Saturday, April 10, 2010

When I Am Weak, Then I Am Weak

Names Tree

We spend too much time focused on our weaknesses.

So says author Tom Rath and the Gallup study that underpins StrengthsFinder 2.0: Discover Your Strengths.

When we focus on our weaknesses, notes Rath, we are less likely to be engaged and productive at work (might this also be true for school, church, marriage, friendship?).

Yet our culture idolizes the "underdog" (and maybe our faith does too, with an out-of-context application of "when I am weak, then I am strong"). Rath says that movies like Rudy— about a guy with no talent for football who eventually gets to play in the game— feed this view of the superiority of the underdog. But, he says, is it really worth it for Rudy to have spent thousands of hours of practice to make one play, in one game?

Better that Rudy be directed to enhance his strengths. Not so interesting as a movie, perhaps, but better.

Rath's book comes with access to an on-line test, so you can find your strengths and begin to make the best of them. I'm not sure we all need to take the test. But I wonder how this alteration in perspective might change how we manage, teach, and relate.

For instance, does everybody on the team and everybody in the schoolroom really need to be trained in everything? Or can we just admit that so-and-so would make a better singer than a mathematician and adjust our approach accordingly?

Thinking on this, I wondered if our concept of the Renaissance Man (and woman :) has also led us to try to be strong in everything, even our weaknesses, rather than strengthening our strengths. We might not get to play tuba (or football) then, but since our lives aren't the movies, maybe that would be better in the end.

Names Tree photo, by L.L. Barkat.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

Oh I agree 100%. I know a woman who is legally blind and grew up in the special education system. She wanted to be the next Amy Grant, and all through school they told her to follow her dreams. She had voice lessons, special music classes, etc. The problem is that *she cannot carry a tune in a bucket*. Seriously. She's awful. She graduated college with a music degree. She is *never* going to make a living as a singer, because she *can't sing*. Now she's 27 years old and has very few basic life skills that a legally blind person needs to survive. She has few opportunities and no marketable skills. And it makes me so mad, because I just wonder what would have happened if some kind teacher along the way had gently told her the truth and then encouraged her to find something she excels at and pursue it. Sigh.

2:55 PM  
Blogger sarah said...

I also agree. While I think people should be encouraged to do things they love, whether they are talented or not, there needs to be some truth in the process. As in, "yes you love to do this, you aren't naturally talented, you'll never be successful in the conventional sense, but fill your boots with fun."

For example, in writing, I know people who think they are brilliant and oh my god they are not! Their awful manuscripts add to the huge slush piles on publishers' desks and make it all that harder for good writers to get noticed. But I also know people who understand they're not talented but they love writing and why shouldn't they go ahead and do it for their own satisfaction? Knowing where to mark your natural level of "success" is the important thing.

What upsets me most of all is this recent business about talent not being as important as practice. Because you get people who aren't naturally capable taking up resources from people who do have a natural instinct and ability. I see this especially in sports and public education. The fact is, extensive practice will never be able to recreate what a naturally talented person can do. And by refusing to accept this we are watering down our sports teams and other skilled areas. I was told yesterday that someone on our youth olympic team was actually considered by her coach to be not good enough! So why is she on the team? And why is she being held up as a role model for my daughter? I don't want my daughter admiring someone who is actually "not good enough."

I think of these people who are "following their dreams" into oblivion when they might have better dreams that could lead them to blissful heights of joy and self-fulfillment if only they were more kindly, wisely, honestly directed. It makes me sad.

Sorry for such a long comment!

5:21 PM  
Blogger ~beautyandjoy~ said...

I think this truth has fascinating implications in how we approach the relationships in our lives. Very interesting.

5:39 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

i see a heart of sky in your photo.

7:12 PM  
Blogger Louise Gallagher said...

So this is a really deep and important question. I have a daughter who can sing. I have a daughter who can't sing. I've encouraged the singer to sing, the other daughter to dance, because she can really dance. The singer continues to pursue her stage career but is going back to university to get her teaching degree. Teh dancer -- she's going on a masters in Not for Profit studies.

