In the book Let Your Life Speak, Parker Palmer shares an exercise he used in a room full of teachers:
He asked each person to write about a moment in the classroom that was so good it made them feel as though they had been born to be a teacher.
And then, he asked them to describe a moment after which they felt like curling up in a ball and never returning to the classroom again.
Once each participant had written about those two experiences, he put them into groups. The first task was for each teacher, one at a time, to share the wonderful experience. They would then receive feedback from the others about how this experience illustrated the subject teacher’s particular strengths.
When everyone had completed that process, they moved to the painful experience. And Palmer did something interesting. He asked the participants to share the experience in the group, and for the others to give feedback on how that experience also illustrated the teacher’s strengths.
You see, his lesson was that every strength has a corresponding weakness – an “underside” to the strength, if you will. And so when we look at an example of a weakness, we can choose the perspective of seeing the strength which inversely relates to it.
In the first of the six personal perspectives, Gary Keller tells us that Self-Mastery is the possession of great knowledge, skills and habits that make you the master of YOU.
The path toward self-mastery leads through the many and winding chambers of our personal strengths and weaknesses. This is what is meant by knowledge.
We must learn ourselves, inside and out, before we can identify the skills and habits which will lead us toward personal mastery.
What gives you energy?
Sometimes people get confused around the question of what their strengths are. This can be made very simple.
Think of the times that you have succeeded at something. It can be anything – something in school, something in sports, perhaps its in a social setting, where you have a knack for putting people at ease, making introductions, helping everyone to feel comfortable in the group.
The quickest way to locate your strengths is to ask yourself where you get energy.
Can you think of an experience that left you feeling warm and elated? Perhaps you were also tired (make no mistake – exercising our strengths takes energy as well as gives it) and yet you still wanted to have the experience again in the future?
When way closes
In his book, Palmer refers to the Quaker concepts of “way opening” and “way closing.” He described a time when he was very concerned about what he saw as his lack of specific direction. He was waiting for way to open before him, lit up with lights, to show the direction in which he was destined to move.
When that didn’t happen, he consulted with an elder in his community who showed him that when way has not opened before us, we can also take knowledge from “way closing” behind us.
What opportunities have been crossed off?
Either by our choice or by life making the choice for us?
In Palmer’s case, he thought of being fired from a job in college. And of what had not worked for him in his careers in academia and activism. These were the ways which had closed. And in closing, they had pushed him toward a different future.
The idea of looking both at what lies before us and what lies behind us is resonant with the idea of investigating both our strengths and our weaknesses.
There are clues to who we are in each of these realms, and they are connected to one another.
Weakness is the underbelly of strength
Perhaps you are highly people-oriented. Your energy comes from connecting with others. You are that person who strikes up a conversation with the cashier at the grocery store, the person waiting beside you at the DMV, and you are the life of every party. You thrive upon human connection.
Your corresponding weakness might be that you get bored and frustrated with repetitive tasks, working alone, being disconnected for any period of time from others. If you have a job which requires you to work in this way you may dread the job, and your performance may fall below the expectations of the role. (Or maybe it doesn’t – maybe you push yourself to excel. And it is painful to do, day after day.)
What do we do with this information?
Each of us has unique gifts to share in this world. And the quicker we figure out what they are, the great impact we will have on the world around us. And the better we will feel.
Our strengths are our gifts.
Our weaknesses are our gifts too.
Because the weaknesses correlate to the strengths, they give us clues to the direction in which we need to move to become the best version of ourselves.
Don’t waste time attempting to overcome your weaknesses.
Take them as important signals of who you are and what your unique way forward is.
Once we’ve identified our strengths, we can focus on the skills and habits which will AMPLIFY those strengths.
Do not mistake the “skills and habits” part of self-mastery as being directed at your weaknesses. They are not.
The skills and habits that will lead you to self-mastery will involve leaning into your strengths, growing those, and finding ways to compensate for your weaknesses. (The easiest way to compensate for a weakness, by the way, is to bring in another person whose strength area is your weakness area.)
The greatest work you’ll ever do
For some of you, determining your strengths and weaknesses will be simple and easy.
For the rest of us, figuring that out will be the greatest work we ever do.
And it will be so worth it.