This article also appeared in Finweek Magazine in their 01-Nov-2012 issue
In the words of author Nathaniel S. Summers, “The strength of a person is often weighed by how they deal with their weaknesses.” By way of example, I’d like to share a true story with you.
In high school I ran middle distance competitively. We trained with the Connor brothers, whose father was our coach (names changed to protect their identities). The elder brother, Doug, was a very good runner, but not the best, while the younger brother, Wayne was a phenomenal athlete. Because Doug had less natural talent, he had to work much harder than Wayne to do well. Doug trained longer and harder, never missed a training session, and he didn’t let defeats by stronger athletes get him down. Wayne was exactly the opposite. He relied on his inborn talent to win. He lost interest in running whenever he didn’t win, was often late for training or never turned up, and regularly stayed out late the night before races. Initially, Wayne won most of his races, while Doug occasionally won but usually came second or third. However, over the years that I trained with them, Doug’s commitment paid off. He became an exceptional athlete and outshone his brother Wayne. Why? Because Doug understood that he was competing against the very best athletes whose innate athletic talent exceeded his. To beat them, he knew he would have to make his mind stronger than his athletic ability and he would have to be supremely fit. That way, when the lactic acid pain set in over the last few 100 metres of the race, and more talented but mentally weaker athletes would start to fade, he could overtake them and win. Doug went on to compete in the Olympics. Wayne, on the other hand, faded into obscurity after high school, despite starting off with far more athletic potential than his brother.
There are some fundamental lessons that we can learn from this:
- Talent is a privilege. Don’t waste it or take it for granted. Like a muscle, if you don’t use it, you lose it.
- Natural talent alone is never enough. In his bestseller “Outliers”, Malcolm Gladwell asserts that to become an expert in your craft takes 10,000 hours. In other words, to be the best in your field, you need to practise, and then practise some more. Practice and repetition of a task develop the strong neural pathways in your brain that make that task easier, quicker and more natural to you. Talent plus practice are a potent combination.
- Life’s challenges make you stronger, so embrace them. In primary school history class I remember learning about Shaka Zulu forcing his warriors to run barefoot through fields of thorns over and over again. At first the skin under their feet bled, but with time their soles became so hard and tough that the thorns stopped hurting them. This meant they could run for miles over any terrain and move more quickly in battle. Mental toughness is the same. Each time you get knocked down and you pick yourself up again, you develop resilience, tenacity and greater mental strength to overcome adversity. No-one can take away from you the confidence that comes from knowing you’ve risen up again after hitting rock-bottom. With this inner strength, you’ll be able to overcome whatever challenges life throws at you. Challenges that would defeat a weaker person. So don’t be afraid of life’s challenges. Face them head-on. As my seven-year-old son Jayden would say, “They help you build your own forcefield.”
- Turn your weaknesses into strengths. You’ve probably heard the expression, “When life throws you lemons, make lemonade.” By acknowledging and intimately understanding his own weaknesses and strengths, and those of his competitors, Doug was able to turn his weakness into a strength. He worked on his mental toughness, which was his strength, and his fitness, to overcome his shorter supply of natural athletic talent, which was his weakness. And every one of us can do the same. Life is full of examples of people who’ve turned a negative situation into a positive. JK Rowling of Harry Potter fame went from divorced and living on social security to being a self-made billionaire. Closer to home, at a talk recently, founder of GIBS Prof Nick Binedell spoke about how he’d turned his weaknesses into assets. Being uprooted repeatedly as a child taught him to appreciate otherness and made him curious. With his chronic asthma, a good day was when he could breathe – this taught him to appreciate the good days, to take nothing for granted and helped him foster a lifelong love of reading.
- Know your strengths and weaknesses. You need to understand where your personal weaknesses and strengths lie before you can act on them. Sadly, most of us have little awareness of our talents and strengths, much less the capacity to shape our lives around them. This is according to Marcus Buckingham and Donald Clifton, authors of the ground-breaking book “Now Discover Your Strengths”. Management guru Peter Drucker agrees: “Most (people) do not know what their strengths are. When you ask them, they look at you with a blank stare, or they respond in terms of subject knowledge, which is the wrong answer.” Saddest of all, while we may not be aware of our strong points, most of us are intimately familiar with our own flaws. Guided by our parents, by our teachers, by our managers, and by psychology’s captivation with pathology, we become experts in our faults and spend our lives trying to fix them. All this while our strengths lie undeveloped and neglected. To develop your self-awareness, a useful exercise from personal leadership brand expert Louise Mowbray, is to ask 20 of your colleagues what your strengths and growth areas are. Collating the answers into trends, most traits you’ll recognise, but there may be some surprises that you weren’t aware of. Coming back to Doug the athlete, he knew exactly what he was good at and what he was not, and used this understanding to become a world-class runner. Sadly, Wayne did not.
- Work on your strengths, manage your weaknesses. This is the view of one of the world’s best golfers Tiger Woods, and a big part of the reason why he won the 2000 British Open. Although not the best, his bunker shots were “good enough”. However he didn’t spend a lot of time correcting this weak point. The way Tiger saw it, no matter how much effort he put into a weakness, it would always be a weakness. Instead, Tiger’s secret was to work on his greatest strength, his swing, until it led to an unparalleled performance. With this unconventional approach, Tiger Woods went on to win the 2000 British Open at St Andrew’s – where there are more bunkers than almost any other course on earth. He was the only golfer during the four-day tournament that didn’t land in any of the infamous St Andrew’s bunkers. Thanks to his consistently long, accurate swings, he clinched the title.
So what’s the bottom line? Each of us is a unique blend of talents. In his new book “What to do when you want to give up”, local entrepreneurship guru Allon Raiz talks about discovering your “secret sauce”, that special something that you are exceptionally good at and that’s hard to copy. Armed with this understanding and with lots of practice, you can become brilliant at your strengths. But accept that you’ll never be world-class at your weaknesses. To lead the pack, concentrate on your strengths and manage your weaknesses.