Nir’s Note: This guest post is by Auren Hoffman, the CEO of LiveRamp in San Francisco. This essay is a bit different from the normal subject matter on the blog but I hope it will stir some discussion about which of our personal habits are worth improving. Connect with Auron on Twitter at @auren or on Facebook.

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To really differentiate yourself in this winner-take-all world, you should be focusing on improving your strengths, not your weaknesses.

Most people who set out to improve themselves focus on their faults.  For example, here’s Bridget Jones’ list:

“Resolution number one: Obviously will lose twenty pounds. Number two: Always put last night’s panties in the laundry basket. Equally important, will find sensible boyfriend to go out with and not continue to form romantic attachments to any of the following: alcoholics, workaholics, commitment phobics, peeping toms, megalomaniacs, emotional wits or perverts.”

While I don’t deny that it’s good habit to place your undergarments in the laundry bin, it is not the best way to achieve greatness. People who focus on their faults can eventually improve them to a point where they are no longer obstacles, but doing so will not propel them to success. A better strategy is to focus on one or two of the things at which you excel and hone those skills or talents to the point of excellence. Working on your faults might help you make a living, but honing your talents may help you change the world.

We are all judged on a variety of traits. We might have four bad traits, another four mediocre ones, and one or two for which we are admired. We all recognize the four at bad ones; we make New Year’s resolutions to improve them.

The truth is that you can never get great at things in which you are bad. At best, you can hope to upgrade to adequate. That can be nice because your boss, spouse, and friends will stop nagging you about those shortcomings. Back when we were living in the savannah, this was key to survival. People had to perform many different functions and if they were very bad at one of them, they’d let the tribe down, possibly lowering their own life expectancy or putting the tribe at risk.

The impulse to focus on your weaknesses is a vestigial remain of an outmoded era in our evolution. Indulging that impulse won’t lead to success because we are in a modern winner-take-all world. In this world, outsized returns go to greatness, so it’s better to focus on one or two things at which you truly excel and strive to become great at them.

Going from good to great is really hard. But so is going from poor to mediocre. If you have a predisposition or talent for a trait it’s likely to be something you love to do and you’ll enjoy the process of refining it.

If one of your really good traits is that you’re good-looking, you should focus on being great-looking, because in your category the spoils will go to a few people. So spend the money and time on those expensive haircuts, the rigorous fitness routine, and the flattering clothes.

Suppose you are really good at developing computer algorithms and really bad at showing up on time. It might take an X amount of effort to become really great at computer algorithms and let’s say it takes X/4 effort to become average at showing up on time. Both are improvements that increase your value, but being great at computer algorithms will pay exponential dividends.

Or let’s say you’re ugly but hilarious enough that strangers pay you to make them laugh. Working on your comedic skills will go a lot further than losing some weight. Being the funniest person in town is going to make you stand out.

Have you ever noticed that all the most successful people have massive, glaring weaknesses? Think of Bill Clinton’s well-known faults. But he has one or two traits in which he is world class. That’s all you need to be a superstar. Same thing goes for Martin Luther King Jr., Gandhi, Steve Jobs, and any other person that has changed the world. What does Tiger Woods do that’s so great? He hits golf balls long and accurately . . . and that’s what he will be remembered for. People — all people — have very obvious flaws.  Instead of spending massive amounts of energy on those flaws, spend it on making yourself great.

Of course, it’s not as easy as I make it sound, or else everyone would achieve greatness. To be outstanding requires passion, dedication, and extraordinary commitment. The great pianist Arthur Rubinstein practiced as much as 16 hours a day at some point in his career. He said that if he missed practice for one day, then he knew it. But if he missed practice for three days, his public knew it.

For most of us it might be too late to be a concert pianist, a champion golf player, or a prima ballerina. However, we do have talents and natural abilities that, if honed, can propel us much further than remedying our faults.

This guest post is by Auren Hoffman.
Photo Credit: Bohman via Compfight cc

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  • http://www.WeddingSnap.com/ Sasha Eslami

    Wow…great post! It makes me think whether as team leaders we should enforce others to improve their weaknesses (e.g. showing up on time) or encourage them to go for the “great”

  • http://www.game-changer.net Jorge Barba

    Hi Auren,

    I’m of the belief, maybe because I’m competitive, that we should work on our weaknesses as much as we do our strengths.

    I’ve never really followed the conventional view that we should focus only on our strengths. It is a very practical way of saying: “See, you’re good at something! Keep doing more of that and you’ll always be happy! Don’t worry about your weaknesses”.

    I understand the psychology behind it. It is the “small wins” concept applied to personal development. But I think this view limits our capability. Not to mention human potential, because we all have weaknesses. And it is in these weaknesses where we can better challenge ourselves.

