“What are your strengths and weaknesses?” It’s a bit of a joke now, but remember when that used to be the interview question that everyone prepared for? The responses were always predictable “I work too hard” or “I’m a perfectionist”. Of course you crafted something to try and make your weaknesses sound positive – people were rarely totally honest, so the general conclusion was that there was little point in asking it anymore.
Your weaknesses are your lion, don’t try to kill them – tame them.
Thinking about our weaknesses has become reactive, in response to appraisals, feedback or outright criticism, rather than a conscious exercise in seeking them out and analysing them by choice. When looked at in the context of feedback and criticism the weakness is often put on the table with a strong undercurrent message of “let’s not see this again” so the plan becomes to just get rid of it as soon as possible. But thinking about your weaknesses is an extremely useful exercise which will almost certainly lead you to your strengths. I found this out years ago when I was in the middle of a process where we were focussing intently on our weaknesses and pulling ourselves and each other apart so much that I completely lost sight of my strengths in all the wreckage. At the end of this exercise I had all these pieces and no idea how to put them back together into a person who wasn’t a complete walking calamity.
At this point I got some advice advice that I will never forget, which was “find your spike, and make it Olympian”. In other words, forget your flaws for a second, you can round them off later, but focus now on finding that thing you are naturally good at without really trying, that thing you are just better than most people at – find it and focus on making it the best it possibly can be, make it world class. The only problem with that advice was that they didn’t tell me how to find my strengths. We have been so conditioned to focus on our weaknesses that we can forget all about sharpening our strengths. At the very least we ignore them with the attitude “my strengths are my strengths so don’t need as much work as my weaknesses”. But actually what I found out in the process that I went through next was my weaknesses are my strengths – and so are yours. Sometimes the reason we find it so hard to see our strengths is because they are also our weaknesses. I’ll admit that that realisation blew my mind more than a little.
I will demonstrate using my own weaknesses as an example – here is the list that was arrived at at that session in my 20s:
Quick to act – needs to stand back and think, impatient, blunt / too direct, takes work too personally, high expectations, makes too many jokes / too happy / smiles & laughs too much, needs to use silence (know when to stop talking), too self deprecating, too open (needs to not play all her cards up front), never satisfied / always looking for the next thing.
Through discovering my weaknesses, facing them head on and looking at the impact they have on other people and their perceptions of me, I learnt how to control them. Most importantly I learnt how I could use them – because I later realised that all those weaknesses are just the flip side of my Olympian spike.
Quick to act – I work best by doing, which means I am excellent at getting stuck into complex stuff quickly. Impatient – if I want to do something I get on with it immediately. I get stuff done. Blunt / too direct – I give clear direction. I don’t leave people confused as to what I think or what I expect. Too open – People know the real me with no need to wonder about double meanings – there are none. Takes work too personally – Everything I do is a reflection of me, therefore I always do my best work. Makes too many jokes, too happy / laughs too much – I put people at ease and use humour to lighten the mood, get people to relax and be more open. Needs to use silence (know when to stop talking) / too self deprecating – honest, personable, relatable, self-aware. Never satisfied, always looking for the next thing – driven, ambitious, always improving, lots of ideas.
That’s how I found my spike – by looking at my flaws. I’m a positive, optimistic driving force for achievement. I put people at ease and bring teams together with humour, trust and openness. I create compelling, ambitious visions and inspire teams to come with me to achieve them. I’m great at quickly getting to the nugget of a lot of complex information, prioritising, and decisively leading teams to take action. I laugh a lot, forgive easily, praise readily and I’m always coming up with ideas for change and improvement.
Your weaknesses are what make you great, use them to find your spike, and then make your spike Olympian.
I still have all of those weaknesses. They’ll always be my “flaws” because they are parts of my core personality – and because they are also the flip side of my spike, I’m not ashamed of a single one of them. I don’t want to “get rid of them” I want to manage them and balance them. Loving your weaknesses is about appreciating them for what they are; the flip sides of your strengths. By being actively and acutely aware of them, you learn how to keep them in check so that the strength, rather than the weakness is the thing that shines through.
There’s an added bonus of this exercise – once you’ve recognised, made your peace with and even learned to love your weaknesses (because they are also your strengths) then no matter what feedback you get – it won’t get to you, it will simply help you to hone your spike. I welcome all the feedback I get – it’s always good to see how well (or not) you are managing the flip sides of your spike. I’m always working on balancing my flaws and sharpening my spike – it’s a never ending work in progress.