Our Obsession with Strengths

mona-lisaWe are obsessed with finding and leveraging our strengths, and it makes us boring.

For example, Marcus Buckingham, an intelligent, dynamic and well-spoken best selling author (with a lot of strengths), tells us to Go Put our Strengths to Work. One of his premises, as discussed in his article What the Happiest and Most Successful Women Do Differntly, is Imbalance. In discussing why more women are less happy than ever, he says it’s because they are too focused on balance:

… when you are balanced, you are stationary, holding your breath, trying not to let any sudden twitch or jerk pull you too far one way of the other. You are at a standstill. Balance is the wrong life goal. Instead, do as these women [the self-proclaimed “happiest” ones in his survey) did, and strive for imbalance. Pinpoint the strong-moments in each aspect of your life and then gradually tilt your life toward them.

In other words, do the things that make you feel good and get rid of the things that don’t. It strikes me that things like growth, risk, failure, mistakes, and heartache add a richness to life that can’t be had by staying permanently transfixed in your comfort zone. I think Marcus needs to get out of his intellectual zip code. Not everyone’s definition of success includes the word MORE or BETTER.

Here are just a few of the side-effects of imbalance:

  • Kids who get tracked into a single year-round sport before age 10 because that is the only way to make the team year after year (forget fun, we’re talking scholarships here). In the meantime, they miss experiences in music, art, academics and even the somewhat extinct “playing in the front yard.”
  • Parents whose imbalance consists of spending every waking non-working minute running their kids to the next activity
  • Women who think that in order to be worthy, they have to have a career, have kids, have the perfect house and have sex at least at the “national average” of four times a week. Come on folks, we all know that ain’t happening much past college.
  • A workforce that feels pressure to follow their passion and maximize their strengths when most people are happy, yes, happy, to get the job done well and bring home a check.
  • Adam Smith-inspired corporations that want you to be the very best pin-head assembler you can be (your strength) because it makes them more profitable

To the Strength-Obsessed: Chill Out! Give yourself a break, and give us a break. Success in life is measured by more than getting ahead, by being more efficient, by constantly shining. Competition is wonderful, but so is well-roundedness. It’s narcissistic to focus only on those things we do well (our strengths) and to ignore the affect this has on everyone around us. Add some variety to your life, because people who spend their life only doing what they are good at ARE BORING.

Clutter and disorganization is one of my well honed strengths – and not just at home. But to follow this strength shows no respect for anyone else living with me. Playing to my strength would make my wife’s life miserable, and in business, it would cost me a great deal of time and money.

If Leonardo da Vinci had focused on his strengths, we wouldn’t have The Mona Lisa (painting wasn’t considered his strength). We wouldn’t have had W as our President. And we certainly wouldn’t be here, at the end of this post, wondering how we can improve our… weaknesses to make us kinder, healthier people.

It seems like I’m not the only one thinking along these lines. Read this comment from a friend of mine:

Happiness.  I’ve been searching everywhere for it. I’ve over-worked, over-exercised, over-eaten, over-organized…over-everything…trying to find that ever elusive feeling of peace of mind. I have spent a good chunk of my life trying to be more than because I have felt less than.

So when I read Marcus Buckingham’s blog post on “What The Happiest and Most Successful Women Do Differently,” I was not only frustrated but saddened, mostly because all of those old feelings of inadequacy came rushing back in. I have been out of balance my whole life. I have lived with “Imbalance.” And where has it gotten me? I have been wrapped up in a big ball of anxiety, afraid of anything that I can’t do to the extreme.

While I think Mr. Buckingham has some very valid points, his theory of living a life of “imbalance” and focusing only on one’s strengths makes me feel like a failure. Part of my recovery has been learning to accept my limits and embrace those darker places of myself that I don’t necessarily like. I am human. I am soft. I am hard. I am strong. I am weak. I am a complete and multi-dimensional person.

If I live in the way Mr. Buckingham suggests, how am I supposed to feel when those less than perfect feelings or personality traits creep in? According to the Buddhist tradition, Life is Joy and Life is Pain. You would never catch a Buddhist monk saying “Only live your life from your strengths.” It’s just not realistic, nor does it foster a sense of true self esteem. Sometimes feeling good about yourself comes from accepting your weaknesses and moving beyond them. If we are always strong, what makes us turn to others for help or compassion?

It just sounds too exhausting to me to have to always be living from strength. Some days I relish my weakness, for it connects me to the frailty of human life. My heart is more tender because I am vulnerable and human. I won’t lie, I love it when my life is moving forward, I am capitalizing on my strengths and I feel like I can conquer the world.

