Personal Development in the Modern Age

In our society, a lot of emphasis is put on personal development - and rightly so. Growing and learning are both deeply ingrained human needs. In fact, the late author and business thinker Stephen Covey included "Learning" in his list of the four fundamental human desires in his book "The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People". There is no doubt that personal development is important.

There remains one question though: what should you develop? Conventional wisdom would have you believe that you should spend all your time on your weaknesses. After all, your strengths are already... well, strengths, right? It's not what you're good at that holds you back. 

While I agree that everyone should identify their weaknesses and work to improve them, I think that the focus of personal development needs to be turned on its head. I believe that if people focused more attention on strengthening their existing strengths, then very good things could happen.

Why Strengthen a Strength?

So, why in the world would I suggest that someone strengthen a strength? Let me answer your question with another question: how did you develop the strengths you have in the first place? I'm willing to bet your answer is one or more of the following:

  • You're naturally good at something, and its become a strength
  • You had or have excellent mentors for these strengths
  • You're passionate about something, which has made it very easy to develop a certain expertise
  • You feel fulfilled when you put these strengths to work, so you keep practicing them

Great! Now let's think about your weaknesses. Why do you suppose they're weaknesses? 

  • You don't have any particular natural ability
  • You don't have a good mentor
  • You're not all that interested
  • Putting these skills to work just wouldn't be the kind of thing that would get you up in the morning

So riddle me this: why would you expend all sorts of energy on things you don't like, aren't passionate about, and aren't fulfilled by? Tom Rath, the author of "StrengthsFinder 2.0", poses this exact question. He argues that if a given person spent more time identifying what their true strengths were and focused on them, they'd be unstoppable. That mixture of passion and talent is a powerful thing. Can you imagine if everyone you worked with were really into what they did and were really good at it? How amazing a place would that be to work? (Answer: Freakin' awesome).

But What if I Need to Develop Certain Weaknesses?

It could be that you don't have much of a choice but to develop some of your weaknesses. Maybe there's a position that you'd be perfect for if only you had that one skill. That's just fine - go for it! I'm not arguing that you should ignore your weaknesses. Not at all. That would be professional suicide. What I am arguing is that refining your strengths yields a relatively higher rate of return and should not be pushed to the side in favour of developing your weaknesses. 

What I would suggest is that you apply Pareto's principle to developing your weaknesses. Pareto's principle is often called the 80/20 rule. If you've never heard of this, it basically says that you can get 80% of the benefit for putting in 20% of the effort in any given situation. The remaining 20% of the benefit comes from the remaining 80% of the effort. This applies to work, economics, athletics, you name it. So with respect to developing weaknesses, I recommend you target the 80% benefit level as opposed to 100% proficiency. Put in the 20% of the effort you need to In order to achieve competence in your weak areas, and forget about the rest. With the time and stress you save, you'll have all sorts of bandwidth to devote to what you love and what you can be truly great at. 

Moving Forward

What strengths of yours could you be working to improve in order to develop real expertise? What weaknesses are you spending too much time and energy fighting against? Let me know in the comments section below and I promise to reply to each and every comment. 

About the Author

Pat Sweet is an Electrical Engineer in Training in Ontario, Canada. He’s a full-time designer of all-electric trains and the author behind the Engineering and Leadership blog, where he shares his thoughts and experiences on leadership, productivity, and career advice for young engineers. Go to Pat’s blog now to get your free copy of his free career guide –The 7 Habits of a Highly Ineffective Engineer."

Photo Credit: pasukaru76


 

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