Focus on strength or weakness? Yes.

If you want to improve, it is better to focus on where you can have the biggest impact instead of focusing on either strengths or weaknesses. Think in terms of a spectrum of capabilities on which strengths and weaknesses are two extremes. Your goal is to become better overall rather than arbitrarily removing weaknesses or building strengths.

Many self-improvement plans begin with an assessment of relative strengths and weaknesses, either through a formal SWOT analysis or a more informal review. An action plan is then developed to mitigate our weaknesses and build upon our strengths. But what if you can’t do both? Is it better to overcome your weaknesses or take advantage of our strengths?

Most of us focus on our weaknesses. These are, after all, what hold us back and make us vulnerable. It is natural to focus on our shortcomings. However, no matter how much effort we exert, it is unlikely we will ever transform a weakness into a strength. It is even less likely that a weakness will ever become a major strength. At best, when focusing on our weaknesses, we may become less vulnerable in a particular area but we will never become dominant in that area. If you are shy and uncomfortable around other people, you may learn to overcome much of your uneasiness but it is very unlikely you will ever be comfortable being the life of the party. This is why many people prefer to focus on building on what they already do best.

The second approach to self-improvement is to focus on our strengths, building them up to make us even stronger in their respective areas of our lives. The drawback of this approach is that we are unlikely to make significant improvements in areas where we are already strong. At some point, the concept of diminishing returns sets in and we exert more effort with only incremental improvements in our overall capabilities. If your organizational skills are already much more than is required for your job, coming up with a better filing system is not going to make much difference in your overall performance. Instead of thinking of strengths and weaknesses as separate targets, a better approach is to look at both strengths and weaknesses together to determine where to focus our efforts.

Self-improvement is about improving our overall capabilities, not about eliminating all weaknesses or building individual strengths to ever higher levels. What we call strong or weak is a continuum with strengths at one end and weaknesses at the other. Imagine giving yourself points for strengths and deducting points for weaknesses. Your goal should be to improve your overall score in any way possible, either by mitigating weaknesses or building strengths. The choice of where to work on improvement depends on where you can expect to make the most difference. If you have been struggling all your life with a weight problem, it is unlikely you will achieve major success in the next six months. But a six month course in public speaking might position you for a promotion at work. Focus on where you can get the biggest bang for your effort.

There is one exception to this approach. If you have overwhelming weaknesses, to the point that they could be considered fatal flaws, then these must receive your attention above all else. If you have an addiction, a phobia or out of control behavioral problems like anger management, these must be addressed without delay regardless of how difficult it will be. There’s a reason they are called fatal flaws and you can’t compete if you’re out of the game early.

If you want to improve, focus on your full spectrum of capabilities and invest your efforts on the one area where you can make the biggest impact. Don’t get hung on a false dichotomy of weaknesses versus strengths. The goal is to improve your overall ‘capability score’ in the most efficient way possible.

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