Growing up, I liked playing a lot of sports, especially hockey, soccer and football. But one sport I really hated to play was baseball. It wasn’t because I thought it was a boring sport (well, actually I do, but that’s besides the point). Instead, it was simply because I was terrible at it. No matter how many times I tried or how much I’d practice, I just wasn’t good at hitting that baseball. Naturally, I’d tell my gym teacher when we had to play baseball that it wasn’t my best sport, to which I’d invariably be told that this would be an opportunity to improve my game, to build on this weakness of mine.
Of course, this wasn’t the last time I was asked to address my weaknesses. At job interviews, I was asked not only about my strengths, but also my weaknesses and more importantly, what measures I was taking to overcome them. In my employee performance reviews, it felt at times like it was almost a requirement that some weak point be found and pointed out as something I would need to work on before the next review.
On the surface, all of these experiences made sense because we are taught to believe that the way to succeed is by overcoming those tasks or abilities that we struggle to perform.
And yet, if we look at people who do succeed, a completely different viewpoint becomes apparent. Pablo Picasso was a talented painter and sculptor, but he was bad at math and apparently didn’t even learn the alphabet correctly. Usain Bolt, the three-time Olympic gold medalist who last month set a pair of new world records in the 100m and 200m dash, is clearly the best sprinter in the world. On the other hand, Bolt is not as good a cricket player, the sport he started his athletic career in.
Steve Jobs, one of the founders of Apple Inc., has been credited with Apple’s many successes over the last few years. But before this, Jobs dropped out of college after six months because he lost interest in what he was learning. Each of them are considered to be not only successes in their respective fields, but also examples of what many of us would certainly love to accomplish on the scale they did.
Now if we look at each of their stories, we can see in all of them a common thread being exhibited. In each one, we see people who are not concerned with improving their weak spots. Instead, they focused on building on their strengths. Picasso knew he wasn’t good at math, or even knowing the alphabet. But instead of trying to push himself to improve his understanding of these two fields of knowledge, he focused his energies on where his talent lay – in painting and sculpting works of art.
Usain Bolt didn’t work harder to become a better batsman or bowler for his cricket team; rather, he focused his training on building upon his ability to sprint fast over short distances. Likewise, Steve Jobs didn’t opt to ‘tough it out’ to complete college and get his degree, choosing instead to take a calligraphy class which he gives credit to for playing a key role in the designing of the first Mac computer.
For Picasso, Bolt, and Jobs, it was never about working on their weaknesses as it was challenging themselves to improve on their strengths. What’s also apparent in each of these examples is that they were doing what they love, in large part because they pursued areas where they knew they could accomplish the most; where they could best contribute to the greater whole. This also made whatever challenges they faced easier to take on because, despite the hardships they had to endure, they were doing the work they loved and excelled at.
In this light, it becomes clear that if we really want to be successful, our focus shouldn’t be on trying to improve those areas we typically define as our weaknesses, as this only serves to take away our energy, time and effort from pursuing what should be our real goals.
In his commencement address delivered at Stanford University, Steve Jobs pointed out that we should have “the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become”. He reminds us that our life is a relatively short one and that we shouldn’t “waste it living someone else’s life”. Picasso, Bolt, and Jobs are a testament to this idea, with each of them creating lives based on the strengths they possess within them.
As for the rest of us, the best place to start a similar journey is to look to our own strengths, to that which will undoubtedly lead us to a greater sense of accomplishment, satisfaction, and happiness in our lives.