Focus on Strengths or Weaknesses?

Which is it going to be for you?

The power of strengths is the dawning of whole new perspectives in the way that we’re looking at education and personal growth.

The look at strengths inside of you will be the dawning of whole new perspectives. It’s causing whole new perspectives in the way we go about what we’ve called mental health and especially the way in which we’re going about coaching.

One of these perspectives is what we know about the development of “genius.”

We haven’t paid a lot of attention to the growth of genius. Genius comes from encouraging and growing a strength; it never comes from correcting a weakness or from creating a “balanced” person.

We are a culture who loves balanced people, whatever balanced people are, and really all that being a balanced person means. It is what Tom Rath, in his book Vital Friends, calls “rounding,” and it is a way of making gifted people seem “less than” so they are not so threatening.

That means if we’re going to go making you a balanced person, what we’re going to do is look at your weaknesses, and shore up your weaknesses so they’re more in balance with your strengths.

What we teach you to do is just the opposite of that, and that is find your strengths, go with your strengths, and use your strengths to manage the weaknesses, and don’t ever worry about being a “well balanced” person.

Most people are simply ignorant of what their real strengths are.

Part of the reason we’re just beginning to get comfortable with them is because we have a lifetime of being, at least part of the time, in a DownSpiral, and a lifetime of playing to our weaknesses.

We have little or no access to strengths in a DownSpiral, and the deeper down the spiral we go, the lesser is the felt sense of these strengths.

All of us have a lifetime of being told in some way to correct our weaknesses, be a more well-rounded person, be a more balanced person.

We are taught this from the moment we enter the educational system.

The message is: learn to balance your weaknesses, or even obliterate them, so you can be “well rounded” and “balanced.” Nothing could be farther from the truth.

Suppose we decided that in our schools, we’re just going to pay attention to what students really do well first.

That what we’re going to discover and nurture is everything students do really well, not the things they do not do well, so we can compensate for those things and “fix” them.

What if that just happened every day? What if every day was simply another day for you to grasp your strengths and live in them?

What if we gave our kids, partners, spouses, co-workers, everyone in our world, this message: here’s another day for you to use your strengths . . . this is what they are, grow them and develop them. Now go try this and see how you succeed using what you are naturally good at doing.

Yes, we want you to go use and try what you are good at.

That’s very hard to get people to do. It’s a challenge to get people to apply that to their life. But not to do so is one of our greatest threats, both personally and to society at large.

© Dr. William K. Larkin




About the author

Dr. William K. Larkin
  • Dwayne Paro

    The concept of “balance” is always such a misnomer when it comes to living an empowering and fulfilling life. It reminds me of the same issue we have with raising our children to “get an education and find a good job”. What does all that mean? Its means we are producing a future generation that is unhappy with various aspects of who they naturally are and are chasing an ambition. Rather than focusing on what are your strengths and how can those strengths be used to serve a greater purpose, something larger than yourself, something that provides almost automatic feelings of being content and thriving in the UpSpiral. I know from personal experience that chasing an ambition and trying to compensate for my weaknesses has only created a lack of confidence and an anti climatic feeling after achieving the ambition. When I am happiest and most in my zone is when I’m using my strengths to serve a higher purpose. This gives me such a high level of energy and drive that staying in an UpSpiral and having a solid emotional handle on where I’m at is almost a natural state. As I’m raising my teenage Son I’m intentionally discussing these concepts and helping him to understand the pitfalls of worrying about and trying to compensate for his weaknesses or figure out what that ambition is to chase. I do this by being vulnerable and transparent on my own experiences. I’m seeing very positive results in his approach to how he handles his decisions and overall well being. He has brought to my attention on numerous occasions how fellow students have asked him, why do you smile so much? Of which he found off and unsure of what the answer would be as it’s a natural way of being for him. I told him for ease of an answer, ask them Why Not?

  • Dr. gloria wright

    When I taught gifted English I had some uncanny sense of my student’s strengths. They didn’t have the profiles to articulate them, but somehow I played to them. I remember a gifted student’s parent came for a conference when I pantomimed the spelling words (which I said I would do). “Your son is a closet intellect or sleeper. He’s plenty bright, but doesn’t have the motivation to work up to his potential. You can take him out of my class, but I won’t recommend it.”
    He stayed. We soon had a creative assignment from any of the quotes from Alice In Wonderland. This student wrote and played a song. He got a standing ovation from the class. He was a model student after that.
    Another class exercise was on themes written. The papers were returned with the number of points you could gain if you “fixed” the parts where the points were marked. I put them into small study groups to figure out what needed to be changed. The students thrived. After going to college I got numerous notes about how they were better in their English classes and advanced in their “editing” skills.

