In many societies, from a young age, people are taught to be aware of their weaknesses and strive to improve. That’s great, but what is often overlooked is teaching people to be aware – and proud – of their strengths, especially in cultures where over-modesty or even self-deprecation are valued. This can feed things like imposter syndrome, where people can feel anxiety about their perceived weaknesses and about being “found out”. It can also encourage too much emphases on managing weakness, rather than on nurturing ability.
Agile methodologies encourage cross-functional teams, composed of diverse individuals who collectively possess all the skills needed to succeed. We can see this in a more pronounced way still in other teams, the best example probably being sports. Gigi Buffon, the legendary Italian goalkeeper, is awesome at what he does; Leo Messi excels in a completely different specialism – these people didn’t get to be the elite in their profession by being generalists or mitigating their weaknesses, but by exploiting and tuning their strengths. A well-balanced team harnesses these strengths, allowing each member of the team to leverage their individual talents. However, when these team members share their knowledge, it can give all parties an insight that they can bring with them to their main skill. Ajax are famous for encouraging all young footballers to train and play in every position, because knowing how the rest of the team around them will function will lead to better results. If a striker studies how a goalkeeper learns how to positions himself, he can apply that knowledge to his advantage when placing shots; if a defender studies how a striker learns how to create space, he can apply that knowledge to be better at marking and closing down space. The same is true in a software team, where a test specialist can help a developer be better at writing test cases, and a developer can help a test specialist form mental models of how a system is composed, to give just a couple of the many possibilities.
Where many people can struggle is actually identifying their strengths in the first place – I struggled with this for many years. The problem with strengths can be that they happen so naturally to us that we simply don’t even notice, and they just happen without any conscious effort or acknowledgement, which is what makes them our strongest strengths. One way is to canvass other people’s perspective and ask what they think your strengths are – but be careful, because you will get a mix of the things they think you are good at, and the things they wish they were better at! Another way that we can indirectly spot strengths is by noticing “things everyone else is bad at”; when we see something that it seems like absolutely everyone around us is bad at, our perspective is wrong. What may actually be happening is not that everyone is bad at this thing, they are merely average at it – from your perspective, they seem bad, because for you it is a strength! As an example, I perceived for many years – sometimes getting quite frustrated by it – that everywhere I went, people struggled to see a bigger picture; I failed to recognize that it might be one of my strengths until I asked friends and colleagues what they thought I was good at, and they all said very things, that the penny dropped. Once I recognized this as a strength, I was then able to look for ways to harness it for the benefit of others (and myself!).
Try to be aware of the distinction between learned and natural strengths however. We can all learn most skills, if we put enough commitment into it, and that doesn’t necessarily make it a strength, especially if it feels like a big effort to maintain. True natural strengths are built into us in a way that is subconscious and effortless. What this means in practice is that doing things that exercise the learned strengths can be rewarding but also draining, while exercising a natural strength tends to be fulfilling in a much more comfortable and sustainable way.
I honestly believe that every single person I come into contact with will be better than me at least at one thing. I’ll probably also be better than them at least at one thing. Really, it’s not a competition or a zero sum thing anyway! I personally take a lot of satisfaction from it if I’m able to learn a little from the people around me about the things they are better than me at, and more still if I can give people some benefit from the things I’m better at. This variation in people’s natural strengths, combined with acquired skills, is what gives us a vibrant and diverse economy, and what allows us to specialize in a niche, which is what leads to our biggest successes.