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. You can also read the full transcript below.

Transcript

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. I’ll explain more right after this message from our sponsor.

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. Some people try to cheat by trying to disguise something they’re good at as a weakness.

But a lot of times what they describe is not a skill but a tendency to behave a certain way. When a person says their biggest weakness is they just work too hard, that’s a sure sign that the whole concept of the question is flawed. Instead of talking about strengths and weaknesses, I think it makes more sense to refer to tendencies and skills. This is just how I think of things and the line between what should be called a tendency vs. a skill is not always clear. This episode will focus more on the tendencies.

Like most things in life, there are tradeoffs. A person can change tendencies by conscious effort at first which becomes easier over time to move toward one tendency and away from another. Think of these as habits. And a person can change skills by learning a new technique or taking a new class. I’ll explain more about skills in the next episode.

Let’s say you list an attention to detail as one of your strengths. This is really just a tendency you have to focus on the small things, remember them, and relate them together. Is that really a strength? It depends on the context. If you try to focus on details when information is coming in fast and doesn’t always make sense, then a person with a tendency to scan for patterns and make decisions more out of intuition will probably do a better job. But at that task only. Switch things around with ordered data that can be carefully organized, and the detail-oriented person will do better. So who’s the stronger person? Who’s the weaker person? Neither. A strength in one situation can quickly turn into a weakness in another. I say, put these people together and you have a strong team. This is the basis for two gears that mesh well.

When we try to improve a weakness, what we’re usually trying to do is change a tendency or a habit to behave in a certain way. It can be done, sure. A person can say, “I need to improve my attention to detail.” Then when faced with a decision, try to remember to stop and think through each step or piece of information or whatever. This is just a shift in tendencies but it usually leaves a person worse off in both intuition and in detail at least for a while. Then when that person moves to a new role, the tendency to avoid intuition could be seen as a weakness. It would have been better to find a team that values the original tendency so it could be developed more instead of suppressing it and then trying to focus on it again.

When each team member fills a need then the whole team becomes more productive.

Just imagine trying to build a game with a team composed all of fresh graduates. Nobody would have the experience to guide the team. If you think that a team where everybody has ten years of experience will do any better, well, probably not. You need different skills and levels. You need a graphic designer who won’t know anything about coding. You need an experienced developer who’s made lots of mistakes already. You need a new developer with a strong passion for learning. You need somebody good with planning, somebody good at talking with customers, somebody good at managing finances, etc. The list goes on. These don’t all have to be different people. It’s possible to find a developer with ten years of experience who’s looking for a completely new industry and new technology and who’s great at planning.

There’s another side to all this though that you need to consider. At some point there has to be some balance between behavior tendencies and learned skills. That will have to wait until next week though.

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