I think most important thing is to teach our children to be honest and truthful and real with themselves. To understand where their natural abilities lie -- and then to continually focus on improving and strenghting and shining up their natural abilities -- and they need to learn the lesson of perseverance -- that is ultimately, the message of rudy -- he didn't give up. He found out what it means to be successful -- and yes, along the way he spent a lot of hours not be good at being a football player -- but he did get the thing he wanted most in the world, his father's attention.

It is the father who was blind. Not the son.

Great post Laura. Really really good.

8:03 PM  
Blogger Michelle DeRusha said...

I love StrengthsFinder! Everyone in my department took the test a few years ago, and it was really illuminating. I scored high in discipline, achiever and focus -- woman of action! Typical Type A, older sibling profile, eh? It wasn't all that surprising, but it helped me understand my officemate better, who scored high in empathy. We are opposites...but worked really well together, especially as we came to better understand, and maximize, our strong points.

I used to think my Type A traits were negative -- flaws, a burden. StrengthsFinder helped me see them as strengths (if used properly -- I sometimes go into hpercontrol overdrive!)

Great post!

10:34 PM  
Blogger Dianna Woolley said...

Great, very thought provoking. If not striving to "make a living" and following one's passion is what makes a person alive - then to heck with everyone else's opinion, I'd say go for the passion. Education I believe follows the best course though when all are somewhat prepared for the world that lies ahead of them. Following one's passion and being unable to eat or pay the rent is a bit self-defeating:(

11:31 PM  
Blogger Wendy Paine Miller said...

Oh, I loved M.L.'s second paragraph. There is something about learning to be honest about our strengths and weaknesses. I tried about every sport and played several different instruments. There was something powerful about being able to discern a strength from a weakness. I love that my parents guided me, but helped me to learn that on my own.

~ Wendy

8:02 AM  
Blogger SimplyDarlene said...

A huge fan of the sports stories of Rudy Ruettiger (college football); Jim Morris in The Rookie (professional baseball); the 1980 American Olympic Hockey team in Miracle--I can say, "wow, what fortitude, what determination, what focus, what dreams!"

They defied the odds. Big time. Hollywood's portrayal of the underdog aside, who is really to judge the hours and time and dedication one gives to his/her dream? I admittedly am a fan of the underdog (having been one myself as a track and field athlete back in high school).

Sometimes do we lose focus? Yes.

Sometimes is our focus misguided? Yes.

Do we always know why someone aims way too high? No, not always.

For me, as a not even 5'4" gal, running the hurdles was a seemingly daunting task. But run and fall and get up again, I did. All told, I did this for six years. And when my mom's fiance lost both of his legs in a horrid logging accident, I wanted to quit. After all, it was just me (barely in high school) and my little sis at home, tending to the place and the critters. Mom was in another state. She was gone. Gone to be in the hospital with her injured man.

Others urged me to run. I needed to run. So I did.

At practice, I stayed late. When I fell and embedded cinder rocks and dirt deep into knees and elbows, I got up and ran the hurdles again and again, with blood dripping, oftentimes until the sun went down. What is my little pain when my future dad lay in a bed without his legs?

I ran and I ran. The teachers and coaches seemed to know why. I participated on three track and field teams (9th grade, JV, and varsity) and kept my grades up and the farm in order. I lost more races than I won--according to the seeing man's eyes. But according to the underdog's heart, I won each time I laced my spikes to my feet.

At the end of the season during the spring sports banquet, I was awarded "most valuable" player. That title generally goes to the top-dog, not the underdog. Now as I write this twenty years later, I still remember the tears in all my coaches eyes and those falling down cheeks in the crowd...

So yeah, the underdog is my hero more often than not. And I don't dare ask if it is worth it to have spent countless hours practicing a skill or sport or instrument that a person is really no good at. When perhaps I don't know the real reason why they do what they do.

Perhaps it is because they are doing the best they can with what they have. Perhaps they are letting their dreams take them as far as they can. Perhaps they are carrying someone else's dreams on their shirttails. Perhaps finishing last is more important than finishing first.

But Jesus looked at them and said to them, “With men this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.” ~ Matthew 19:26

I know this was long, but it came so quick from my heart. I also know that I am not going along with the crowd here. But that is okay with me. I am used to being that scraggly mutt wagging a tail along the outskirts of the yard.


6:11 PM  

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