Why focusing on your strengths pays off

I am not pretty handy around the house. I tried putting down a wood floor and messed it up so badly that the mere act of walking on it loosened up the boards. Just in case you thought it was too ambitious a project I am a dunce even when it comes to installing curtain rods. The same sad story prevails with my attempts to green my lawn or plant shrubs.

But give me a problem to solve at work any problem and I will have it solved and ready for you. This sounds like a brag but I am so good with systems analysis and problem solving that I once solved a problem estimated to take 6 weeks to resolve by a simple 2 minute workaround. I am a pretty decent writer as my friends would have it.

So where is all this leading up to.

They lead to a pretty stunning conclusion drawn by Marcus Buckingham from his meta research ( research on research) and described in his book “The One Thing You Need To Know”.

Winners focus on their strengths

This is contrary to conventional wisdom preached by almost all leadership and business gurus (Peter Drucker being a noted exception) and accepted by most cultures the world over. Conventional wisdom says that you make the most progress when you work on your weaknesses, sort of like the weakest link in a chain. That working on your weaknesses challenges you and stretches you. There is no growth without discomfort. There is no growth without stretching. The more pain the more gain.There is a considerable body of thinking on these lines which makes it almost heretical to believe you are better off focusing on your strengths than trying to become a perfect all rounder by burnishing your weaknesses.

The reason why it pays to focus on developing your strengths further instead of focusing on your weaknesses is biology.

The first argument for a biological premise to our strengths and weaknesses is our genes. This argument states that our personality is is determined by our genes. Humans have about 34000 of them. A gene is a length of DNA.  DNA can be thought of like a switch.  Our DNA determines which cells are activated and which are not. These in turn determine our bodily growth and even our mental functions.  For instance no matter how much we practice we can never smell as well as a rat. A rat has 1,036 genes dedicated to the sense of smell while we have 347. Can changing genes change our personalities. Yes. Experiments conducted on simpler organisms such as rats were able to convert loners into social animals and vice versa just by changing the gene mix.

So are we going back to the nature vs nurture debate. Not exactly. The biological theory seeks to complement and not contradict the ‘nurture’ side. Our experiences (the nurture side) play a strong factor in how we develop. But the key takeaway is that they only impact those traits that we already possess genetically. For examples some humans possess the gene to make BDNF. A protein that has been found to make people more outgoing, less prone to getting depressed, less self conscious and far better memory. An individual with this gene would react more favorably to lets say leadership training than individuals without the BDNF protein making gene.

The second argument is based on the fact that nature abhors waste. Learning takes place when neurons (brain cells) connect to one another through synapses (a tiny worm like thing). Each time you learn something new a new synapse is created. This takes effort. To prevent the effort required to relearn everything each synapse gets covered by a substance called Myelin. This keeps the synapse in place so that every day things like driving a car need not be relearned.

But the flip side of Myelin creation is that it also prevents growth of new synapses. This is not to say that we can never grow new synapses. We can as evidenced in individuals that lost one sense and thereby developed one of their other senses to a higher degree. But new synaptic growth is inefficient and difficult. It is far easier and more efficient to grow new synapses where you already have the most connections.

In other words the sections of your brain where you have the most synapses or connections lets say the portion dedicated to writing are your strengths. Biology says that it is easier and more efficient to become better at what you are already good at (your strengths) than develop in entirely new areas.

So by all means challenge and stretch yourself but do it with your strengths. Those who control your life may not be happy but you will create a bigger impact for a longer period of time. A recipe for sustained success as good as any.



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