November 21, 2022

Why the idea of strengths and weaknesses is wrong

Throughout my life, I have heard the terms "strengths" and "weaknesses" used to refer to personality traits.

When a particular quality is in abundance, it’s called a strength. And when it is not expressed profusely, it’s labeled a weakness.

“Hey, Darren is an amazing public speaker. He certainly knows how to play to his strengths.”

“Daphne has never been a people person. It’s a weakness that she just can’t overcome.”

Lines like this pass right by us every day and we don’t even think about it. But when I hear people say such things, sirens go off in my head.

Think about it for a second. In the game of chess, each piece has a certain degree of freedom—the queen having the greatest and the pawn having the least.

But it would be wrong to say that the queen is absolutely stronger than the pawn. Both are essential. Both have their utility in a game.

At any given time, people have different sets of pieces with differing degrees of freedom. Players don’t simply think about how they are going to attack their opponents with their queens first. They think about how they can use all their pieces—including those little pawns in a powerful, unified manner. A trapped queen can have no power. And a pawn in the right place can crush the opponent.

The same holds true for our personality traits.

When I talk about personality traits, I lie to refer to them as "tigers" (creatures that want to eat activities).

In this sense, tigers can be big or small. But the size of the tiger alone does not make it a “strength” or a “weakness”. What matters most is what kind of tigers are vital or critical to a particular type of activity. If an activity requires a big tiger and you possess the same big tiger, then it is favorable.

For example, if an airport security officer had big Visual Tigers and a big Protective Tiger, it would be favorable. They would find great satisfaction from watching bags pass through the x-ray machine all day. It would be a feast!

In this case, these traits are assets.

However if the same person had a big Entertaining Tiger, it would be detrimental to them while performing that job. Their tigers would be pulling their attention away from their monitors and instead toward their colleagues and the travelers, wanting to joke around with them and make them laugh.

In this case, this trait would be a liability.

The same would hold true if they had a huge Creative Tiger. Watching the monitor for hours at a time looking for illegal items could be painful—that Creative Tiger would suffocate with the routine work and the inability to express itself freely.

Keep in mind, those same Entertaining and Creative Natures would be critically important for someone who is a public speaker, actor, or influencer.

Here the same big tigers would be assets.

In the same way, if someone had a small Interpersonal Tiger, others would consider them to be “introverted”. And it’s possible that that person might feel that their nominal appetite for socialization to be a weakness.

However, imagine that person had to work as a librarian, researcher, analyst, or actuary—jobs that require the individual to work alone for most of the time. That small Interpersonal Tiger could prove to be truly advantageous!

In short, we can’t make any judgments about whether a trait alone is strong, weak, good, or bad.

And this is a big deal, because often people are encouraged to “leverage their strengths” and “avoid their weaknesses”. Or even worse, to try to “turn a weakness into a strength”.

What we find about the value of our tigers is this: Everything depends upon the circumstance and which qualities are required for the particular activity.

So it's important to:

  • recognize the size of your tigers,
  • consider the situation you are in (or are going into),
  • and find the best way to leverage them.

Don't just take my word for it. Check, mate!