Weaknesses are the shadow sides of strengths.

And so while we tend to think of strengths and weaknesses as two different things, in reality they’re often two sides of the same thing. It’s not just semantics: it’s a shift in perspective that can transform how we see ourselves and those around us. For instance, if you don’t know what your strengths are, a good starting point is to look at your weaknesses.

One of my most intelligent friends often described herself as “too critical.” We were both volunteers in a youth work nonprofit, which was how we met and became friends. She was fairly quiet, but if you ever asked what she thought you would often get a solid takedown of whatever you were asking about. She was good at spotting stuff that wouldn’t work and would let you have it. Then she’d apologise because she didn’t mean to be hurtful, but you did ask for it.

I saw her differently. 

I found her ideas thought-provoking. I’m easily enamoured of good ideas, so it was always nice to be able to bounce mine off of her. When a couple of years after we met I was chosen to be camp director for our annual summer camp, she was one of my most important sounding boards. But unexpectedly she also turned out to be one of my greatest sources of encouragement: if she liked your idea, you knew you had a hit. More important, I could trust that her honesty was borne of wanting stuff to be truly great.

Same friend, different perspectives. What others experienced as a flaw, I found a strength.

It makes you wonder: what flaws of yours are really upside down strengths?

We do this all the time. I hear it all the time, and so do you when you think about it. We describe people as too stubborn, too laid back, too rigid, too emotional, too dramatic. But we could just as easily describe them as determined, relaxed, structured, connected to their emotions, and full of life.

It’s all in the perspective: what end you’re looking from.

Turn any strength inside out and you find a weakness.

It’s not a new idea. Anyone who’s prepped for job interviews has had to plan for the inevitable: “Tell us about your weaknesses.” And the standard (and very good) advice is to frame each weakness in terms of a strength. But how many people realise this is really a valuable life skill, not just a job interview trick?

This perspective is helpful because if you’re like me, you’re more easily aware of your weaknesses than your strengths. And it’s not hard to see why that is: the reality for many of us is we’re told when we get things wrong, but not so much when we get them right. As Kanye raps in Follow God

“Screamin’ at my dad and he told me, “It ain’t Christ-like”
But nobody never tell you when you’re being like Christ.”

Kanye West, “Follow God” (Jesus is King album)

Weaknesses get our attention because it’s easy to identify what we (and others) don’t do well. So while we’ve all heard the advice about how it’s smarter to work on your strengths rather than try to eliminate your weaknesses, we somehow keep finding ourselves doing just the opposite. You can only work on what takes up your attention, after all.

On the other hand, we don’t recognise our strengths precisely because they’re our strengths.

We take ourselves for granted. It’s ironic but understandable: our strengths, by definition, come easy to us. They don’t feel like a big deal, because they’re just stuff we can do without even thinking. When I was a kid, about age 7, I genuinely thought kids who couldn’t draw had to be less intelligent. At that age I’d somehow already absorbed the idea that the inability to do something meant to be easy must imply something wrong with them. 

It would take a few more years to understand it only meant I happened to be stronger in that ability—their strengths lay elsewhere. I can’t exactly dance, after all.

In my essay about how it’s better to be pointy than well rounded, I argued that it was better to accept that being strong in specific areas inevitably means being weaker in others. You might say your weaknesses are the opportunity cost of your strengths

The flip side of that? If you were somehow to successfully eradicate those weaknesses, you’d have successfully eliminated the strengths that created them. As any expert knows, you can’t be at the top of your game if you’re not prepared to let go of other games.

Two things I’m not implying here.

First, I’m not trying to say our weaknesses aren’t really weaknesses.

To say that would be to imply that the areas we’re weak in don’t matter, which in turn implies that those with strengths in those areas don’t matter either. No, our weaknesses really are weaknesses. What I’m saying is that our weaknesses aren’t simply independent—they don’t exist in a vacuum. They exist precisely because of our strengths. But they’re still weaknesses, which means they can still hurt us and others—which ties to the other thing I’m not saying…

I’m not suggesting we should simply accept them our weaknesses, or insist that others do “because it’s from my strength!”

No, we also have a responsibility to try to limit the impact of our weaknesses on others. And we should recognise our need of the strengths of others where we are weak, and if we’re lucky and they offer those strengths, we had better accept it. Even when they don’t, it doesn’t hurt to deliberately ask for it—people tend not to know what you need if you don’t say anything.

This business of recognising our need of the strengths of others is easier said than done. In practice, we tend to have a lot of friction with those whose strengths we need. By now you can probably guess why: the weaknesses of theirstrengths will seem absurd to us in light of our own strengths.

That’s the most important strength of all: being able to be humble enough to accept that we can’t be and do everything—we need others. 

And that’s not a bad thing. It’s how things should be.

So own your strengths, hone your edges and ask for help.

My thanks to Najla Alriefy, George Diversiev, Erik Newhard and David Vargas and Joseph Kuo for looking over early drafts, and to Cristofer Jeschke for the photo (via Unsplash).

Published by Doc Ayomide

I’m a medical doctor with specialty training in psychiatry, and I love thinking and writing about what it means to be human.

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