But the truth is, I feel the most connected to the world when my heart is broken and someone I love helps me pick up the pieces.

John Sileo teaches his audiences to not to immediately accept everything you hear or read, even if it tastes sweet to begin with. Sometimes it’s just full of saccharine. Interested in teaching your next audience to think for themselves? Contact John Directly on 800.258.8076 or visit www.ThinkLikeAspy.com.

4 replies
  1. AT
    AT says:

    This is a great blog post-extremely thought provoking. I, too get very caught up in thinking I always have to be strong, and yet I feel empty. I love the points that John makes about highly succesful people who have capitalized not on their strengths, but on their weaknesses.

    It seems as though John has a great deal of talent in other areas beyond his expertise in Identity Theft. I would love to hear more!
    Thank you!

  2. Eric
    Eric says:

    This is great thinking. I’ll bet companies that encourage and support this kind of approach to work and life actually benefit. Do you have any examples of that?

  3. Kyra
    Kyra says:

    It appears you have deliberately taken Mr. Buckingham’s advice and twisted it.
    The man goes out of his way in his lecture series to say that
    1.In this culture. women are particularly obsessed with self-improvement and locking themselves into a course of action out of obligation.
    2. and that just because you’re good at something, that doesn’t mean it is what you “should” do.
    So do you.
    Perhaps a more critical analysis of what Mr. Buckingham has to say is in order.It’s more along the line of “do what makes you happy more often, perhaps you will be happier as a result.” That doesn’t sound silly to me.
    As for fortitude and learning, please note that Mr. Buckingham takse pains to say that what women are happiest doing is not necessarily what they are good at. and that given that it’s clearly not what those women are doing regularly, they probably aren’t that good at it because they don’t practice. It is a little silly to presume that they will not learn skills and persistence and other strengths of character simply because they enjoy what they are doing.
    If you’re into Buddhism, you should also note that instead of discussing Mr. Buckingham’s ideas on *subjectivity* with the Buddhist perspective subjectivity, you have applied the Buddhist perspective on *objective* reality and that’s a faulty argument. The Buddhist philosophy on *personality traits* is that it deems all intrinsic personality traits as neutral and human. It is only the context and application that makes us deem them subjectively good or bad. That sort of makes your whole rebuttal inapplicable to the discussion. Mr. Buckingham never asserted that all of *life* would change its nature if you did more of what you liked. All he said was that if you consciously choose (that’s pretty Buddhist) to spend more hours of your day doing that which you enjoy, you will be spending more hours of your day doing that which you enjoy. And that you can figure out a way to make enough money at it, and you just might enjoy your job. I don’t think that’s too earth-shattering.
    Also, nothing he said was dig at women who don’t want careers. He was speaking *to an audience of women who work and want to make that work as fulfilling as possible,* i.e., to people who are unhappy doing their jobs and *aren’t* content to just take home a paycheck. His actual advice, what he actually said, is just as applicable to people who don’t work at all, but who are also unhappy doing what they’re doing. Removing the context of the generalization to make it sound as though it was prejudicial is disingenuous and self-serving, even if the outcome is that you were hurt by it. (Getting to reaffirm that you what you were doing when you *thought* you were following Mr. Buckingham’s advice gave you a negative feeling was still gratifying, on some level, I bet.)
    He also doesn’t advocate not working on your weaknesses, either, but that, and here’s some simple logic and education theory here: you learn more about solving problems when you control for negative influences on tactics and outcomes, namely, 1. not wanting to solve the problem because it’s there’s low intrinsic motivation to do so, and 2. negative perceptions about the situation that make the problems seem insurmountable, putting you at a risk for self-sabotage and confirmation bias for low self-efficacy.
    Buckingham actually suggests that *techniques* that are successful when you are enjoying yourself are just as applicable to times when you are not. Yes, he actually says that and I don’t see where he’s wrong. Practicing scales in the context of a song you enjoy is just as effective as practicing scales alone. Doing the first can’t make you any less competent at the latter. And I don’t think it’s wrong to suggest you’ll be in a better mood if you concentrate on the former.

    All in all, nothing Mr. Buckingham is saying is too earth-shattering a proposal, and I don’t think you really disagree with it. But I do think your knee-jerk reaction to it speaks volumes about what our culture has told us about work and self-improvement. and in case you’re wondering, there are psychologists and studies that suggest it’s wrong:

    As for me, I just think it’s obvious that the only thing dealing with negative situations teaches you is how to deal with negative situations. They don’t actually teach you how to make your life subjectively happier, which is what Mr. Buckingham was aiming at.

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