Why You Should Re-architect Your Career to Amplify Your Strengths

Each of us has our own set of strengths and weaknesses but we never take the time to figure out what they are. Even if you did would you know what to do with the information?

You’ve probably heard that you need to identify weaknesses so you can fix them. After all, if you’re already strong in an area there’s no need to hone that skill, right? You should focus on your weaknesses so people don’t point and laugh at you when you try to…do whatever it is you’re weak at. Right?

That’s what most people think, but I’ve found this approach to be a recipe for mediocrity.

Becoming World Class
People who become world class at something begin with a strength in that area.

Tiger Woods had some kind of pre-disposition to be a decent golfer. Paul McCartney had some kind of innate musical talent before he picked up a guitar, Yo-Yo Ma was likely a tiny bit better playing stringed instruments than his classmates, and Albert Einstein had something unique about his brain chemistry before he ever thought about the cosmos.

But these strengths take time to develop. To become world-class (or to take it one step beyond and re-define that term in your field) you have to invest thousands of hours of focused practice into that strength. This is known in psychology as the ten thousand hour rule, and Malcolm Gladwell ruined it for the rest of us by beating this idea to death in his book Outliers.

But the idea is that you need something on the order of 10,000 hours of focused practice to master something like the cello, golf, songwriting, or theoretical physics.

Becoming Mediocre
Perhaps Paul McCartney is particularly deficient in the skills needed to properly operate a motor vehicle. I don’t know this to be true, let’s just suppose for the sake of argument.

Suppose that when Sir Paul was young that instead of spending hour upon hour playing music that he had instead focused on learning the skills necessary to drive a car. He practiced steering, using the gas pedal, shifting, etc… all with the hope of becoming a Formula One driver.

He would have become a better driver, but it’s almost certain that he would never have become world class at an activity where he has a particular weakness.

Instead of becoming one of the best known singer/songwriters of all time he would have become a second rate driver.

By focusing on something where he already had an innate strength (or innate passion) he was able to become one of the best of all time. And the same story can be applied to Woods, Einstein, and Yo-Yo Ma.

Football vs. Track
One more example and then I’ll get back to talking about software and entrepreneurship.

In high school I played football because that’s what the popular kids did, but I wasn’t well suited for it. I worked my butt of at becoming a good football player. Every Saturday my dad would take me and my brother down to a park to run routes, practice diving, do speed drills…things that none of my teammates were doing on the weekends.

And I got better. But I was never, and could never have been, great. The skills required for football were particularly lacking in me, and although I was able to improve through literally hundreds of hours of practice, I was never as good as the best receivers in the league.

The track was another story. With my height I was well-suited for the long hurdles and winning races became almost second nature. I worked at it, but the improvements were dramatic as I invested time into running.

I excelled at it from the start and ended up setting a school record, winning the league, and going to the state championships. A far cry from my mediocre performance on the gridiron.

I’ve always wondered how much better I could have been on the track had I never played football, and instead invested that time into becoming a better runner.

Now Back to Software
Let’s translate this to being a software developer / entrepreneur.

Most people have no idea about their strengths and weaknesses. So that’s the first step – learning what they are.

And secondly, when most people find out they have a weakness they want to improve it.

“Oh my gosh, I’m a terrible public speaker…I need to become better at it!”

But this is the polar opposite, 180 degrees off, wrong way to approach it.

Instead, figure out your strengths and re-configure your career to amplify and build on them. Avoid any position that requires a lot of public speaking, but instead take that job (or start your own company) where you do a lot of solo coding (if that’s what you’re good at). Some people excel at not needing social interaction and being extremely productive on their own.

After struggling for years, wondering why I was unhappy at most of my jobs I came to realize that they were pushing me to improve upon my weaknesses. After a few years of introspection I decided to change my career path and became a Micropreneur. Micropreneurship fits well with my strengths and has lead to more career happiness than I’ve experienced in years.

Now Back to You
Most people, and developers in particular, are unhappy with their jobs. And I conjecture that much of that is because you’re doing something that requires you to utilize one or more weaknesses, and at the same time not taking advantage of your strengths.