    Like psychological biases, which people think they don’t have, we should acknowledge and attack them. Let’s not be afraid to accept that we are human after all. For me, the real skill is to be able to turn a weakness into a strength. There are very few people who are able to do this.

    Maybe only athletes, or highly competitive people who want to always have an edge.

    I believe that simply deciding to work on your weaknesses, is its own strength.

    If you takes this to the macro level, the same happens to organization. They stay close to the core. And they simply change when they have to (Grim Reaper moments).

    When instead, choosing to change is its own evolutionary advantage.

    Bottom line: It’s easy to work on your strengths. If you want to be the best, you
    need to work on your weaknesses. Not many do, which is why most people
    are average.

    To get there, you have to constantly fight human nature. And most don’t.

  • Andy Huang

    I’m actually very disappointed by this post. Most of your posts are backed up by data, research, or anecdotes. This post is not like that at all. In fact, it’s one person’s opinion that’s not based on anything besides his limited personal experience.

    My personal experience has taught me something very different. I agree that focusing on strengths is important, but it takes a long time to become world class or at least recognized for your strengths. And in the meantime, it’s your weaknesses that will hold you back from advancing in your career to a point where you can really let your strengths shine.

    When you are an entry level employee, management cares about if you can communicate well, write well, get along with people, and get things done. If you can’t fulfill those basic requirements, it doesn’t matter how great you are at one particular thing, you will not be a good employee that brings value to the organization.

    What I find most disturbing about this post is that it seems to argue that it’s okay to have a glaring weakness. It’s okay to be an adulterer because Clinton was successful. It’s okay to be an asshole to employees because Jobs was. 99.9% of the population are not like Clinton or Jobs, and will not live a successful life holding onto their glaring weaknesses. This type of thinking is why people make unethical decisions that bring pain and suffering to others.

    I believe a better way to live is to focus on being kind, generous, and grateful, while working towards a mission you truly believe in that will make the world a better place.

  • Chuck O’Connor

    This post proves that one can apply logic to any premise and arrive at a reasoned conclusion but it does not offer wisdom. The premise that we live in a “winner take all world” ignores the necessary social aspects of success. We’ve evolved due to our ability to socialize, not operate out of selfish scarcity. The premise to this piece provides a Machiavellian ethic our world needs to avoid. Ignoring the consequences of one’s weaknesses in praise of one’s strengths might allow for an ego-reinforcing level of competitive grit, but it also increases the probability for externalities that destroy social sustainability. For example, George W. Bush’s religious sentiment towards the righteous rescue of Iraqi people living in tyranny was consistent with his strength for religious passion. His desire for pre-emptive war out of this failed to recognize that his strength contained his weakness, magical thinking within a realistic world. You operate from the fallacy of the excluded middle and fail to understand that being a useful human is not an algorithm. This kind of reductionist thinking needs to be challenged so that ethics focused on social good might flourish.

  • Justin Pollard

    I think many of my fellow commenters read a bit too much into Auren’s post. He simply offers his opinion (which is far from an isolated opinion) on how a human might achieve greatness. If you’re goal is not greatness, then appreciate the article for what it is: Auren’s reasoned opinion. I don’t believe that Auren ignored the “social aspects of succcess” @chuck_o_connor:disqus; he states at least that “We are all judged on a variety of traits. We might have four bad traits, another four mediocre ones, and one or two for which we are admired.” That statement alone acknowledges that we don’t live in isolation, but are rather “judged” by our peers. Auren also doesn’t say anything about “operat[ing] out of selfish scarcity,” unless you think that it’s selfish to improve your strengths rather than weaknesses. @disqus_fpHW6por33:disqus I do agree that this post isn’t backed by data, but I wasn’t disappointed by that because that deficiency isn’t hidden. Auren cite’s vague anecdotal/subjective “evidence” at best; he obviously didn’t mean this post to be a rigorous study. I personally didn’t see the argument “that it’s okay to have a glaring weakness.” When speaking of Clinton, Auren reason’s that “he has one or two traits in which he is world class. That’s all you need to be a superstar.” Is that true? It very well may be. Probably because it’s exceedingly difficult to be great (and I mean great) at multiple/ many things. There are certainly skills that overlap, but there just isn’t enough time in the day to dedicate to greatness in multiple arenas. I also want to be clear that I agree with you that “being kind, generous, and grateful, while working towards a mission you truly believe in” are probably pretty good qualities in general, but they aren’t mutually exclusive to Auren’s thesis (you can be great at being kind, generous, and grateful – Mother Teresa, perhaps is an example). @jorgebarba:disqus I thought that your statement “I’m of the belief, maybe because I’m competitive, that we should work on our weaknesses as much as we do our strengths” was an interesting one, because I think often of the opposite when I think of competitiveness. Some of the most competitive people I know excel in one area and stay away from the others in which they aren’t as skilled. For example, my college teammate Nathan Adrian was the Olympic champion in the 100 freestyle in London, but he wasn’t a great basketball or ping pong player, nor that good at football or baseball. In fact, he stayed away from those sports in order to achieve the highest level of success in another in which he is highly skilled. He didn’t bat an eye at not achieving in those areas because he owned his area. While those other endeavors are far removed from the pool, even in the pool Nathan probably spends 85-90% of his time swimming freestyle; he’s not trying to become a mediocre breaststroker, and I don’t think he cares, but rather leaves breaststroke to the breaststrokers. I’m definitely not saying that Nathan isn’t pretty good at a lot of things, but he is world class in one: sprint freestyle.

