Something I wrestle with from time to time is whether to focus on my strengths or my weaknesses. On one hand, weaknesses often represent the lowest hanging fruit. If I'm really bad at, say, programming, a small amount of effort can radically increase my abilities. If I was excellent at programming, that same amount of effort would produce negligible results. On the other hand, time spent by a skilled programmer will create usable work, whereas time spent as a poor programmer probably won't produce anything useful.
An interesting thing to consider is that where you spend your time will define who you are as a person. A person who spends all of his time on his strengths will be a very narrowly focused person. He gets good at something and keeps hammering away at it until he's an expert. He who spends time focusing on his weaknesses will have a very broad focus. He'll be fairly good at lots of little things, but not a true expert in any.
So which is better? Well, despite the impression I give in a lot of my writing, not everything has to be extreme. This is one of those cases where an optimal path may lie somewhere in the middle.
For most of my life I've been way on the side of working on my weaknesses. I was terrible with girls, so I became a pickup artist (but quit before I got as good as people like Mystery, Style, Tyler, etc.). I made no money, so I became a professional gambler. Even though I spoke passable Spanish and Chinese, I switched to learning Japanese. I had never traveled, so I spent a year going everywhere. Whenever I saw a big weakness, I would dive into it head on. Once I cross that "decent" threshhold, I'd back off and start something new.
There advantages to this method. I know a little bit about lots of things and have a wider range of skills than most people I know have. At the same time, very few of those skills are developed at a very high level. If I meet a random person and we both speak Chinese, chances are he'll speak better than I will, since I stopped working on it after I got okay.
The other major advantage to having a broad skillset is that you can translate skills from one field to another, often giving you insight that others don't have. For example, when I play poker I'm utilizing things I learned in pickup. There's a rhythm to pickup of pushing and pulling, finding that line between agression and invitation and straddling it. Same with poker. Some of the pickup pathways built up in my brain are traversed when I'm playing poker.
On the other hand, focusing on weaknesses can become a cowards path. The path from skilled to excellent is scary because you face the possibility of real failure. The higher you go in the pyramid, the more your skills will be critiqued by others and the more likely you are to find a barrier that you aren't strong enough to push through. That happened to me in pickup-- it was such a hard thing to do, that once I got good enough, I no longer had the motivation to push to the levels that some of my friends reached.
The greatest advantage to focusing on strengths is that it allows you to produce impactful work. Writing is one of my strengths, and after almost seven years of continued work on it, I can actually influence other people in a positive way, just by typing. I am useful to society. I'm really bad at painting, but I do find it interesting. If I were to start painting right now, and then quit once I got the hang of it, my art would never get to the level that others would gain from it. I would benefit from the study, but no one else would.
The danger of focusing on strengths is that it can lead to a sort of myopia that restricts creativity. The best programmers aren't necessarily the ones who start the best companies. They can build software that is a true work of art in its efficiency and elegance, but won't necessarily come up with the idea that will benefit most from their expertise. If I had trained my whole life to be a programmer, I would have never built SETT, even though I could have coded it in a fraction of the time. It was my experience as a blogger that showed me how important a new platform could be, and my experience as a member of various communities (gambling, pickup) that gave me ideas on how a community could best be organized.
If I were to estimate a balance, I'd say that two-thirds of one's focus should be spent on his strengths, and one third on his weaknesses. For real positive contribution we need to work from our strengths, and only a majority of our focus will create strengths large enough to create impact. At the same time, weaknesses must be developed to eliminate Achilles' heels and to give us the context and unique perspective that allows us to best exploit our strengths.
Going to Vegas this weekend with a dozen or so techie poker fanatics... should be interesting.
The Valve "Handbook for new employees" has a definition that fits quite well on how they expect people to approach this tradeoff.
They are talking about "T"-shaped people, the horizontal bar of the T stands for a broad skillset, knowing lots about many different topics. And the vertical bar of the "T" stand for very specialized and deep knowledge in one very specific topic. So they are looking for people that are good at many things and very, very good at one or a few things.
And to be quite honest. I like that approach and try to live up to that.
I think it fits quite well with the Idea of strengths and weaknesses. In your strong fields you acquire knowledge that is vastly superior, and in your weak fields you try to at least get to a level where you can get by and achieve decent results.
Yeah, I agree that the T is a good shape (and a good concept). I also found the Valve handbook to be very interesting.
I think that the real value in the "top" of the T isn't that you can do all of those things, but that you can synthesize them together to approach the long part of the T from angles others wouldn't have thought of.
