I've always hated job interviews that ask you to divulge your greatest weakness. Dude, I don't want to admit to myself what I'm bad at. Why would I tell someone I've just met something so personal?
Which got me thinking. Do we benefit by talking about our weaknesses? Is there any point to it, other than just making us feel bad about ourselves?
"Weakness" is a vague word. What are we looking for when we ask about someone's weakness? Do we want to know about their vices, something that they are bad at? Do we just want to hear them talk bad about themselves, so that we can feel better about our own insecurities?
I thought I would start with the literal meaning of the word.
- the quality or state of being weak
- a quality or feature that prevents someone or something from being effective or useful
- something that you like so much that you are often unable to resist it
The first definition talks about lack of physical strength.
The second pertains to things that we are bad at.
The third is a vice, a chip in our armor. Think of it like Kryptonite for Superman.
My guess is that when most people ask about weaknesses, they're asking about the second one. They're asking to know what our roadblocks are and what we struggle with on the way to success.
Research shows that realizing and accepting our weaknesses is actually more likely to help us succeed than hinder us.
Kelly McGonigal, author of The Willpower Instinct, shares a study that proves this very concept.
In the study, the subjects were told that they would be participating in studies that included a candy taste test and seeing how food effected mood. To start, women who were trying to watch their weight were asked to eat a whole doughnut within four minutes followed by drinking a full glass of water. The idea behind this is to make them feel uncomfortably full and therefore be more likely to induce guilt. After this, they were asked to complete a survey about how they felt.
Before the second test, half of the women were taken aside. They were told that some participants felt guilty after eating a donut so quickly. Those conducting the study also assured them that everyone watching their weight messes up and eats things that they aren't supposed to, so they ought not to be so hard on themselves. The other half were not told anything.
In the second test, the women were given three large bowls of candy and asked to sample some of each and rate them. They were told that they could have as much as they liked.
Afterwards, the psychologist weighed the bowls to see how much had been eaten. The women that had been taken aside ate 28 grams, whereas those that hadn't ate 70 grams. That's more than twice as much.
But what does this have to do with weaknesses? These women that were taken aside were told that they weren't the only ones to have these weaknesses. They were encouraged to embrace them and learn from them. And that directly translated to success in refraining from candy.
This principle can be applied across the board. When we know where we are most likely to mess up, when we know what we struggle with, we can focus on those areas.
After all, how do you solve a problem if you don't know what that problem is?
Instead of fearing our weaknesses and avoiding talking about, or even thinking about them, here are two equally valid approaches to our weaknesses that I recommend we adopt:
1. Put extra effort and attention towards getting better in that specific area
We've all heard that practice makes perfect. That applies to personal weaknesses as well. The more you work at getting better in that area, the less that will be a weakness. If you work at it long enough, soon it will even become a strength!
I highly recommend reading The Willpower Instinct: How Self-Control Works, Why It Matters, and What You Can Do to Get More of It. Kelly takes you through 10 weeks of willpower experiments and ways to change your behaviors for good. This is an amazing way to give up your vices, to improve those areas of yourself that you want to be better at.
2. Accept that you aren't good at it and try to find ways to work around it
Of course, there is just no way that we can fix all of our weaknesses. There is only one Superman after all, and for those of us that aren't fortunate enough to be superheroes, we have to work within our limited capacities. In these instances, don't focus on your weaknesses. Acknowledge that you are weak in this area and focus on your strengths instead. If it's something that you really can't get by without, then ask someone to help you or do it for you. Businesses and entrepreneurs hire other professionals to help them in areas they are lacking. You can do the same for your personal shortcomings.
(If you find that one of your shortcomings so happens to be writing, I can help you with that!)