To become a superstar, improve your strengths (not your faults).

(Originally published as a guest on Nir Eyal's blog:  http://www.nirandfar.com/2013/08/to-become-a-superstar-improve-your-strengths-not-your-faults.html)

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.   

I Got SkillsWe 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 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.  And 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. 

Success AheadIf 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 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.

Super hero w: pcOf 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.

22 thoughts on “To become a superstar, improve your strengths (not your faults).

  1. Mike Souter

    Focusing on your strengths can make you great. but you give a lot up by doing it. many great people treat others poorly, are narcissistic, and often just don’t care.
    Mike Tyson, leaving jail, said something like “I am going to focus less on being a great person and focus more on being a good person.” Many of us can take that advice.
    That said, your blog gives really good feedback for people in general. We should remember that one should always try to improve their strengths — that is where the true quanta growth comes from.

    Reply
  2. Sue Jones

    Becoming great requires an intense amount of practice. Here is a quote from the legendary choreographer and dancer Martha Graham that I love:
    “I believe that we learn by practice. Whether it means to learn to dance by practicing dancing or to learn to live by practicing living, the principles are the same. In each, it is the performance of a dedicated precise set of acts, physical or intellectual, from which comes shape of achievement, a sense of one’s being, a satisfaction of spirit. One becomes, in some area, an athlete of God. Practice means to perform, over and over again in the face of all obstacles, some act of vision, of faith, of desire. Practice is a means of inviting the perfection desired.”

    Reply
  3. Jennifer Chang

    I really liked this piece Auren. Thanks for putting it together.
    It really makes me think about how I should improve. It is likely that I had the wrong strategy for all prior New Years Resolutions. Hopefully my future resolutions will be much improved.
    I also liked your blog on the Winner Take All world:
    http://blog.summation.net/2011/10/awesome-or-outsourced.html
    thanks!

    Reply
  4. LL's fan

    As LL Cool J says:
    “Stay focused, go after your dreams and keep moving toward your goals.”

    Reply
  5. Stephan Chase

    I agree with you.
    I have a couple of related thoughts. The first is that history is not shaped by well-balanced people. Movers and shakers don’t have time to focus on weaknesses. Success requires focus, and focus generally requires drawing upon a select set of capabilities.
    The second is the inherent problem we as a society face by telling our younger generations they can be anything they want to be, which is generally supported by anecdotal evidence of someone who made it despite all the odds. That’s great, but the fact the odds were stacked against them proves the point that most of the people aren’t going to succeed in whatever it was they did. This is a breeding ground for mass disappointment.

    Reply
  6. Nikhil Kalghatgi

    Nice, thanks Auren. I like the focus on your strengths particularly in the context of the ‘industry’ structure (e.g. if there are few really great looking people, you can stand out). Perhaps the corrallary can also be applied? If there are many people bad at something then a huge berth before a few people are medicore, perhaps it would make sense to put in a small amount of effort not to be great, but still better than the majority?

    Reply
  7. Barry

    Thanks for sharing …
    I agree with your premise (to a point). Good 360 work always entails focusing a leaders attention on his/her greatest strengths and his/her development needs in that order. I believe that transparency around those strengths and development needs at an executive team level is the key to organizational and leadership success. Why?
    1) It makes a statement from the top that leaders are all different and have different strengths ( at least you better hope you do because if not, you are all clones, that is a big mistake)
    2) It expresses vulnerability and demonstrates to those around you that its not about just you, but about what you can all accomplish together
    3) It gives people an opportunity to LEVERAGE one another’s strengths and natural predispositions, and…
    4) It provides one with opportunities for “workarounds” on development issues (ie. I will never be good at this aspect of leadership and therefore I have someone on my team who rocks at this, and I will deploy that skill set to the benefit of the entire company)
    So, I agree, focusing on strengths is really important. But the transparency is equally important, and using that transparency to your strategic advantage is the home run in my opinion.

    Reply
  8. Jeff Epstein

    I’m a 3.5 level tennis player with a good forehand and a weak backhand
    First order question: should I practice forehands and backhands equally, or focus more on my strength or weakness?
    I don’t know what a tennis teacher would say
    My own feeling is I need to work on both; I need to get my backhand to a level that can keep me in the point, then improve my forehand for the putaway shot
    Second order question: should I play singles, where I will hit a lot of backhands, or doubles, where my partner can cover part of the court and I will hit fewer backhands?
    Answer: doubles
    Applying this to business: if you’re a good analyst and bad with people, you should try to get better at both; then find a job where you spend most of your time doing analysis, and little time with people
    Third order effect: if you’re a manager, place your people in positions where they will take advantage of their strengths; don’t spend a lot of time improving their weaknesses, put them in positions where their weaknesses aren’t a factor.

    Reply
  9. Angie Demartini

    Very valid point but I cringe at the idea of society as a whole adopting this mantra. In the larger picture, a culture of tunnel vision thinkers would have its benefits but at what cost? On one hand you have great minds like Albert Einstein & Steve Jobs who are excellent examples of focusing on their strengths to the exclusion of all else -both have contributed greatly to the betterment of contemporary society but their flaws were garden variety. What scares me is the fostering of Dick Chaneys & Ted Bundys – encouraging them to take what they want with out regard, remorse or reflection. The pursuit of balance may not be monetarily rewarding but it is a crucial aspect of being human and should not be negated simply for financial gain. In its most benign form I thinks its great to forgive yourself for not being perfect, but when taken to the next level this concept has serious Pandora’s box potential. Your point is compelling and seems harmless enough which is why I find it frightening.
    Agree or disagree, either way thank you for making me think – keep up the good work!