If you’re not a good public speaker and you don’t enjoy it, don’t take a position in management where you have to present to executives every month.

If you’re not a good writer and don’t enjoy it, don’t start a blog.

It’s not only more productive to capitalize on your strengths, it’s way more fun. You’re good at it from the start; better than most, in fact. So you will experience a lot of victory in that area. This will mean the activity will be enjoyable from the start.

So what can you do? Spend $13 to buy StrengthsFinder 2.0 (or any other book that helps you find your strengths – this one isn’t magic; it just happens to be the one I’ve used). For a more fact-based justification of this entire approach read the pre-cursor to StrengthsFinder called Now, Discover Your Strengths.

Take the test and figure out your strengths.

Consider making a change in your career path.

It may mean you need to change jobs. You may need to do something rash like start a startup or start building apps on the side and become a Micropreneur. Or you may be amazingly lucky and your current situation is already making you extremely happy (and ask yourself if it’s because it’s amplifying your strengths so you know how to find this optimal situation in the future should things change).

But whatever you do, don’t focus on improving a weakness. I’ve been there. It doesn’t end well.

Everyone has strengths and weaknesses. Even B.A. Barracus (CHECK SPELLING) didn’t like to fly. Most of us never take the time to figure out the difference in ourselves, and even if we did we probably wouldn’t know what to do with that information.

You’ve probably heard that you need to identify weaknesses so you can improve upon them. After all, if you’re already strong in an area there’s no need to hone that skill, right? You should focus on your weaknesses so people don’t point and laugh at you when you try to…do whatever it is you’re weak at.

But I’ve found that this is a recipe for mediocrity.

–MORE LINK–

BECOMING WORLD CLASS
People who become world class at something begin with a strength in that area.

I would argue that Tiger Woods had some kind of pre-disposition to be a decent golfer. Paul McCartney had some kind of innate musical talent before he picked up a guitar, Yo-Yo Ma was likely a tiny bit better playing stringed instruments than his classmates, and Albert Einstein had something unique about his brain chemisty before he ever thought about the cosmos.

But these strengths take time to develop. To become world-class (or to take it one step beyond and re-define that term in your field) you have to invest thousands of hours of focused practice into that strength. This is known in psychology as the ten thousand hour rule, and Malcom Gladwell ruined it for the rest of us by beating this idea to death in his book Outliers (LINK HERE).

But the idea is that you need something on the order of 10,000 hours of focused practice to master something like the cello, golf, songwriting, or theoretical physics.

BECOMING MEDIOCRE
Perhaps Tiger Woods is particularly deficient in the skills needed to properly operate a motor vehicle. I don’t know this to be true, let’s just suppose for the sake of argument.

Suppose that when Tiger were young instead of spending hour upon hour on the golf course practicing his drive that he had instead focused on learning the skills necessary to drive a car. He practiced steering, using the gas pedal, shifting, etc… all with the hope of becoming a Forumla One driver.

He would have become a better driver, but it’s almost certain that he would never have become world class at an activity where he has a particular weakness.

Instead of becoming a world class golfer he would have become a second rate driver instead of a household name.

By focusing on something where he already had an innate strength (or innate passion) he was able to become one of the best golfers of all time. Such is the story with McCartner, Einstein, and Yo-Yo Ma.

HIGH SCHOOL VS TRACK
In high school I played football because that’s what the popular kids did, but I wasn’t particularly suited for it. I was 5’11”, 115 lbs. as a freshman and although I was a good distance runner I had no quickness in short sprints.

But I worked my butt of at becoming a good football player. Every Saturday my dad would take us down to a park and run routes, practice diving, do speed drills…things that none of my teammates were doing on the weekends.

And I got better. But I was never, and could never have been, great. The skills required for football were particularly lacking in me, and although I was able to improve through literally hundreds of hours of practice, I was never as good as the best receivers in the league.

I was good enough to start every game for two years before an injury forced me to leave the sport, but I never made the phenom catches or the great runs. Those were reserved for people who had strengths in the areas necessary to be great receivers.

