I bet you’ve never heard that before.
When I say “your weaknesses are the key to accomplishing your goals,” I don’t mean this in the “you’re only as strong as your weakest link” kind of way, either.
I mean our weaknesses really are the key to making our highest goals into reality—and it drives me crazy that nobody is talking it.
Have you ever noticed that goal-setting advice is always about the goal itself? “Goals should be specific, measurable, attainable,” and so on. To be fair, this is great advice (seriously, if you’ve never heard of the “S.M.A.R.T.” goal-setting framework, Google it)—but it’s also incomplete.
Unfortunately, today’s goal-setting advice is rarely about the human setting the goal.
We’re trying to accomplish incredible things without taking into account WHO is doing the accomplishing—and fumbling our goals in the process.
If we want to set goals we can actually achieve, we need to know our weaknesses as intimately as we know our strengths. Unfortunately, most of us aren’t clear on either.
WHY, ACCORDING TO SCIENCE…
Over the last decade, researchers have figured out that most personality tests are not universally legit or helpful. Yeah, that includes the Myers-Briggs and Enneagram. In fact, there’s only one clinically proven personality test—the VIA Character Strengths Survey—except nobody knows about it, because psychologists are generally terrible at P.R. (Honestly science, could you maybe TELL US when you discover something life-changing?? Ughh.)
>> “Can you back up and explain this survey, please?”
You got it.
In 1998, psychologist Martin Seligman had just been named president of the APA (American Psychological Association). In his inaugural speech, he did something most scientists would call “career suicide”—he announced that modern psychology was dead wrong. (A few of his choice words included “half-baked.”) To a stunned crowd of top professionals in psychology, Seligman argued that the field had become weirdly obsessed with disease, disorder, and the shadowy parts of human nature; it was almost as if today’s psychologists were unwilling to research what made humans happy and healthy. He pointed out that experts could regularly refer to their “bible”—a 940+ page catalog of human misery called the DSM (Diagnostic & Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders)—but there was nothing that remotely resembled a manual of mental health.
And of course there wasn’t—because at the time, most psychologists still treated mental health as the absence of disease, not the presence of anything particularly “good.” By the end of his speech, the crowd was on their feet, applauding—and with that, positive psychology was born.
Aside: Guess who earned her Specialization Certificate in the Foundations of Applied Positive Psychology from the University of Pennsylvania this year? This girl. Cue dance party.
Anywayyyyys, in one of positive psychology’s early projects, Seligman and his colleagues, Katherine Dahlsgaard and Chris Peterson, were determined to find out if a kind of “handbook of health” could exist. They started by sifting through thousands of cross-cultural “virtues” (i.e. patience, trustworthiness, honesty) in an attempt to figure out which were consistent across all humankind. While no one virtue made every list, they found at least 24 unique “character strengths” consistent across all cultures that, that, when practiced, were clinically proven to increase happiness and well being. After further research, they formulated a 120-question test that measured and quantified those 24 strengths.7 4
Fast forward more than a decade later, and their test (called the VIA Character Strengths Survey) has been taken by over 6 ½ million people and validated in moreover than 200 rigorous scientific studies.85 [By the way, when I say “rigorous,” I mean mostly “random assignment placebo control trials,” a.k.a. the “gold standard” in scientific research. And frankly, if a bunch of bickering scientists can agree that something is useful, then it’s good enough for me.]
>> “Kay where can I take this test, and what do I need to know about my results?”
Here’s a list of the 24 strengths. Before you take the test, see if you can guess what your top 3 strengths will be. >>
Judgment (i.e., seeing all sides, critical thinking)
Love of Learning
Perspective (i.e, . “big-picture thinking,” practical wisdom, “street smarts”)
Zest (i.e., enthusiasm, lust for life)
Prudence (i.e., thoughtful, careful decision making)
Self-Regulation (i.e., discipline, self-control)
Appreciation of Beauty & Excellence,
You can take the test for free, RIGHT HERE. Your results will be emailed to you.
Note: This is my personal link—I’m affiliated with this organization in a NON-FINANCIAL capacity. I don’t make money from this, I just like it. I don’t think it’s necessary to buy their special “report;” the free results can be compared to the information about “strengths” on their website and still be helpful. If you have questions about your results (or how to “practice” your top strengths) email me and I’ll help you out: firstname.lastname@example.org.
SCIENCE, TRANSLATED FOR HUMANS
If I could boil down hundreds of studies over years of research into just one key takeaway, it would be this:
Happy people practice their strengths; successful people own their weaknesses. Invincible people do both.
(I just saved you hours of boring reading. You’re welcome.)
Studies show people who practice their strengths are more productive @ work, have higher job satisfaction, experience a protective “buffering effect” against depression + anxiety, have stronger, happier relationships (including romantic ones), and experience high levels of “thriving” (yep, this is something researchers can actually measure with a battery of tests, lol).