  • Klaas Punselie

    Regardless of the opinions on a winner-takes-all-world… If you want to live a happy life, focussing on your strenghts instead of weaknesses is probably one of the smartest choices to make. The leverage on the quality of life – your experiences from moment to moment – is enormous. I believe Seligman and others in the field of ‘postive psychology’ offer scientific views on this.

    It is all about valuing the uniqueness of each and every human being. To embrace and live out your natural talents and thus make the most out of life. Who would not want that? To me, enabling myself and others to take that route is simply the expression of love.

    Besides, who wants the downsides of the alternative, like uniformity, mediocricy, and decreased vitality, Isn’t any social group – and society as a whole – better off with lots of diversity amongst its members? That is good for survival, and makes life much more interesting and fun.

  • http://blog.summation.net Auren Hoffman

    Thanks everyone for reading and for the thoughtful comments.

    @Justin Pollard I think you hit the nail on the head here. My argument is focused on a strategy to achieve greatness, not on the values one adopts in that pursuit. Admittedly, my post isn’t rich with data, but we all can think of many great people whom we revere that had faults they never corrected.

    Ultimately, it comes down to a matter of time. We only have so long to live, so we must decide how much time to allocate to improving each of our attributes. You can’t be great at it all, and it may not even be worth becoming mediocre at some things.

    @Klaas Punselie I agree that working on your strengths is a way to embrace your uniqueness. Indeed, variation in traits is what drove this world to evolve into its current state. Nurturing our best attributes over weaker ones makes the most of the variations that shape us.

    @Andy Huang It does take a very long time to become world class at something, and investing time working on other traits or skills can therefore impede greatness. That being said, there are some baseline things we all have to do competently. We all need basic communication and social skills to get anywhere in life. But we only have so much time on this earth, and in a sense we have to pick our battles in deciding which skills to hone. Arthur Rubenstein wouldn’t have been a world-class musician if he spent time working on his math skills instead of devoting every waking moment he could to his art.

    On the issue of glaring weaknesses: I do not condone bad behavior, but throughout history there are many people we celebrate who at times behaved badly. This post isn’t about commenting on the morality of great people’s vices. It’s about some of the sacrifices greatness demands. And given that we’re all confined to 24 hours per day, some skills need to fall by the wayside so that we can practice the talent we treasure.

    @Chuck O’Connor Undoubtedly there are social aspects to success, and I don’t dispute that in my post. I also don’t believe wrongdoing or a “Machiavellian” mindset are necessary to be a superstar. I am only advancing the argument that one can’t be great at everything, and given the practical constraints we all face, many of us would be better served by becoming great at one thing than mediocre at many.

    Nothing in my argument cuts against doing social good. In fact, if you excel at skills that enable you to do social good, then I would suggest you should focus exclusively on those skills. I don’t care if Gandhi or Martin Luther King Jr. were great at baseball or not. They were two of the most influential people in the 20th Century. They likely wouldn’t have changed history if they spent more time or their fielding skills.

    @Jorge Barba I disagree that it’s easy to work on your strengths. On the contrary, when you’re very good at something it is extremely challenging and sometimes even tedious to get better. Moving from the 95th percentile to the 99th takes relentless practice for what feels like a marginal reward. A world class sprinter could devote all her time to getting better, and only improve a fraction of a second. But that fraction is the difference between gold and bronze. That’s what being a superstar is all about: sacrificing a lot to get to that next level, even when that level’s only a millisecond better.

    @Sasha Eslami I definitely think we should foster the strengths of the people we manage instead of trying to shore up their shortcomings. Just like in sports, we need people with different skills to fill different roles. It would be a waste of time to train Joe Montana to kick or Willie Mays to pitch.

  • Michael Rapadas

    It’s never too late.

    Weaknesses are simply a thin construct based on mere comparison. Great people transform themselves in unpredictable ways everyday. People don’t succeed because they know their limitations, rather, because they accept there are none to begin with.