    Reply
  10. Einat

    Dear Auren,
    That you of all people should fall for the selection bias? How many superstar politicians did not make it to top because of cheating? After all, Bill Clinton was nearly impeached. How many great computer scientists lost their dream job because they were late to the critical meeting with the CEO? Have you seen fat opera singers lately? It’s no longer enough to be a great soprano. Would Maria Callas be Maria Callas if she didn’t lose all that weight? Why does no one want to work with Micky Rourke despite him being a great actor? Are the top actors in Hollywood truly the most talented, or the ones that people like to work with? For at least a decade Steve Jobs was out of Apple, and not because he suddenly was less brilliant.
    In short, the nature of success and human relations are such that even if you are a superstar at something you can ruin it by being a complete asshole. Therefore, your faults matter and they matter a lot, especially if they are the kind that are socially offensive. And competition is so fierce that you could be a great soprano, but if your competition is a great soprano and thin, she’ll get the job. So sadly there are no easy lessons – yes, you should aim to be great at what you can be great at, but that does not give you a free pass on good manners, and if your competition can pull off artistic greatness and looking good too and being a pleasure to work with, you’re being perhaps a little more talented, will not be enough to compensate for it.
    Cheers!

    Reply
  11. Shaun

    Auren – I like this philosophy and you probably know the related, seminal books (that agree with your premise) based on extensive Gallup research (1.7m employees in 101 companies from 63 countries): “StrengthsFinder” – Tom Hath and “Now, Discover Your Strengths” – Buckingham and Clifton. If not, they’re worth checking out.
    My main comment is that I like the examples you cite because they’re personal and (likely) cleanly resonate with readers, but I think the really challenging cases to address are those in knowledge-based industries – especially where soft-skills predominate. What if one’s strengths are connecting people or moderating discussions, writing emails or properly ccing and bccing? Are there strengths that are too niche that even when perfected won’t be enough to produce a “superstar?” The equivalent in your example would be if the world-class pianist was actually just good at blues scales and nothing else.

    Reply
  12. Shaun

    Auren – I like this philosophy and you probably know the related, seminal books (that agree with your premise) based on extensive Gallup research (1.7m employees in 101 companies from 63 countries): “StrengthsFinder” – Tom Hath and “Now, Discover Your Strengths” – Buckingham and Clifton. If not, they’re worth checking out.
    My main comment is that I like the examples you cite because they’re personal and (likely) cleanly resonate with readers, but I think the really challenging cases to address are those in knowledge-based industries – especially where soft-skills predominate. What if one’s strengths are connecting people or moderating discussions, writing emails or properly ccing and bccing? Are there strengths that are too niche that even when perfected won’t be enough to produce a “superstar?” The equivalent in your example would be if the world-class pianist was actually just good at blues scales and nothing else.
    Enjoyed your article!

    Reply
  13. Aaron

    An interesting tidbit came to my end as I read your post from one of the most famous former CEO of our time. Roberto Goizueta was the former CEO of Coca-Cola and recognized as their best ever. In the book, “I’d like the world to buy a Coke”- by David Greising, speaking about Roberto:
    “He exaggerated his family’s economic standing, underplayed his exposure to the English language, and even overstated his success at Yale. He built a mythology about his early years that helped persuade Woodruff and Coke chief executive Paul Austin that Goizueta was a man of great promise almost from the day he arrived in the United States in the fall of 1960.”
    I understand from this that he focused on the strengths of his background and skill set and underplayed his weakness. Perhaps this is the next step in your post.

    Reply
  14. amalia hoffman

    Very interesting and positive way of looking at what we should focus on in order to achieve.
    Personally, I think improving weaknesses and knowing your weakness is important. There’s real strength in knowing and recognizing those.
    But, you’re right, knowing and improving our strength is a way to build up our confidence. Once we are more confidant & feeling great about ourselves, it’s much easier to improve our weaknesses because we don’t go about it like, “Hey, this is terrible, Im a shmock,” rather, “Hey, this is terrific, I’m so great, I can do anything even work on my weaknesses. ”

    Reply
  15. rupertdouglas@gmail.com

    The road to success is littered with failure. If only leaders in both human resources and operations and other domains fully appreciated that, instead of allowing ego to get in the way.

    Reply
  16. AD

    Great post.

    And the comment “Augment your strength, hire for your weakness.” nails it too. Structure the people around you and your systems for dealing with them to let you focus obsessively on your strengths, then make them better.

    One dangerous effect of high ability is realizing you could outperform most people 3x at what they are doing, then trying to do it better. Forgetting that you are 30x to 300x better at the thing that really matters–which is where your focus belongs, on making the organization great at the one thing you are truly extraordinary at and letting good enough be the rule for other areas until they truly become limiting factors.

    Reply

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