>> “Wait, how do I figure out what my weaknesses are? Looks like this test only lists my core strengths.”
Wondering what your weaknesses are? That’s easy.
They’re your strengths.
Your weaknesses ARE your strengths, either over amplified or underused.
Think about it: If you’re naturally curious, you’ve probably also been called “nosy.”
If you’re naturally courageous, you’ve probably also been called “reckless.”
If you’re naturally creative, you may have also been called “flighty,” or “eccentric.”
In a personal example: My top strength is Creativity. If I over amplify my creativity, I feel overwhelmed by too many big ideas or new connections, which scatters my focus and eats away at my willpower. If I underuse my creativity, I feel stifled and resentful—which can cause me to sabotage my work environment, or lash out in my relationships.
Our weaknesses are our strengths, over amplified or under-utilizedWhen we expect people to minimize their strengths to accommodate ours, it can cause interpersonal conflict and frustration; this is typically a sign we’re over-using one of our strengths.
On the flipside, when we underuse a strength, it leaves a kind of “hollow void” that anxiety and numbness can rush in to fill. One study described underuse of strengths as causing:
“a dormant or mindless state of languishing—a void, hollow, empty state...while with overuse the individual still brings their best qualities forward, despite the negative outcomes.”
In other words: Underusing our strengths is a form of self-censorship.
You know that irritated feeling you get when you hear people say “Just be yourself!” and you’re thinking “Who or what else could I possibly be!?” Well, they’re not articulating it well, but you could be less yourself by underusing your innate strengths, and in doing so create a vacuum of emptiness that negativity—even depression—could rush in to fill.
Because whether it’s to fit into a job description or fit other people’s expectations, underusing our strengths is a form of inauthenticity; a stifling of who really are that leaves an open door for apathy and numbness in our lives.
>> “What does this mean for me and my goals, though?”
Turn up the volume on who you are. Stop stifling your strengths; stop censoring your weaknesses. Set them free—and learn how to work with them.
1 ) If you want to set goals you’ll actually accomplish, intentionally build them around practicing your strengths.
>> If one of your top strengths is “Perspective,” then you can “practice” it by taking opportunities to help others “see the big picture.” At work, you could compile a project or report that blends statistical data on how the company is performing with customer perspectives and your creative vision for the future. (Imagine dropping this on your boss’s desk—major points for you!) Or in your personal life, you could carve out time to listen to a friend who is going through tough circumstances and offer your perspective and advice.
>> If one of your top strengths is “Appreciation of Beauty & Excellence,” then you can “practice” it by making a list of as many places or activities that celebrate curation or stir up a sense of wonder that you can think of—like visiting an art museum, botanical garden, observatory (have you ever seen the stars through a gigantic telescope?!), hiking to a waterfall, and so on—and plan one activity focused on appreciating beauty or excellence into each week.
[To figure out your strengths, you can take the free VIA Character Strength Survey HERE.]
2) If you want to prevent your weaknesses from sabotaging your goals, stop trying to eradicate those weaknesses and supplement them, instead.
Here’s the thing nobody else will tell you (because they’d have to stop trying to advertise the “solutions” to all your “problems”):
You can’t eradicate your weaknesses, because they are a side effect of having strengths.
Do you realize how freeing this is?
Your weaknesses aren’t failures, they’re a natural side effect of having strengths. We can’t get rid of our weaknesses, but we can acknowledge, accept, and work around them, and still accomplish our most epic goals.
Stop desperately trying to conceal your failures and imperfections from the rest of us—get ahead of them. Admit what you’re not good at; take ownership of all of it. How can we fault you for being imperfect when you’ve chosen to be transparent about it, to work on it, to ask for help? Owning your weaknesses with confidence makes you untouchable.
>> “I feel like something is missing here. How, exactly, are my weaknesses the key to accomplishing my goals?”
Glad you asked.
There are four ways to use your weaknesses to accomplish your goals:
Go Over, Under, Around, or Through.™
>> Let’s say You’re an Executive Assistant at a PR firm. You were hired for your vision and work ethic, but are struggling to juggle all the nitty-gritty details of managing your boss’ schedule. You forgot to schedule a crucial meeting between your boss and a client, and mixed up the details of a big project, because it was hard to keep up with the pace everyone was talking in a recent meeting.
>> Core Strengths: Creativity (i.e. making new connections) and Perspective (i.e., big-picture thinking).
>> Weaknesses, by extension: Organization and detail-oriented tasks, remembering tedious details.
OVER your weakness
Recruit help to lift yourself up and over this weakness. Enlist someone who is naturally strong where you are naturally weak, or utilize tools and resources that help compensate for your weakness.
>> Utilize digital tools that help with organizing details. Take handwritten notes, but also audio-record a meeting using your phone’s “voice memo” app, so you won’t miss any important details. Ask a detail-oriented coworker to compare your notes against after meetings, and be sure to offer to help them with reviewing their big-picture projects.