Now the track was another story. With my height I was particularly well-suited for the long hurdles and winning races became almost second nature. I worked at it, but the improvements were dramatic as I invested time into running.

I exceled at it from the start and ended up setting a school record, winning my league, and going to the state championships. A far cry from my mediocre performance on the gridiron.

And I’ve always wondered how much better I could have been on the track had I never played football, and instead invested that time into becoming a better runner.

MY EXAMPLE
Let’s translate this to being a software developer / entrepreneur.

Most people have no idea about their strengths and weaknesses. So that’s the first step – learning what they are.

And secondly, when most people find out they have a weakness in an area they want to work to improve it.

“Oh my gosh, I’m a terrible public speaker…I need to become better at it!”

But this is the polar opposite, 180 degrees off, wrong way to approach it.

Instead, figure out your strengths and re-configure your career to amplify and build on them. Avoid any position that requires a lot of public speaking, but instead take that job (or start your own company) where you do a lot of solo coding (if that’s what you’re good at). Some people excel at not needing social interaction and being extremely productive on their own.

ONE APPROACH TO FINDING YOUR STRENGTHS
About four years ago I read the book StrengthsFinder 2.0, which argues the above premise to follow your strengths (Note: I held that opinion before reading the book but it solidified the idea in my mind). In the book there is an online test to find out your strengths, which I took.

Among my “themes” (aka strengths) are:

Learner – People strong in the Learner theme have a great desire to learn and want to continuously improve. In particular, the process of learning, rather than the outcome, excites them.

Maximizer – People strong in the Maximizer theme focus on strengths as a way to stimulate personal and group excellence. They seek to transform something strong into something superb.

And I’ve found that anytime in my career where things grow stagnant, I become unsettled and move on pretty quickly. Things have to be moving and I have to be learning or I die of boredome within months. I jumped from several jobs due to maintenance coding.

In addition, I have a tough time working on large teams due to the maximizer in me. I hold myself to a high standard in pretty much anything I do, and I often wind up holding other people to that standard, as well.

I found out quickly that when other team members weren’t totally invested in a project and giving it everything they had for the project’s success, that I didn’t take that well. As a result, nearly every team I worked on greater than 3 people (whether as a developer or a maneger) was a bust for me. I hated it and wound up either pissing people off, or quitting the job. We couldn’t find enough top-notch people to keep me happy.

But this has lead to my current position of a Micropreneur. Now I work alone, or with a hand-picked business partner (Jeremy with DotNetInvoice and Mike Taber with the Micropreneur Academy). We work very well together because all of us are entrepreneurs and they hold themselves to as high a standard as I do myself.

This didn’t happen by accident. I didn’t stumble on to Micropreneurship and realize “Oh my gosh, Micropreneurship, you had me at Hello!”

No, it was a deliberate move on my part to amplify my strengths.

I do my best work, perhaps 5x better than in other circumstances, when I’m continually challenged and learning rather than bored.

I do my best work when I work alone or with someone who’s doing top-notch work.

But given that, I also have many weaknesses). Weaknesses that mean I’ll never do some of the things I dreamt of in college (being the CEO of a startup, for example).

But that doesn’t matter. What matters is that I’ve found what caters to my strengths, and I’ve begun to improve on these strengths and amplify them.

NOW BACK TO YOU
Most people, and developers in particular, are unhappy with their jobs. And I conjecture that at least part of that is becasuse you’re doing something that requires you to utilize a weakness and doesn’t amplify your strengths.

If you’re not a good public speaker and you don’t enjoy it, don’t take a position as a sales person.

If you’re not a good writer and don’t enjoy it, don’t start a blog and expect to get anywhwre with it.

It’s not only more productive to capitalize on your strengths, it’s way more fun. You’re good at it from the start; probably better than most people. So you will experience a lot of victory in that area. This will also likely mean that the activity is enjoyable for you from the start.

So what can you do? Spend $X to buy StrengthsFinder 2.0 (or any other book that helps you find your strengths – this one isn’t magic; it just happens to be the one I’ve used).

Take the test and figure out your strengths.

Consider making a change in your career path.