A friend made a point the other day related to this. He has a very deep knowledge of MAT and body structure (skeletal/muscular). For example, he knows the important systems and the exceptions and why they are exceptions. He understands the relationships and the core principles as a whole system...as opposed to just a collection of facts and rules of thumb. And he has used this knowledge in practice for many years, so he has experience with how it holds up to the real world.
He said when he makes a decision in that realm, he has a level of confidence in that decision that is very high. By comparison, when he makes a decision in a different realm where he is less skilled, he's not as confident. So having that deep knowledge in one area gives him a perspective on what deep knowledge is, and what areas he doesn't have it in. It gives him the ability to know what he doesn't know.
I love the idea that you fit into a different archetype depending on what your skill profile looks like. You could draw a curve, right, to show where you invest your time.
My intuitive sense is it's a power law thing; I have an extremely small set of skills at which I aim for true mastery (management/leadership skills and software engineering skills.) I have maybe 4x as many serious hobbies, and then 4x as many miscellaneous hobbies, and 4x as many very occasional pastimes, and then 4x as many things I'll ever try even once in my life.
And I want to spend, say, half my time on the set of all things I want to truly master, half as much on the serious hobbies, half again as much on the casual stuff, etc.
I want a broad set of life experiences, hence the "I'll do this exactly once" category, and in the next category up I also want to get as much as possible of whatever sounds even vaguely interesting, because I need to give things a chance to decide if I should push them up into higher categories - rock climbing and even programming were once casual hobbies, too.
I like that curve - enough exposure to get a lot of cross-disciplinary thinking going on and cultivate insights. I use a lot of metaphors when I talk and write, which I attribute to my exposure to a lot of different experiences, and a cultivated ability to spot similarities between them. I think the human brain loves metaphors, and I think the work of forming them makes us smarter.
One question I can't really answer is "How do I know there's not something out there that, if I really gave it a chance, would become the true passion of my life and take over as the thing I want most to master?" I guess the answer is, I don't know. But I do think I'm approaching life in a way that best balances the chance of finding that stuff with the investment in mastering the things I already know I love, and still finding time for a variety of other stuff to enrich me as a person.
Thanks for the thoughtful post, it really made me think.
> Well, despite the impression I give in a lot of my writing, not everything has to be extreme.
Who are you and what have you done to Tynan??
The post is not displaying properly for me: The image and text overflows to the right, going past the white "content box" onto the black background.
I'm using Firefox on 1600x900.
Is this a new bug, or has it always been like this?
Why does one approach have to be "better" than another? That's consistent with the theme that runs through so many of these blog posts (sometimes implicit, sometimes explicit), that the goal of life is to optimize or maximize some sort of measurable outcome.
That's one point of view. (It's a very male point of view.) But it's far from the only one. The "must be measurable" point of view ultimately leads to life dissatisfaction. You need to be a certain age - past the halfway point - to know what I'm talking about. The Buddhists have some good insight on this topic. Anything by Thich Nhat Hanh or Pema Chodron is a great starting point.
The goal of life isn't to measure or optimize, but those are the avenues through which goals can be reached. There's no "set" goal in life-- we all get to make our own. I've decided what mine are, and so I ruthlessly optimize towards that. And I write to share these ideas, so that if others are trying to reach goals, they can hopefully use a bit of what I've learned.
I don't think that this is the only point of view, just mine. I measure my life as a tool to advance towards my goals. There's no chance of dissatisfaction-- my only criteria for being satisfied is to determine what I think is best and to follow it. That changes over time, but I don't resent past time spent going in a different direction, because I know that it was part of my evolution.
In the same way someone could sell a company for a billion dollars and be "financially set for life", I've spent time working on my attitude and thought processes and am set for life with happiness. Literally nothing could happen that would change my happiness. So just as the billionaire stops worrying about money, I don't worry about happiness or satisfaction, because they're already taken care of.
I'm confident in saying that because for the past seven years or so I haven't been unhappy once. But at the same time, I've been wrong before, so I may, as you say, gain a new perspective when I get older.
> Literally nothing could happen that would change my happiness.
I've known a number of people who have suffered severe mental illness, including depression, personality disorders, and paranoid schizophrenia. I hope none of that happens to you, and there's no reason to think it will.
You seem happy. I'm glad you're happy. So why am I writing? As a response to your absolute certainty that your happiness is entirely your "own doing," rather than (partly) a function of good genes, good upbringing, and good luck. Because if it's all your doing, it seems to follow that the less-happy are entirely responsible for their misfortunes. (Which I don't believe is the case.) And this leads to an uncaring, unempathetic view of the world.
I think that the vast majority of people are 100% in control of their own happiness. I don't necessarily blame those who aren't happy, though, because society does a good job convincing us that happiness comes from anywhere but within.