    In working with executives, I gave workshops on how to manage people from their strengths. It had a profound effect on the culture in the company. People were seeking partners for their weaknesses and focusing on using their strengths.
    I think this short piece is worthy of repeating, “The Power of Affirmation”: “To have affirmation as our basic attitude and practice creates a shift in the way we look at life, at others, and at ourselves. It invites us to look at what is right rather than wrong, and focus on what is to be celebrated, rather than that which needs to be fixed. The result is as much growth and change, if not more so, than under any system of criticism.
    Affirmation has a strong positive effect on us; we become energized, relaxed and responsive. It increases our self-esteem and decreases our insecurity. It encourages truthfulness rather than denial and makes us more open.
    Because so much of our self-image is based on the response of others to who we are, we are hungry for feedback. We need to be told what we are doing right, what others appreciate in us, what gifts they see. We can never get enough of it and from this we learn that we can never give too much to others. To practice affirmation is to give and receive grace.” Adapted from: Phil Porter & Cynthia Henry

  • Kathy Lee

    Looking at personal challenges through the lens of strengths is a new concept for me and one that opens up new possibilities. This week I tried something new with a couple of my coachees and asked them what their strengths were. One of them paused, as if quite surprised and said he hasn’t ever thought about his strengths. How would your relationships be impacted if you applied your strengths to them? how would your input in meetings be improved if you contributed through your strengths and how would you feel about yourself if you consciously applied your strengths? I’m asking myself the same questions and am learning that I would probably be operating from my best self if I did this more regularly. My two friends, with whom I’m sharing everything I’m learning, also took the VIA test and we’ve been discussing our strengths all week. All three of us had challenges and we asked each other which strength or which combination of strengths would especially help us meet our challenges. It is so helpful to have partners in this work; forming a support group with others who are interested in learning about UpSpirial tools, the Emotional Gym, and strengths has been a supplemental support team for me. I also used the Four R’s with one client who said she had five opportunities that same day to re-frame and re-label situations to see situations in new ways that helped her address each situation more effectively.

  • Kalah Vaughan

    When I hear the word “balanced” I think of a person who has their five categories in life in balanced (aka having it all). They are able to be with their family and relationships just as mush as they are spiritually and so on. I do not see this as a bad thing to aspire to.

    However when the word balanced comes up saying must be good at everything you do, an automatic flag comes up. We were all put on this earth with different strengths and talents.To say to someone “they must be able to do everything including perform their weaknesses” is just making everyone into the same “balanced” person.

    This concept of growing weakness’ has been around for years. I am not ashamed to say I had the same mindset. I would often say “if can not do something, than get better at it” sounds so simple. What I am learning here to find my own personal strengths and virtues and grow with them, is brilliant. I can now look out among the crowd or speak with a friend and see how little people do not know about what their strengths are and how to use them to harness life.

    It excites me to dive deeper into this concept. It really gets me going when I know how many around me I can change the course of their lives with this one little concept, grow your strengths not your weakness’.

    What is it that excites you? It might be a clue that you are using one of your strengths.

  • Yolanda Smith

    Knowledge certainly is power and one of the keys to operating in optimal wisdom. Learning to focus on your strengths is a concept, that should be taught starting in elementary school. Our weaknesses are often spotlighted early in life and contributes to shaping who we become in this life.

    While I have been quite aware of some of my strengths, the VIA test in some way validated what I believed about myself. In looking back over my life, particularly my childhood, I can recall that I naturally operated in some of my strengths. But due to the fact that I experienced bullying up until my high school years, my strengths were overshadowed and quite frankly despised by many. Little did I know that my strengths, especially the top two,would help me to overcome some of my insecurities.

    I believe that as we learn to focus on our strengths, it empowers us to become the person that we have a longed be. It gives us a level of hope and determination that quite possibly had been absent in our lives for many years.

    Being able to identify strengths in the people that we deal with on a regular basis, can be very instrumental in developing healthy relationships. I have found this to be true on my job, as I have embarked upon my own personal experiment. In getting to know each of my co-workers on a personal basis, I believe that I have identified at least one of their top strengths each. Because I am a liaison between two departments, drawing on the strengths of each team member has been instrumental negotiating with them in certain situations and in resolving conflicts between them. Learning to focus on strengths, it is most definitely a vital tool implementing an effective team building program.

