Earlier today, I took Gallup’s famous StrengthsFinder test to help me learn more about my natural strengths. According to Gallup, the reason for taking this test is simple: successful people develop and exploit their strengths, rather than reinforcing their weaknesses. Although this sounded fine at first glance, I later became unsure of how I felt about it. What about being a well-rounded person, I thought. If you only bolster your strengths and neglect to fix obvious weak points in your life, wouldn’t you feel like something is missing? How can you be truly successful if you feel empty and unfulfilled in certain areas?
In my recently released e-book, Unlimited Drive, I wrote about how gaps and imbalances in your life can distract you and siphon valuable motivation away from your most important goals. It seems that my research on success and motivation conflicted with Gallup’s research on strengths (they own StrengthsFinder and also conduct research).
But if you’ve read my other blog posts on conflicting ideas and philosophies (which you can read here), you’ll know that underneath the surface, most of these conflicting ideas work in harmony with each other. The two ideas here are no exception. After doing further research on success, happiness, and how certain gaps in our lives influence behavior, it turns out both my research and Gallup’s research were correct.
Gaps Matter… Until A Certain Point
The theory that supports my argument about gaps in your life is Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. This theory is demonstrated by a pyramid of needs, within which the lower needs on the pyramid tend to be satisfied before the higher level needs. So if you have a high-level goal at the top of the pyramid (create change in the world, start a business, etc.) then you have to get the other areas of your life handled first (food, water, safety, emotional well-being, etc.). If someone is naturally weak in maintaining relationships with friends and family, and never works on that weakness, Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs argues that he will be distracted from his higher-level goals because he feels unfulfilled from this lack of relationships in his life.
However, as I conducted more research, I discovered a theory that threw a new idea into the mix. I will call this idea the base-line theory. According to this theory, huge gaps in your life will surely make you miserable, and correcting them will certainly show improvement. But once you achieve a certain base-line level, further improvement doesn’t show the same effectiveness.
The research that demonstrates this in action was conducted on the relationship between money and happiness. The common notion “money doesn’t buy happiness” was disproved to an extent by this study. As it turns out, the lack of money (aka – being broke) will certainly cause unhappiness. Therefore, giving someone the money to fulfill his basic needs will make him a much happier individual. However, once a certain base-line of income is hit (enough to cover your expenses plus a little extra for leisure), further salary increases don’t make you happier to the same extent that it used to. As you keep going up in salary, you get less and less happiness out of each subsequent pay increase.
I believe that many of our weaknesses operate in the same way. If you have extreme difficulties with any area of your life, whether it’s personal finances, relationships, or health, it will surely distract you from any goals you wish to achieve. But if it’s just a matter of having a natural weakness in an area of your life, that is still above a tolerable base-line (for example, being naturally shy), then further efforts to bolster that weakness comes at an opportunity cost because you could be spending that time further developing your natural strengths.
Opportunity Cost: Maximizing Strengths vs. Building Up Weaknesses
For those of you who had a little difficulty digesting that last sentence, let me break it down. Let’s say you have a choice between taking a $15 per hour job or an $8 per hour job. If you choose the job that pays $8 an hour instead of the job that earns you $15 an hour, your opportunity cost for taking the $8/hr job is $7 per hour. Why, you ask? Because if you had the chance to take the $15/hr job and chose an $8/hr job instead, you essentially gave up $7/hr, which is the cost of taking your chosen opportunity.
Imagine you have to choose between a job that you despise, but pays $100,000 a year, or a job you love that pays $40,000 a year. If you end up taking the job you love, what was the opportunity cost for doing so? If you answered $60,000, you’re correct. In this example, you chose to give up $60,000/year in order to enjoy life and not be miserable at work every day.
So why am I giving you a tutorial on opportunity cost?
