I’m not a genius or a prodigy.
That’s not a shock-value statement or an attempt to win you over with my humility; it’s just a fact. But it’s something that actually took me a really long time to get my head around.
Like most kids, I grew up thinking I was destined for greatness. I was going to be a tycoon of industry, owning more diggers and dump-trucks than any other living person (and one of them was definitely going to be a transformer).
Gradually, my dreams became more realistic (Hollywood Actor, Army General, Marine Biologist – in that order), but I held on to my certainty that I was destined to be the absolute best at something.
Like most kids, I had my “thing.” You know, that talent adults seem to praise you for – whether it’s mathematics, music, or martial arts. Growing up, one of my “things” was grades and because I went to a relatively small school, it was always just one other girl and I battling to be top of the class.
But then I got into law school, and all of a sudden, I wasn’t the best at my “thing” any more. Not even close. I went from being the biggest fish in the high school pond to being a pretty tiny fish in the university lake, and don’t even get me started on the ocean.
I’m not trying to win your sympathy. The point I’m trying to make is that eventually, no matter how good you are at your “thing”, everyone comes face to face with their own limitations. When that happens, you’ve got to be able to play to your strengths.
This might sound like the like the most obvious piece of advice ever, but I’m not just talking about your obvious talents; the ones you’ve known about since grade school; the things other people often tell you you’re good at. I’m talking about playing to all your weird and wonderful strengths as well.
One of my favourite examples of someone who did this was Steve Jobs, the founder of Apple. Jobs actually never actually graduated from university; he dropped out of Reed College six months in.
What this meant is that he could stop going to the required classes and drop in on classes he was actually interested in – like calligraphy. So Jobs learnt all about about different fonts, the appropriate amount of space between letters, and why Comic Sans belongs in the deepest pits of hell.
Of course, none of this seemed like it would have any practical application in Jobs’ life, beyond, no doubt, significantly improving the quality of his Christmas cards.
Yet, 10 years later, when the Apple Macintosh was released it was the first computer ever to multiple typefaces and well-spaced fonts. The Mac’s beautiful typography was a key selling point and it completely revolutionized word processing.
What often stops us from playing to our strengths is the the human obsession with criticism. Whether its at school or in the workplace, we’re constantly told that we should work on our weaknesses.
Don Clifton, a psychologist at the Gallup Organization, identified and strongly disagreed with two prevalent assumptions that people make about human nature:
- That anyone can learn to be competent in almost anything; and
- That a person’s areas of greatest potential for growth are in their areas of greatest weakness.
Instead, Clifton argued that each person’s greatest place for growth is in the areas of their greatest strengths. The core of his philosophy was that you should focus on what you’re good at, and steer yourself away from the things your bad at.
Now, I’m not saying you should give up on your weaknesses altogether. I’m terrible at washing the dishes. Usually, I will just let them accumulate in my room until I’ve got my very own porcelain tribute to the leaning tower of Pisa. However, the four other people I live with probably wouldn’t be too impressed if I just decided to stop trying to fix this weakness altogether.
We all have areas where we need to improve, even if we don’t want to. But where you can, don’t be afraid to steer yourself away from weaknesses to focus on developing your strengths.
You’re never going to achieve your childhood dreams of greatness by trying to fix all your weaknesses, waiting for that day when you’re finally satisfactory at everything. If Steve Jobs had poured all his time into studying the humanities at Reed College, instead of working on computers in his family garage, he would never have founded Apple.
You will learn the most, grow the most, and contribute the most in your areas of greatest strength. So play to your strengths.