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Are your strengths holding you back?

Let me start with the story of a farmer who had a huge rock in the middle of his field. It came with the farm and had been there for many years. Of course, the farmer had to work around the rock to plant and harvest his crops.

Friends and visitors always noticed this big extrusion -- and finally a few close buddies got together with the farmer and helped him do something about it. They dug a whole twice as big as the rock and buried it!

For the first time, the farmer could work his field without any barriers. But over time something interesting happened. The farmer found himself drawn to the place where the rock was buried and would often visit. Of course he didn't tell anyone but for some strange reason he found that . . .

. . . standing at that place gave him a strength that was hard to explain.

I use this story to get people thinking more deeply about "strengths theory" -- the very popular approach to discovering and leading our lives through our strengths. I get that. As a young manager, I found the MBTI (Meyers-Briggs Type Indicator) to be transforming. First of all, I stopped wishing that others would be more like me – and started to more fully appreciate their strengths and uniqueness. The assessment also positively validated my introversion (I thought my intense private nature meant there was something wrong with me).

But while popular assessments like the MBTI (Meyers-Briggs Type Indicator), the Gallup StrengthsFinder, and others can be powerful tools to help us tease out our natural gifts, they can be limiting to us if we are not careful. Like the "rock" in the farmer's story, I believe our weaknesses can provide balance, humility and dare I say . . .

. . . a source of strength in our lives.

The strategy of leveraging our natural gifts and talents is a powerful one. Not only are we more productive, we are more likely to experience a sense of best self – that there is something special about us. However, by "burying" or "suppressing" our weaknesses -- it leaves out that necessary tension that grounds us and opens us up to new levels of growth that we can't achieve through "strengths alone."

I am a huge Gonzaga University basketball fan and the story of Kyle Wiltjer exemplifies my point. Kyle, left the prestigious University of Kentucky basketball program at a high point to play out his eligibility at Gonzaga. He did it to become a more complete player. He was a gifted finesse player but he knew that would not get him to the next level of play -- the NBA -- without addressing his weaknesses. When he first arrived at Gonzaga they started working these areas where he was limited or less talented -- and he found it to be very tough. Fast forward one year and he is on the cover of Sports Illustrated. His weaknesses actually illuminated the path to becoming a more complete, dominating player. Overcoming weaknesses actually created a resilience you can't get from success alone.

Instead of burying the "rock" -- he went after it.

I want to make one other critical point. The potential down side to the strengths approach is that it can reinforce a fixed version of your self. This fixed view can unwittingly limit growth and experimentation – as we start to wear it as a protective armor. An example would be the sales rep who has been over-recognized for his competitiveness and drive to win. He now brings this strength into every situation – needed or not. He can’t let his 12-year old son win a game of basketball in the backyard. Instead of seeing the potential overuse, he has found justification in all of the reinforcement that “this is who you are.” Here's the added concern:

Over time, the strength loses its impact and the person becomes a narrow version of their potential self.

Our psychological and emotional development needs to be on-going, increasing our awareness of both our strengths and weaknesses. I believe that any kind of limit that we set can neutralize our strengths and make our weaknesses more vulnerable (because we are not dealing with them directly). Our best self should be “less of a fixed, discovered self” and “more of an on-going growth process.”

The world does not need one more person with an illusory sense of who they are. Our best work does not come from a comfortable center but comes from living at the edge of our whole (strengths and weaknesses) self.

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