If you’re too focused on building up your weaknesses past the base-line we discussed earlier in this post, you’re losing out on the immense benefits that come from maximizing and exploiting your strengths. This all ties back to Gallup’s research that shows that successful people achieved success by capitalizing on their strengths, rather than continually building at their weaknesses. There is only a limited amount of time per day, so if you use up all of your time to work on your weaknesses, you are giving up the opportunity to maximize and exploit your strengths. According to Gallup’s conclusions, the cost of ignoring your strengths is high.
As an analogy, imagine that your goal is to draw a picture of a beach. If you’re a righty, naturally you will utilize your right hand to draw the beach. It wouldn’t make any sense to use your left hand to draw the beach for the sake of “building up your weaknesses.” If your weakness isn’t impeding you (in other words, it’s above an acceptable base-line), why bother with it when you can be utilizing your strengths instead? Is the lack of drawing skill in your left hand impeding your goal here? It most certainly isn’t. Therefore, you should ignore your left hand’s weakness and focus on using your right hand instead. Although this is a somewhat imperfect analogy, I hope it helps you better understand why it’s better to utilize strengths to achieve your goals.
Borrow Some Advice from a CEO
In my Strategic Management class, I’m learning about the various strategies businesses take to maximize profit and stay competitive. Based on the case studies and research we discuss in class, it quickly became clear that a business that tries to excel in everything fails quickly. By trying to be the best in everything, the business ends up becoming mediocre in everything. There are simply not enough resources within a company to invest in becoming the best in everything. Obviously, a company needs to at least be competent in finance, operations, customer service, distribution, and so on, but that doesn’t mean it needs to excel at every one of these. Rather, decades of research and case studies show that successful companies are experts at leveraging their “core competencies,” which is a fancy way of describing a company’s core strengths.
Walmart doesn’t focus its resources on trying to improve its weak customer service because its core strength is low prices. People go to Walmart for the low prices, not for the customer service. If Walmart stopped focusing on keeping prices low so that it could focus on having amazing customer service, the most likely result would be that Walmart becomes mediocre at both, loses its competitive edge, and loses profits.
In the same way a company’s CEO utilizes core strengths to be successful in the marketplace – rather than bolstering weaknesses to become good at everything – you can focus on your “core competencies” to be successful. In doing so, you will find a higher success rate than if you try to fill in your weaknesses and bring them to the level of your natural strengths.
I’ve argued in this post that:
1) Being a well-balanced person AND exploiting your natural talents are important for success.
2) You should build up your weaknesses to your base-line to keep yourself well-rounded
3) Once your weaknesses achieve a base-line, focus on building and exploiting your natural strengths
At this point, you may be wondering: “How do I know when my weaknesses have hit a base-line?” In order to do this, all you need to do is ask yourself the following question:
Does my weakness keep me up at night or distract me from achieving my most important goals?
If the answer is “yes”, then you have just identified a weakness you should begin working on as soon as possible.
By bringing your weaknesses to a base-line point and then focusing on maximizing your strengths, you will find yourself achieving more and enjoying life more. To do this, try the following action plan:
1) Identify your natural strengths. Taking the StrengthsFinder test is a great way to do this. Be aware that it costs $30 or so. If you’re strapped for money, use your intuition and common sense to create a list of your strengths. Ask your friends and co-workers about your strengths and write down what they say. Doing a Google search on how to identify your strengths will also serve you well.
Update (5/9/11): AuthenticHappiness.org also offers plenty of effective, free strengths tests. I highly recommend it.
2) Identify your weaknesses. Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs is a good tool for this. You can read Unlimited Drive for more information on Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. Otherwise, a simple Google search on identifying weaknesses should do the trick.
3) Within your weaknesses, identify the ones that keep you up at night and/or distract you from achieving your most important goals. These are the weaknesses you should begin working on.
4) Once you’ve built up each weakness to the point where it doesn’t keep you up or night or significantly distract you, it’s time to focus on your strengths. Build your strengths and then utilize them to achieve success! This can be done through reading books, practicing the skill, and planning how you want to apply that skill now and in the future.