“Soooo, tell me about your strengths and weaknesses…”
Do you experience that ominous “deer in headlights” feeling when you hear this question? What does it even mean? What are the things you identify as strengths? Why do you label them as such? Is it because it is an ability or skill at which you excel? Is it something you do better than most people? Who or what measures what a strength or weakness is? This question–especially in an interview–can be tricky terrain to navigate.
As one who has sat on both sides of this question–I will try to provide some insight and direction on how you should approach this extremely slippery slope.
Understanding your true strengths and weaknesses
Discovering your true strengths and weaknesses isn’t just critical for nailing a job interview. It is a fundamental key to your success in all aspects of life.
Marcus Buckingham, author of Go Put Your Strengths To Work, provides the purest and concise explanation for determining what is a strength and what is a weakness. And it has nothing to do with what you are good at or how you fair against others.
“A better definition of a strength,” said Buckingham, “is an activity that makes you feel strong. And a weakness is an activity that makes you feel weak. Even if you’re good at it, if it drains you, that’s a weakness.”
Consider that statement for a moment. Are you starting to gain a bit more context and insight into what your true strong suits and deficiencies are?
I am extremely “good with people.” I am compassionate, considerate, attentive, encouraging and accommodating. I am good at getting the best out of people, calming intense situations and making people feel heard, validated and appreciated. I work at it. I study people. I am a student of psychology and human interaction and can usually determine a person’s primary temperament within moments of meeting them and can adjust to play to their temperament strength.
In interviews, I have always listed my interpersonal skills as one of my strengths. But if I take a step back and really assess this “gift” I find that it really isn’t one of my true strengths. The truth is people drain me and human interaction, often times is akin to navigating a minefield. I prefer being alone or with my husband to being around others. My interactions with people don’t flow naturally. I am not instinctively a “people person.” I have to calculate my moves and measure my responses before I speak. I am innately shy, incredibly introverted and socially awkward. My people skills are manufactured and have been honed out of necessity. It is not a gift–it is a well-developed skill.
Keys to determining and capitalizing on your strengths and weaknesses
Below are a few principles you should consider when assessing your strengths and weaknesses:
You are your only competition.
You may be better than everyone else around you at something and it still can be a weakness for you. A strength is something that energizes you and something for which you have a natural inclination. A person who is charming, charismatic, a natural conversationalist and enjoys being around and entertaining people can list “interpersonal skills” as a strength.
A strength is something you rely on to achieve goals and to win, weaknesses are obstacles that must be overcome or avoided in order to achieve victory. Your strengths and weaknesses are only relative to you. Comparing yourself to others skews your view of your true gifts and areas of lack.
Strengthen your strengths and compensate for your weaknesses.
You can strengthen your weaknesses just as I have done with my interactions with people. A weakness, however, rarely ever becomes a strength. Once you’ve identified your weaknesses, you can attack them in one of two ways. First, you can work to strengthen the weakness so that it becomes less of a deficiency. Or, you could strengthen and learn to leverage your strengths to compensate for your weaknesses.
Learning to cope is key when it comes to handling weak areas. It is a waste of time working on weaknesses that are not related to your life purpose or tied to your goals.
I do not–in any way, shape or form–possess a green thumb. Plants and foliage cringe, shrivel and die in my presence. I could learn to care for plants and develop this skill if I chose too. However, it has nothing to do with my destiny, goals or my success in life. If I need flowers for an event, I purchase them just before I need them (they die otherwise). I have a beautiful yard which I pay someone to maintain. I spend my time and energy working on things that matter and that propel me towards my life’s purpose.
Use context when assigning value to neutral characteristics.
This is a huge mistake that most of us make. Take for example the characteristics, introversion and extroversion. Both of these traits are completely benign. They only become good or bad with context.
As I stated earlier, I am very introverted. I am a writer and I work in an office with other writers. Being an introvert in this environment is a strength. In this context, I don’t need to be outgoing and chatty. If I were, that would hinder my performance and put a strain on the work environment. However, prior to becoming a writer, I was an educator. Teaching requires you to be outgoing, approachable and have the ability to genuinely connect with people. In this context, being an introvert was a weakness. I had to put time, energy and mental fortitude into being what I needed to be to be successful in that context.
Another mistake we make is by mislabeling or overgeneralizing strengths and weaknesses. For example, if you are not talkative you may be tempted to label yourself a poor communicator–which is completely inaccurate. Being overly chatty does not make you an effective communicator. A few, well-chosen words, is multitudes more effective than mere verbal vomit. It’s about the quality not quantity of your words. Hone in on what you are adept at, identify your deficiencies and then determine if it truly is a strength, weakness or neutral based on the context.
When assessing your strengths and weakness:
- Figure out what energizes and what drains you.
- Consider what you are naturally good at.
- Determine what your goals are and how your strengths and weakness enhance and hinder your progress.
- Plan how to strengthen your weaknesses or use your strengths to compensate for them.
- Avoid labeling neutral characteristics as “good” or “bad.”
- Always work on making your strengths–stronger. Weak strengths, strengthen weaknesses.
Determining your strengths and inadequacies requires brutal honesty. You must take into account your skills and your natural inclinations. Some strengths are more desirable than others but it is incumbent that you accept yourself as you are and work with what you have. It’s the only way to reach your full potential and fulfill your destiny.
Article adapted from original version at Lifehack.org