Want to be a Master? Avoid Investing in Your Weaknesses

We’ve all heard the adage “Play to your strengths.” Sounds like good advice. But we don’t often hear the corollary: “Avoid investing in your weaknesses.” Why? Because they also tell us “practice makes perfect.” And “you miss every shot you don’t take.” Or the worst offender: “You can do anything you want.”

I’m here to tell you that’s simply not true. You cannot become the best in the world at anything. Yes, practice, hard work, and determination are all required for success (and yes, once you find a domain you could master, you do have to invest in mastering all parts of it, including areas in which you’re weak*), but there are some things you just aren’t set up to do well.

The good news is there are other things you have the potential to be amazing at. They just may not fit the fantasy you have for yourself. And the real tragedy is that you might be missing your true calling because you’re investing all your time in trying to strengthen a weakness.

It’s true if you don’t practice the guitar or your jump shot, you’ll never get good. Eddie Van Halen played his guitar for 5 to 6 hours a day before starting his eponymous band. Michael Jordan was said to practice by himself for hours before games — even at the height of his career. They both became masters because they practiced, but they also started out with innate talent and physical abilities and went from there.

If Eddie Van Halen was tone deaf, no amount of practice would have helped him. But actually, he was winning piano recitals at the age of 9 playing Bach and Mozart from memory — pieces that he’d learn by ear because he never learned to read music.

And if Jordan was short and had no eye-hand coordination, his legendary work ethic on and off the court would have been for naught. But actually, he’s 6'6" and had amazing ball-handling skills even as a sophomore in high school.

They both had natural abilities they found and pursued. And because they invested countless hours tilling fertile ground, they became legendary. The trick is assessing very quickly how steep the learning curve is for you relative to other people. Because investing your time in a losing cause starves the thing you could actually succeed at.

So, how do you tell if you should jump ship or paddle forward? For me, there are two tests I use to see if I should continue investing in a certain path:

  1. Does it feel like work or play?
  2. Do other people respond well to me when I do it?

Does it feel like work?

I recently asked a friend who is a virtuoso on guitar how many hours a day he practices. He said he never practices. Instead, he plays 2–3 hours a day. If it feels like work or an endless toil, you might be barking up the wrong tree.

I found learning to code to be one of the most boring and painful experiences of my life. It never felt like fun for me, although most of my friends love coding. On the flip side learning to speak foreign languages is as addictive for me as a crossword puzzle — but for those same coder friends, it is complete misery.

Many new skills take a lot of effort in the very beginning to get the flywheel spinning. But once you have some momentum and early success, does it feel natural and fun? If so, you might be on to something. Because once something ceases to feel like work, you are free to “play” at it for endless hours — the level of effort that is required to become a master.

Do others respond well?

This one is tricky. The real question isn’t “does your family respond well?” If you read my recent post on pursuing your dreams, you’ll know that I think your friends and family are often the worst judges of your true potential. Instead, find out if complete strangers think you’re good. If you want to be a comic, go perform. If you want to be a basketball star, go run ball with the best players you can find. If you earn their laughs and/or respect, you might be on to something.

Now, before you say “Michael Jordan was cut from his high school basketball team! Should he have quit?!” I know, I know. He was also a sophomore and shorter than everyone else on the team. He played JV as a sophomore, had numerous 40-point games, and went on to make varsity as a junior once he was taller than 6-foot, and went on to average 30 points a game as a senior. Don’t dismiss my entire argument because of one stupid coach. :)

The Takeaway

At the end of the day, only you will know if you’re on the right path. If you have trouble knowing ask yourself, “Does this feel like work or play? Could I do it all day without breaking a sweat? And when I do it, does the world respond well to me? Does it seem like a natural fit to those who don’t even know me?”

Answer these questions honestly, and you’ll be one step closer to finding the thing you can be a true master at.

Thanks for reading! If you enjoyed it, hit that heart button below. It would mean a lot to me, and it helps other people see the story.

*Thanks to David Shapiro for pointing this out!