It may mean you need to change jobs. You may need to do something rash like start a startup or start building apps on the side and become a Micropreneur. Or you may be amazingly lucky and your current situation is already making you extremely happy (and ask yourself if it’s because it’s amplifying your strengths so you know how to find this optimal situation in the future should things change).

But whatever you do, don’t focus on improving a weakness. That approach will leave you forever swimming in a sea of mediocrity and unhappiness.

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11 comments ↓

#1 Vijayendra Rao on 02.03.10 at 9:01 am

Excellent article! As a matter of fact, probably you have perfectly explained the 99% of those people who could have been great in their fields, but ended up being simply mediocre. Like Jim Collins says in his book “Good To Great”, Good is the enemy of Great!

I love software and am partially a leader and mostly a coding monster. Deliberate Practise…I am all for it! I find this combination to be awesome and works great. But after reading your post I realise that this could be because “I am working along my strengths and ignoring my weaknesses to a good extent!”. But don’t you think that by completely ignoring your weakness, and simply focussing on your strengths, you also threaten your ability to analyse your personality in the long run?

#2 Dan Hulton on 02.03.10 at 10:07 am

While an excellent opinion piece, it’s presented as fact. Do you have anything to back you up?

I ask because everything I’ve learned about the way the mind works makes me think that this article isn’t right.

For example, kids who are taught that they’re smart don’t do nearly as well as kids who are taught that they work hard. This is because the “smart” kids see intelligence as an in-built attribute that nobody can modify, and don’t bother working to excel. Kids who are taught that they work hard see intelligence as something that can be modified – that they can “become smarter”.

And it turns out to be self-fulfilling – the “smart” kids aren’t able to become smarter, but the “hard-working” kids do better and better on repeated IQ tests.

So the attitude you take this post seems off to me. If you believe that you can never be very good at something you’re not “gifted” at, you’re probably right. But if you *do* believe that you can get very good at something that you’re not gifted at, well, you’re probably right, too.

#3 Bryan Peters on 02.03.10 at 10:36 am

Dan: the point is to take a natural talent or ability (strength) and focus your energy on doing the most with it. True, someone can work really hard at something they’re not naturally gifted in, but there’s only so much improvement that can happen.

Here’s my top 5 strengths:

http://urbandude.com/post/2007/10/22/My-Top-5-Strengths.aspx

Ideation / Learner / Achiever / Analytical / Intellection

Everyone at our office (plus my wife) has gone through the program and we know each other’s strengths. My discipline and communication are low, so when small projects come my way that require those skills, I offload it to someone who’s strong in those areas, which lets me focus on what I’m good at. Why waste my time struggling with something that will only be mediocre when I can work on something that will really shine? It makes a great environment because we’re given projects that we’re naturally inclined to succeed in.

#4 Dan Hulton on 02.03.10 at 10:48 am

Bryan, that’s an interesting assertion. But where’s the proof? I mean it may sound reasonable to you, but it sounds entirely incorrect from what I’ve learned. Show me a reputable source, though, and I’m more than happy to re-evaluate my beliefs.

As anti-proofs, consider folks like Adam Savage, who gave an incredible talk on his obsessions (http://www.ted.com/talks/adam_savage_s_obsessions.html), and the incredible, amazing things he achieves when he persues a project that he previously had no real talent in with all of his heart.

Not to mention, there’s an awful lot of smart-sounding anti-specialization sentiment out there.

“A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.”

– Robert A. Heinlein

#5 A-ron on 02.03.10 at 12:46 pm

We’re not born to do anything. We don’t shoot out of our mothers ready to become software engineers. Evolution just hasn’t caught up to the canned career path yet. We are simply born to exist and propagate the human race.

But, we do develop affinities for certain things as we’re growing up. Our environment shapes our “passions” (I hate that word, it’s overused). I’m sure Sir Paul was around music a lot and Tiger Woods’ dad forced him to play golf as a little kid.

