a double-edged sword. Without taking both qualities into account – without acknowledging that every strength has a weakness by it’s very nature, we’re only every looking at one half of the picture, and that’s not a very good way to create a painting – nor is it a very wise way to sharpen a sword.
David Lindskoog is a career advisor with SFU Career Services, and Dave’s Diary is an ongoing series of journal entries touching on various aspects related to careers and well-being. Look for updates every Friday.
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