UNDER your weakness
Use your strengths to “get underneath” your weaknesses and bolster or supplement them.
>> Since you’re naturally good at big-picture thinking (and you’re also responsible for the of scheduling your boss’ calendar), “zoom out” for their schedule this quarter and look for ways to optimize their meetings, travel plans, and appointments. Present your suggestions to your boss as a way to “go above and beyond.” You can use digital scheduling tools to make the details of this project manageable.
Use your strengths to bolster your weakness—and set your goals with both in mind.
AROUND your weakness
Instead of struggling to do something you’re naturally bad at, change the path you’re taking to get to your goal. This usually involves creatively practicing your strengths.
>> Instead of struggling in a job that demands constant attention to detail, apply for other jobs in PR, advertising, or marketing that require creativity and big-picture thinking (like branding or social media strategy). While waiting for responses, pull together a proposal that illustrates a big-picture opportunity missing from your current firm, and present it to your boss, unprompted (i.e., practice your strengths).
THROUGH your weakness
Evolve; learn and practice the necessary skills to see if you can overcome your weakness.
>> Create systems that act as “detail checkpoints” for all your projects until it comes naturally to you. Leave yourself notes that remind you to “measure twice, cut once.” Use digital and hand-written systems of organization; quiz yourself on minor details. Annoy yourself with how detailed you’re being until your brain grows accustomed to it. Practice, practice, practice. If this drives you crazy after 90 days, revisit the “AROUND” method and consider changing jobs.
And BOOM! Just like that, you’re invincible.
Did you notice the one constant across the four ways to supplement your weaknesses? Your strengths. The key to setting goals you can accomplish is owning your weaknesses—and the key to owning your weaknesses is using your strengths. In other words:
Turn up the volume on who you are. Know thineself so you can uncensor thineself.
NEED HELP “TURNING UP THE VOLUME ON WHO YOU ARE”?
Take // The VIA Character Strengths Survey. Click this link to take the free test and find out what your innate strengths are, ranked from 1-24.
Read // Ray Dalio’s book, Principles. Dalio is a wildly wealthy American entrepreneur, whose business principles help scale an investment firm from his garage to one of the top wealthiest in the country (we’re talking billions, here). His chapter on goal setting, acknowledging our weaknesses, and “refusing to tolerate problems” is invaluable.
Follow // @alexisrockley. (a.k.a. Yours truly) for Instagram-only giveaways (!!!), IGTV episodes, IG stories about my your happiness, my house plants, etc etc and all kinds of other excellent, relatable content (i.e. memes). Let’s be friends.
Join // The #HowToLikeBeingAlive Crew. Once a week, you’ll get (1) easy piece of advice, in your inbox—backed up by scientific research, of course—FOR FREE. The best part? I do monthly email-list-only giveaways (yes, GIVEAWAYS). So nbd, but hurry up and join the party!
There are WAY too many studies on strengths, weaknesses and goal setting to list. For an archive of many of them, visit: https://www.viacharacter.org/www/Research/Research-Findings
Dahlsgaard, K., Peterson, C., & Seligman, M. E. P. (2005). “Shared Virtue: The Convergence of Valued Human Strengths Across Culture and History.” Review of General Psychology, 9(3), 203-213. Retrieved from http://bit.ly/2OAhTDM
Dalio, Ray. (2017). Principles. New York: Simon & Schuster.
Freidlin, P., Littman-Ovadia, H., & Niemiec, R. M. (2017). “Positive psychopathology: Social anxiety via character strengths underuse and overuse.” Personality and Individual Differences, 108, 50-54. Retrieved from doi: dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.paid.2016.12.003
Niemiec Psy.D., R.M. (2013). “VIA character strengths: Research and practice (The first 10 years).” In H. H. Knoop & A. Delle Fave (Eds.), Well-being and cultures: Perspectives on positive psychology (pp. 11-30). New York, NY: Springer. Retrieved from http://bit.ly/2xk2xg8
Niemiec Psy.D., R.M. (2014 May 16). “Myers-Briggs or VIA Survey (Character Strengths)? Comparing two of the most popular tests in psychology.” Psychology Today. Retrieved from http://bit.ly/2QF3Oq3
Niemiec Psy.D., R.M. (2014 Aug 18). “The Overuse of Strengths: Ten Principles.” PsycCRITIQUES; Vol. 59, No. 33, Article 10. Retrieved from http://bit.ly/2xsEHOo
Peterson, C.F., Seligman, M.E.P. (2004). Character Strengths and Virtues: A Handbook of Classification. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Pursuit of Happiness. (n.d.) “Martin Seligman.” In Pursuit of Happiness: Bringing the Science of Happiness to Life. Retrieved from http://bit.ly/2xxLypB