“Play to your strengths.”
“I haven’t got any,” said Harry, before he could stop himself.
“Excuse me,” growled Moody, “you’ve got strengths if I say you’ve got them. Think now. What are you best at?”
It was a hot Monday afternoon in 1984. I had skipped lunch to get caught up on homework. The lack of food and the heat was beginning to weaken me and sap my strength. I took one last look at the homework sheet in front of me. The numbers seemed to make sense. I had followed the exact instructions my 4th grade teacher had given me. Unfortunately the answers seemed to be different each time I reworked the problem. I took a quick peek at the clock. The next class would be starting in a few minutes. Enough was enough I decided. I had done what was expected of me. I started walking out the door to the teacher’s lounge to turn in my already late assignment. Hearing sounds at the front of the class, I looked up and was surprised to see my Mom standing at the door. I had forgotten that she was teaching an elective language class that day.
She in turn was surprised to see me holding that assignment sheet, the one that was supposed to have been turned in already. She frowned as she recalled that I had not had a chance to finish it the night before, I had been too busy perfecting my book report. Those days, I spent most of my free time with a work of fiction in one hand and a dictionary in the other. A horrified look came over her face as she walked up to me and started reviewing my answers.
The assignment was in Fractions, it was a topic that I hated with all the passion of my 8 year old heart. It was obvious to me that I had missed a step somewhere. It did not surprise me that I was not getting the same answer with each new try. My mom hastily helped me make some changes and in 5 minutes I had turned the work in. To my relief, I received a big shiny A on that paper the next day.
I wish I could say that the subject was dropped at the end of that muggy afternoon. Unfortunately that was not the case. I had not heard the last of my lack of math skills. It was a subject that came up often over the next few months. The following summer, while my sister and my cousins spent their time watching TV and playing, I spent countless hours perfecting my grasp of 5th grade Math. The books I had planned to read, works by Enid Blyton and an ambitious venture into Classics (Huckleberry Finn), languished in a corner, while I spent my days mastering the fundamentals of algebraic equations. I think I completed not one but two whole workbooks and my parents were so proud of me that they could not stop bragging to everyone they knew.
What they did not realize was that that summer set a precedent, an unfortunate one at that. It was the beginning of a lifetime I would spend ignoring my strengths, many years I would dissipate in fixing my weaknesses. It left an indelible mark in my memory, because it was the first time I had encountered a weakness. I was good at most subjects at school including Math. In fact I found school to be quite boring and would have been content reading and writing instead. I was an excellent student and did not have a compelling reason to perfect my understanding of one subject, especially one that I was not naturally drawn to. I would have gotten by, quite pleased with my satisfactory performance. However, what I learned when I was 8, shaped my views on competence and performance. I learned a painful lesson that being competent was not adequate, that I was expected to excel, that I would receive attention and praise if I strived for perfection. That anything less than perfect was not acceptable.
After having conquered my weakness in Math, I went on to major in Engineering. Suffice it to say that my entire higher education might be considered a lie because it was built on a weakness and not a strength. Ironically, even as I channelled those albeit weak talents, I discovered a penchant for story telling. I wrote my research papers as if they were stories with characters. I spent countless hours debating the relative merits of fonts. I obsessed over the flow of the narrative and my writing. I also started designing programs to do most of the heavy lifting in running mathematical calculations and found an enduring love of design, software and technology. Alas, I did not see the significance of these interesting tangential pursuits (pun intended). When I graduated and started interviewing for a job, I reverted back to my skills in mathematics. But that is another story…
Why am I compelled to recount this incident now? This happened many years ago and has little bearing on my current situation. These days, I divide my time between software design and writing and I feel very fulfilled indeed. I wrote this story because last month my 10 year old son who is currently in 4th grade, brought me a report card with a B in Math. I could not have been more pleased! Why? Because my son might have inherited some of my crazy genes. He is an artist, a scientist, and a writer. He writes short stories and designs MineCraft levels. I can see the light in his eyes when he is leveraging any of these abilities. I would not take that joy away from him by asking him to focus on what does not excite him. He enjoys Math, but he knows that it is an ancillary skill for him. He belongs to a new generation that is proud to revel in their natural strengths. And I could not be more excited to guide him in his journey to following his dream.
Now, I want to set the record straight. I do not undermine the value of hard work and of working on your shortcomings. It is a worthy goal to identify your faults and bridge the gaps to improve yourself. I strongly believe in the power of setting goals and working towards building a better you. However, what I am referring to here is spending your entire life ignoring your true talents and strengths. I am speaking of giving up those talents that give you pleasure and fulfillment, to pursue something completely against your nature. I am mentioning the tendency that we all have to try to be perfect to please others, at the cost of fixing something that is not really a flaw.
You are a human being with an innate intricacy that cannot be defined by a grade or a performance review. Your essence can not be captured by the simple criteria used in Academia or the Corporate world. Please stop focusing on your weaknesses! Stop dwelling on that which does not define you.
Start instead with what beckons you, intrigues you, and completely immerses you. Gravitate towards what makes you feel as if you exist outside the confines of time. Seek what energizes you, excites you and pushes your creative limits. Dwell on how you can improve in those skills and talents. Unleash the skills you have been hiding, the talent that you might have locked away when you were 8 or 10 or 18. Bring forth your inner artist, scientist, or orator and set them free.
For you will find that when you stop fixing what does not serve you and focus instead on what strengthens you, you will stand a little taller, you will smile a little brighter, you will walk a little quicker. Your inner confidence will shine through. You will captivate people that will be drawn to your ideas, your passion and your energy. You will find venues to augment those very same talents and you will open a gateway to a whole new world.
So tell me, what talents have you been hiding? Have you been attempting to fix weaknesses instead of focus on strengths? How has that served you?