What’s your biggest weakness? In real life, problems often require more than one person. Nobody can be an expert in everything. We have to each focus on what we do best and that means we need weaknesses.

This episode continues last week’s episode about how our education system focuses more on applying some recently learned technique to answer questions. In that episode, I explained how real life problems are much harder because you don’t know how to solve them. You can’t just say, well, since I just learned about this new way to solve problems then it must be the right tool. You need to learn how to apply all your skills.

And that’s the idea I want to continue with today. I don’t want you to confuse the need to try different problem solving approaches or techniques as if I’m suggesting that you need to be able to do everything. Many worthy goals in life are too big for one person to work on alone. You need to understand strengths and weaknesses in order to effectively take on these bigger projects.

We’re taught in school and on the job to improve our weaknesses. Imagine a gear for a moment. You know the mechanical kind with pointy teeth. Now think of the pointy parts as things the gear is really good at and the indentations as weaknesses. The gear is told over and over to improve its weaknesses so it strives to become more like the perfect circle. It’s hard to find a weak indentation in a circle, right? And the circle shape does make for some really good wheels. But just try turning one round wheel with another. And you’re not allowed to cheat and use rubber tires. The round gears slip and slide. They work best when one gear’s strength fits snuggly with another gear’s weakness. Real teams are like this too. The best teams don’t try to make everybody the same. They make sure that each member has a role to play and performs amazingly well in that role.

But what exactly is a strength and what’s a weakness. This is a common interview question and not just job interviews. We’ve all heard the question, “What’s your biggest weakness?” How are you supposed to answer something like that? Or the follow up question, “What’s your biggest strength?” Another ridiculous question, really. Both questions need context. And without that context, any answer is meaningless.

Make sure to listen to the episode for more details about how strengths and weaknesses including how I think of things more in terms of tendencies and skills instead.