Overall I agree with your premise. Focusing more on our strengths leads to more fulfillment in life, but that doesn’t mean one shouldn’t take the time to explore other areas he/she might be interested in. It’s when we’re forced or put demands on ourselves to build up our weaknesses that things go wrong and we wind up miserable; the very nature of a job/school.

#6 Bryan Peters on 02.03.10 at 12:50 pm

I think we’re mixing up the term ‘talent’ with ‘strength’.

I’ve seen that TED talk from Adam Savage (which is excellent). We’re naturally inclined to use our strengths to achieve a goal. If I had the same goal as him, I would go down a different path that would use the strengths that come easy for me.

The concept doesn’t suggest giving up on being good at everything. Yes, you can be good at a lot of things, and that may be your goal, but some people don’t care about being good at everything, they want to be great at something. For that, knowing your strengths can help get you there.

#7 Rob on 02.03.10 at 5:11 pm

@Dan – Good point. Read “Now Discover Your Strengths.” It’s an entire book that attempts to back up this premise with research.

#8 Pawel Brodzinski on 02.04.10 at 9:05 am

I agree it is one (or a few) of your strengths which can make you stand out of the crowd. But when you come into choosing a role which suits you fine things become more complicated.

Take entrepreneurship – theoretically you could say that’s the way to go to leverage your strengths as a professional. It shouldn’t really matter if you’re great coder or art designer or project manager. You just start your development, design or consulting business and life is good again.

Except it is not. Actually entrepreneurship is at least as much about filling gaps of your weaknesses as about leveraging your strengths. You can be kick-ass developer but if you can’t get a contract or market your app you’re soon going to be starving kick-ass developer. And, when I last checked, neither selling nor product marketing was on typical coder’s list of strengths.

Of course there are many positions which require narrow skill set but, as a rule of thumb, the more narrow your skill set is the fewer options you have.

So yes, go discover your strengths, find a role which would allow you to leverage them. Then learn what weaknesses you have in this specific context and work at least as much on removing these weaknesses as you work on building your strengths up.

Ability to catch a ball is irrelevant for a long-distance runner but a good diet is not. Entrepreneur couldn’t care less about office politics, but should pitch interpersonal skills no matter what.

#9 Andy Brice on 02.05.10 at 1:53 pm

Unfortunately, if you are unskilled at something, you are often unable to comprehend how unskilled you are. See ‘unconsciously incompetent’ here:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Four_stages_of_competence

Perhaps this is why there are so many terrible web sites and why no-one ever admits they are a below average driver.

#10 Alan Hoffler on 02.24.10 at 11:29 am

I believe this line of thinking is flawed when it comes to core skills (like public speaking). If you want to become the master of some eclectic skill or game (cello or golf), then yes, you need to have some manner of aptitude before you set out to master it (I think Tiger Woods’ asset is hand-eye coordination, not golf. He could have become a world-class ping pong player if given the same push and practice).

Public speaking (I prefer “communication”) is a core skill that is critical to educate, motivate, and influence. If all you want to do is pump out code, then you can live in a dark cave with a lava lamp and do that. But if you want to have influence, a following, and increased opportunity (and a successful business), then you need to show your face and be able to speak in such a way that people believe you, respect you, and want to do business with you. People who can articulate ideas get opportunities that less talented people will never get. It doesn’t matter if they like it or not, or what the self-awareness survey says.

And I stand by the firm belief that good communication is far more a skill than a talent. If we avoid jobs that require it as you suggest, we miss some great chances to get our ideas before others.

#11 Rob on 02.24.10 at 1:48 pm

>I stand by the firm belief that good communication is far more a skill than a talent

I agree with you. But if you are a terrible public speaker, investing the hundreds of hours it would take to become a great public speaker is time that could be spent honing other skills that will provide more benefit for you in the long run (blogging if that’s a strength, or becoming a better writer in general).

I believe that someone who only writes code and cannot speak or write well will face serious challenges with their career. However, if you are a terrible speaker and it’s not something that comes naturally, then trying to improve that is a lost cause.

Instead, find another skill that complements your coding (such as writing, the ability to manage projects, etc…) that will make you more valuable in your career. Speaking is one avenue to improve yourself, but it does not apply to everyone.