    The idea of focusing on your strengths and living in them, can give a person a renewed sense of hope and provide them a pathway to a better life.

  • kit

    After a career spent employed by large organizations, I’m very familiar with the challenge of focusing on building strengths rather than working to minimize weaknesses in the name of ‘balance’. I’ve seen how much easier it is to get budgetary approval to fix or avoid deficiencies instead of investing to capitalize on strengths. A colleague’s recent survey of small and mid sized companies on their number one problem revealed they spend the least amount of money (ALL of them said they had NO budget allocated) on their BIGGEST problem – the lack of kindness, compassion, and connectivity, in their communications. They affirmed the cost and problems they experienced because of the lack of this company strength. Yet you can bet their budgets include employee training on how to avoid or reduce the negative such as ‘reducing defects’. I don’t see any possibility of changing focus in the educational system to building strengths, because qualifying for federal funding focuses the system on teaching to the test, period. I do, however, see how companies can drive a change of focus by changing their culture, bit by bit, to celebrating wins. For instance, change major goals like ‘reduce downtime’ to ‘increase uptime’. Companies will seek employees who demonstrate skills and talents that increase uptime, rather than skills to decrease downtime. Even this tiny change yields dividends beyond what is immediately measurable. If we take time to check, the language of avoiding the negative feels limiting in our bodies. The language of increasing the positive feels expansive. As companies change their talent acquisition strategy, education will follow suit. It’s already happening in the way schools are training technical specialities. I see creating market demand in talent acquisition for individuals experienced in strengths building, which then promulgates this demand to the educational system, as a feasible, actionable possibility.

  • Yvette Gauff

    Which is it going to be for me? I choose strengths!

    The week before we began conversation about strengths, a musician friend came to town, and asked if I wanted to meet so we could catch up. I was floored when he told me he was working with companies, helping them to develop their employees by finding, and building upon their strengths!! As one who believes more in fate, or what I
    call ‘divine appointments’ than coincidence, I went into the course test taking with great anticipation.

    When I first saw my VIA strengths I was angry. They seemed so, ethereal and perfect! As a person who calls herself a ‘recovering perfectionist”, the last thing I wanted or
    needed for that matter, were strengths that made me seem like a saint! A dear friend told me they were indeed ‘me’, and couldn’t understand why I was squawking about it. “I am not Mother Teresa; I want a do over!” I quipped. I selfishly could not understand how they were to serve me other than to be ‘good’. I tried explaining them away, deeming them as false ‘learned’ behavior rather than intrinsic. Denial. Downspiral, downspiral, downspiral. Upon getting the results of the Gallup Strength test, and having Dr. Johnson explain how they worked together with the VIA strengths, I began to shift my perspective and feel better.

    I use to believe it was a badge of honor to be well rounded, though inwardly I always wanted to present this status in such a way that I didn’t look like a flaky, ‘jack of all trades, master of none’. As I become acquainted with Rath’s work, I see the practice of trying to become balanced as potentially damaging. The ‘rounding’ concept is interesting. Think, getting a square peg in a round whole. If you have ever tried it, or watched someone do it, you know it doesn’t work. And if it is done with any type of malleable material or object, the results are usually messy. Or maybe it’s more
    like the peg’s corners merely being sanded or sawn off. Either way, whether immediate or over time, you end up with less than the original design. Translate that to us as humans, and it is a very sad outcome. It seems we were pre-programmed with what is necessary to great, but we are socialized not to be so. One wonders how professional athletes, musicians, anyone who is exceptional at something, became so. I am sure they focused on developing the areas where they were strongest.

    Upon acceptance of my strengths, I now choose to see them as gifts, as the arsenal I have been provided to win in life. The idea of focusing on these positive, innate characteristics is very encouraging. It fares so much better than feeling you have to focus all of your efforts on fixing what is wrong with you. We have been shown in our course that we get more of what we focus on; I can attest to the fact that focusing on what is ‘broken’ does not lead to upspiral thinking or behavior.
    In sharing this with my eldest son, I found out he not only has taken the Gallup Test twice since he was college, and has been learning to lean in to his strengths, but he was able to convince Google to include the Gallup test in his work with middle school students in their Code Next program. I was thrilled! These youngsters are being provided a tool that will help them become the champions they were meant to be. Hopefully, they will hold on to what they have learned and continue to develop their strengths as they move on in life; they, and those around them can only benefit from it!

Copyright © 2015 The Applied Neuroscience Institute