On the other hand, there are definitely people whose happiness is not within their control, like the people you mention above. If your brain just doesn't produce seratonin, for example, there's probably not much you can do to become happy.
Tynan, you keep misspelling serotonin. Usually I don't care too much about typos, but since I saw that one in several of your posts/comments, I thought I'd point it out to you. I love most of your posts, but if you are throwing around scientific terms, misspelling them might harm your credibility.
Sorry for grammar/spelling naziing, but I just often observe in myself that I seem to take texts less serious the more errors they contain, unless it is clear that it is only a rough draft of something.
On a sidenote: Am I right in that it is only possible to search the actual posts, not the comments, with the search bar on the main page?
Thanks... I will spell it correctly now and spell-check all posts before sending them out.
Right now there is no way to search comments except for searching an individual's comments. If people want this feature, I can add it fairly easily.
I think it could be good thing to be able to search comments globally. I don't know whether it is SETT, this particular community, or a combination of both, but I often see long insightful posts in the discussions. It would be a shame if someone would not be able to find these. Votes could be incorporated in the search result ranking. BONUS: Ranking by average awesomeness (votes) of poster.
Fantastic post. And I think this is pretty close to how I divide up the pie chart. But I am not so sure sure that people like Bartok went 2/3 on his music and the world is a better place for it.
A great sentence to end it with. The achilles heel thing is almost redundant, but yes, helping us to put our strengths in context- creating unpredictable synergies, that's spot on
Even though you have some amazing stories on your blog, I think this is my favorite post so far. I feel the depth.
Tynan, this is ZERO point in focusing on a persons weaknesses. That is like Michael Jordan quitting basketball to become a high school spanish teacher.
This goes for everyone: find out your strengths and see how far you can go with that. Steve jobs might have been bad at tennis, who cares he built Apple....Power out
I think the use of the word "weaknesses" may be partly misleading in this article. Why would you call everything you're not good at a weakness? It might be fitting for things that are important parts of most anyone's life, like finance and social skills. But I would not call developing a broad skill set "working on weaknesses."
Steve Jobs is actually a good example of this... in his Stanford Commencement speech of 2005 he talks about how taking a calligraphy class (of all things) in college greatly contributed to the design of the mac, and that there were many more things like that. So he actually built a broad skillset and did not only focus on some specialized "strength."
I've been saying that college is obsolete for a very long time. I dropped out in 2000, because even back then I could see that it was a really poor value proposition. I didn't predict this because I'm some crazy genius, but because I'm willing to discard emotional attachment and stare plainly at the facts.
School is outrageously expensive, leaving graduates with a debt (or net expenditure) of tens of thousands of dollars-- sometimes even one or two hundred thousand. There are some things that are worth that amount of money, but for many people school isn't one of them. In fact, apart from very specific cases, I think that school is a bad thing, not worth doing even if it was free.
That's not to say that school has no benefits whatsoever. It does, and although I left with zero additional skills after my three semesters there, I had a good time and benefited from the social aspect. The problem is that you can't just compare college to doing nothing at all. You have to compare it to what you COULD have done.
Let's say that when you turn eighteen, it's a good idea to take four years to develop yourself. College is one way to do that. If we were to construct an alternative way to do that, what could it look like? One of the biggest weaknesses of school is how inflexible it is, so one of the greatest benefits of designing your own curriculum is that you could come up with one that uniquely suits you. That said, here's a plan that I think would benefit many people MORE than school would. Let's call it the Hustler's MBA.
Many people think that focusing on addressing their weaknesses is the path to success. I don't always have the cleanest desk, and I often get the idea that if it was neater I'd be more successful. I think about it quite a bit, half-heartedly try different techniques, and get disappointed in myself when I find it messy once again.
But now I've read a bunch of stuff that says that the opposite is true. People have more success when they focus on strengths. Patch up the weaknesses to the extent where they won't totally sink the boat, but don't try to turn them into strengths. Instead, find opportunities and situations where strengths can be used naturally, and work to develop and refine strengths.
A good definition of strengths is "pre-existing patterns of thoughts, feelings, and behavior that are authentic, energizing, and lead to our best performance" (from Practicing Positive Psychology Coaching). To a significant extent, strengths are a part of our nature. Maybe a good analogy is to think of them as tools. A screwdriver could be strengthened by using a different metal, or the tip could be shaped differently to more positively engage with screws, or the handle could be changed to provide a better grip. But a screwdriver makes a lousy hammer. If a person is given a set of tools in childhood, it's best to focus on refining them and finding ways to use them rather than trying to use them in unintended ways.
How can you tell what your strengths are? There are assessments, several online here. I take them repeatedly, just to confirm that they keep coming out the same (they generally do). There's another interesting way: when people are using their strengths, they often do the following: