A Theory On Strengths & Weakness — It’s a Package Deal
The Question of What’s Missing
What do we do with our strengths? And what about our weaknesses?
A friend of mine whom I work with recently asked me a question that seemed to result from a sense of failure — as if something was missing. As we sat in a moment of debrief from an event we had just put on, having worked several hours and endured days of coordination, the question seemed like more of an apology than a serious inquiry.
He asked if I wished he was more productive and ambitious.
The work he does is hyper-relational and there is a clear gift he has of being present in a situation with another human being and walking them towards the best version of themselves. He has the strength of building relationships, connecting with people, and having a positive influence on whoever he is with. Quite unanimously, this would be affirmed as his strength and it is obvious that he is consistently good at these things.
But that is not what he was asking.
I have witnessed my friend walk couples through failing marriages, help uncertain entrepreneurs take the first right steps, and calm down a heated, violent argument into a healthy process of mutual reconciliation. I have seen him bring joy to another human being just be sitting in the room and I have watched him gather on the floor amongst unrestrained children with a pure, unadulterated presence to the point that they clamor to his side when they see him.
The strengths that are evident have created a reputation where folks just feel better when he is in the room. For many people who know him, he is the first phone call in any situation of dire need. Children don’t see him first and foremost as an authority with threatening dominance, but as a trusted friend who can hold them well.
That kind of personality with those explicit strengths is certainly a gift that we all benefit from.
That gift is also certainly not one you would want to lose.
But I am jumping ahead — losing those strengths wasn’t part of my friend’s question. Or maybe it was. Because the common trajectory we embark on when confronting our weaknesses is to lose from our purview the radiating good of our strengths.
Maybe it is that they seem expendable; that we are so accustomed to the natural flair of our personalities and innate ways of being that we walk by them without really noticing their presence anymore. We assume our strengths and pay them less and less attention to the point that they become weathered rocks on the bottom of a riverbed.
Or, maybe it is the societal script that demands effectiveness and efficiency — that anything keeping your from being heroically perfect should be confronted and done away with. If we could replace all of those negative qualities with more preferred ones, we would experience the highest desires of the human condition. Often, this pursuit fails to realize the implications of such a wish.
For my friend, he also has the curse of having a strength that everyone enjoys, but no one celebrates in a culture of productivity.
Thus it begins — the focus to fix something without first acknowledging the strengths that belie the perceived weaknesses.
The quandary we often face is that any conversation on improvement should always begin with what goods are already there. We must begin with an awareness of our gifts. We must fully see the tools and materials that are the arsenal of our lives. Because, for my friend, honoring his strengths might have implied the answer to his question.
“Do you wish I was more productive and ambitious?”
My answer would be, “No.”
And there is a reason why.
The Attempt of Weakness Neutralization
Alongside my friend’s tangible strengths are some clear deficiencies that appear as shortcomings. His organizational communication is sporadic and untimely, he isn’t incredibly strategic in his planning, and his focus is often lacking to the point that he appears to be lazy. Almost prescriptively, he can recognize his strengths when you remind him of them. In the course of the conversation, my initial response was to name what he is. Though his initial question seems to bypass what is the foundation of his character, he knows those strengths are there. He is also so used to them that questions of inadequacy ensue.
But there we were, sitting together with his strengths mutually understood and, while he agrees he wants them to continue because of the positive results that come from a personality of being relational and a gift for being purely present, he is wondering if he could just neutralize the glaring weaknesses.
We begin by downplaying our strengths.
And with our focus removed from what we have, we turn our focus to what we lack.
If we could just get rid of these issues in the way, we could be complete; we could be the ultimate purveyor of success and we would have no issues.
Which is why I believe my friend approached me with his specific question that day about being more productive and ambitious — because my strengths are comparable to what he senses are his weaknesses. In our collaborations, I have demonstrated communication and work ethic that he hasn’t and has thus, to him, revealed some apparent flaws. I assume, then, that when my friend asked, he was hoping that I might be able to show him the way to do what he lacked; to help him overcome his supposed shortcomings and become an ultimate master of strengths.
But I wonder if that’s not how this actually works.
What I find interesting is that, though my personality embodies strengths that he does not have, my personality also embodies weaknesses that are the very strengths he has. I am not hyper-relational. I do not have the ability to sit and be fully present and listen with integrity and authenticity in a way that catalyzes a sense of pure belonging and growth in the other person.
So we sat across the table from each other, looking into the eyes of a revealing mirror, both wondering if we could somehow take the strengths of the other person and replace them with our weaknesses.
Maybe They Just Come With It
The question is, can you have a personality that encompasses it all?
In this particular conversation, can you be an ambitious, strategic, type-A planner and be a relational, connected, empathic presence that genuinely and purely radiates peace to other people?
Maybe you can, but in that moment, what struck me was that it might not be that some people and their personalities are good at some things and need to work on others, but that some strengths are intimately related to certain weaknesses. We usually approach strengths and weaknesses as if we have certain things, for which we should be grateful, but with an assumption that we will only grow when we learn how to work on what is missing. In more enlightened circles, the answer to the issue of strengths and weaknesses is to play to your strengths. But I can’t help but think, based on my experience, that the solution of the strength finder culture might not go far enough.
In the context of myself and my friend, is it that I haven’t focused enough on being relational and he hasn’t focused enough on being organized & productive? Or is the answer that we just need to accept these apparently built in personality gifts and find ways to work around what we weren’t given at birth?
Or is there another answer to my friend’s question?
Maybe the whole concept of strengths and weaknesses isn’t as absolute as we assume.
Culturally, we are having a moment in which we want to emphasize strengths and get rid of weaknesses to be the ultimate self. But it might be that certain weaknesses require existence in order for a strength to truly manifest itself. Many comparisons could be made from the world around us. You don’t get just the good things that you prefer and enjoy without components that are less preferable. It might be, then, that if my friend attempted to alter his personality to be a strategic, execution-oriented worker that he might lose his relational presence in the process. Because that ambition, that pull towards perfection, usually implies a less human element in posture. Altering the weakness of productivity could, in turn, alter the strength of being so intimately relational.
Maybe there isn’t a toolbox of various strengths and weaknesses that we need to navigate.
Maybe there is just you.
And we don’t get the best of you without the natural side effects of what those gifts entail.
Various personalities, with their strengths and weaknesses, seem to exist on spectrums. Idealists and Relationalists. Caring Loyalists and Strategists. Helpers and Individuals. Doers and Thinkers. I do not believe these are complete dualisms. While there are certainly unhealthy ways to act out whatever your personality’s strengths are, it is my experience that you can’t have all the strengths…and maybe that is okay.
My theory, then, on strengths and weakness is that the supposed lacks might actually be a natural by-product of a strength.
That you might not be able to have one without the other.
That you can’t be it all and, if you try to, we might lose the very thing that positively defines you in the first place. That was the answer to my friend — that in replacing his weakness with productivity and ambition, it would cause him to lose the relational gift that has transformed so many lives. That we don’t need him to get rid of those weaknesses and, if he did, he might be getting rid of the very essence of his being. We don’t need you to be someone else — because then we won’t actually get you.
When it comes to strengths and weaknesses, it doesn’t seem like they are dualistically differentiated into separate categories that you can interact with individually.
They are a package deal.
And whatever your gifts are, they will come delivered with certain components that you might not prefer, but that make possible the strength in the first place.
If this theory is true, let’s stop trying to change the package deal of our lives and their ensuing complexities. Rather, let’s acknowledge our strengths and understand the side effects. Let’s stop trying to change our weaknesses and start accepting that they are part of the process; that what we don’t prefer is intertwined with the good thing that we do. Which doesn’t mean those supposed weaknesses have to be in control. The weaknesses are in the car with you and you can’t change that — but you don’t have to let them drive. The goal becomes less to get rid of weaknesses, but to be cognizant of them and to learn to work within their parameters so that the gifts and strengths are held well by the what else comes with the package deal.
We don’t need you to outwit your weaknesses because we need your weaknesses. It is only then that we are truly getting the full version of your strengths. The manifestation of a strength means certain things, even good things, are not possible and other components of your life, even undesired ones, are simply going to be present.
Do I wish my friend was more productive and ambitious?
Because it’s a package deal.
And we don’t get all of those beautiful gifts without those perceived weaknesses.
Epilogue — The Specific Answer to His Question
For anyone reading this that resonates with the particular personality of my friend, I offer you a poem that was written in response to his personality. While our culture does not laud this kind of presence, it deserves to be celebrated as a gift that is often more transformative than the super ambitious and efficient heroes of modernism.
“A Harry Presence”
You can hold
Even the stranger
To feel like kin.
Where fear subsides
And hearing arises
Together, abiding in love.
You can celebrate
The success of others
In genuine hope.
Holding the fragile
To remind them of good
That their story continues.
The broken has learned to transcend brokenness.
The abandoned has shown the world belonging.
Reflecting transcendent grace
to all who dare embrace