The Danger of Mastering Your Weakness

Two years back, I had gotten some damaging feedback.

I was struggling at not only grasping some of the more simple concepts of SAP, I didn’t find myself engaged at all with the trainings. The disinterest became apparent when my manager threw it on the table during a 1-on-1 check-in.

You’re just not getting it. I’m not sure if this is the expectation we want to upload for people here.

I had known it for a while. Hearing it out loud stung.

It wasn’t my first ever taste of failure, by any means. I had failed at learning how to play the Guitar and was objectively terrible at golfing.

This all seemed trivial, however compared to sudden realization by the rest of my team that I was failing to learn simple software.

The onus of career implications became stressful — if I couldn’t master this application, what would it say about my ability to learn anything else?

If I couldn’t prove that I could improve upon terrible feedback, what would it say about my acceptance to feedback in general?

The only appropriate response seemed to be an investment into the trainings with a new determination.

I slowly began to understand the application like the back of my hand. With unyielding tenacity, I memorized glossary flashcards and module acronyms. I researched modules that weren’t even relevant to my day-to-day job, simply because the trainings referenced them.

I felt confident. Competent. I was contributing in meetings and giddy about basic principles of SAP. My manager then came with a second review that pretty much destroyed my worst fears: I was progressing and doing very well.

As soon as that second review came, I gradually felt a chip fall of my shoulder.

It was empirical proof that any software could be learned with the proper amount of training. It was proof that damaging feedback could be turned around with the right resilience.

A week later, I hit a sudden epiphany: I had no interest in the application that I just spent weeks attempting to master.

I wanted the feedback to be turned around. I certainly didn’t want to admit incompetence. At the same time, my mind had been so wrapped around this obsession with mastery that I didn’t realize the reason for my initial struggle — it wasn’t about a gap in the trainings, it was about an indifference.

Did I want to pursue a career in it? No. Did I want to climb down that software to build domain expertise? Definitely not.

My mind ran circles thinking of all the opportunity costs that came at the same expense as those very trainings. Time once thought to be well spent was now time questioned.

On top of that, I began to become pigeon-holed. My manager began to outsource my work to others looking for similar skills in that same application — it was impossible to crawl out of the proverbial vacuum I had somehow climbed into.

We all enter the professional world with a desire to be well-rounded. The first piece of feedback identifying any weakness comes as the first attack against this balance — our immediate reflex is to regain this balance. In this blind race to hide weakness, we often lost sight of our self-awareness.

One of the hardest truths we come to learn — it’s ok to have a weakness that you have no desire to master.

Of course, there are exceptions. Any weakness that actively harms others or destroys your ability to build good relationships is certainly a weakness that deserves focus. Misunderstanding social cues are not always welcome. The concept of a weakness isn’t black and white.

Last October, I had taken the MBTI test and found myself to be an ENFP. Overall, it wasn’t surprising. I was impulsive, spontaneous, and found improvisation to be more comfortable than organized planning. This had driven many tendencies in time as a consultant and in my subsequent years as a Product Manager.

In any interview, however, my immediate instinct would be to elevate the MBTI counterpoint. What’s your weakness? My weakness is everything that stopped me from being an ISTJ.

ISTJs are responsible organizers, driven to create and enforce order within systems and institutions. They are neat and orderly, inside and out, and tend to have a procedure for everything they do. This is what I want to improve. I want to be better at planning.

I slowly realized over time that improving parts of me that I observed as a weakness would likely lead to more discomfort than benefit. It was up to me to work well with people I saw as personality foils — it wasn’t up to me to ultimately become that person.

Instead of choosing to master all our weaknesses, we should focus more on self-awareness.

Mastering a weakness can be conducive to growth if that weakness helps capitalize a growth area — if it’s a weakness that is simply mastered due to ego, it can do more long-term harm than good.

Obsession on a weakness with no interest in the outcome takes us away from focusing on our strengths, areas that could actually progress careers.

Instead of automatically associating weakness with failure and reflexively seeing how we can turn it around, let’s accept weaknesses as human. As Hugh McKay once said, “Wholeness is what we ought to be striving for and part of that is sadness, disappointment, frustration, failure; all of those things which make us who we are.”

The toughest part is self-reconciliation — admitting that we accept flaws within ourselves. At the end of the day, if it’s a skill that no longer grows you, helps you, or leads to your happiness, it’s a weakness to relinquish.

Growth @Livongo • Bostonian • Fan of sports and quirky theatre • Marketing Nerd • Weekly reads ✍️