Balancing the Downsides of Strength and the Benefits of Weakness

“Focus on your strengths”

This is the new refrain in management and self-improvement theory. The idea is to capitalize on what you can inherently do well in order to be better at your job, build confidence and expertise, and increase your sphere of influence. This goes against standard human nature (and perfectionism!), which tells us to focus on our weaknesses and work to improve or minimize them as much as possible.

As much as triathletes are given shit for being type-A, perfectionist overachievers, they can also be pretty awesome at being strengths-focused.

In triathlon, most people have one sport that they particularly excel at — something they have done for most of their lives or have an established competitive track record. Triathletes tend to spend much of their training time on these events in their “wheelhouse”, while muscling through the other two. I’ve known some athletes who hate one event so much they completely avoid training for it until race day. There are also some funny trends in our tribe of triathletes— many swimmers dislike running (though Lauren is a big exception). Serious cyclists usually come in wanting to crush the bike course record and survive everything else. Though many athletes dislike running, runners have a slight advantage on the course as long as they can manage the first 2 events.

I started running before ever picking up biking, and I only learned to swim after I signed up for my Ironman. After a decade of racing, and coaching, running is still my strong suit, and I’ve done enough long-distance endurance rides and road races that I’ve become a solid runner and biker — not fast by any means, but I can manage a decently aggressive pace over long distances.

My wheelhouse is pacing, which is actually one of the harder skills to nail in triathlons. Many athletes go out too hard/fast at the beginning of each leg and can’t keep their speed in the last miles. It’s easy to start strong, but at the end of the course, finishing strong is what matters most.

Understanding the Strength of Weaknesses in Sports:

This is not just Brene Brown platitudes (although her research and work on framing vulnerability is amazing), but it’s important to understand that strengths and weaknesses are on a spectrum. Our skills and attributes are not black and white — we have degrees of positive and negative within us.

For example, the downside of my consistent pacing is that, because I am so future-focused, it’s hard to push myself to max capacity. Mentally, I’ve trained myself to always hold on to a little energy to ”keep something in the tank.” That conditioning makes it crazy hard for me to give 100% in a race. My slow-twitch muscle-fibers practically rebel at anything that requires pure bursts of power, even if it’s in the last few hundred meters of a race.

I also suck at swimming. I mean, I really suck (more on this later). I won’t drown, but it would take a serious time and coaching investment to make any drastic changes in my swim pace. That weakness is actually helpful, as it frees up my time to focus on my stronger events. I won’t commit to spending a ton of hours in the pool for only a marginal gain. Because swimming is also fairly new to me, my pool workouts are almost entirely devoted to form and sprint workouts. I am forced to be mindful of my time in the pool, and that mindfulness transfers to running and biking so that I can focus on form, technique, nutrition, and breathing throughout my workouts.

Understand the Strengths of Weaknesses at Work:

My emphasis on pacing is echoed in the workplace. I love organizing and planning — breaking down big projects/concepts/ideas into manageable pieces and keeping things moving at an even pace. I work best when I have time-sensitive projects, clear goals, and multiple stakeholders/partners. This strength usually makes me the reliable one on the team — the one who can turn ideas into action, have a plan and a back up plan, get shit done, and have a strong team of supporters who can move a project across the finish line.

This all sounds great, right? Like what’s wrong with being an organized manager?

Well, this also means that I am not so good at working alone, confronting others when things aren’t going according to plan, and quick decision-making. My worst nightmare would be to work on a project in isolation, then have a conflict around the expectations/outcomes that require confrontation, and then have to make a choice by myself on what to do next (because OMG what if it’s the wrong decision and I fuck up and fail and it’s all my fault?!).

This weakness — loathing to have responsibility lie entirely on my shoulders, or to be the bad guy — is a strength to my leadership. I much prefer to lead by consensus and shared decision-making than by autocratic power. To minimize my weaknesses, I emphasize collaboration, communication, and shared responsibility to get the job done. This builds on my strength of incorporating other’s abilities and ideas to build better projects.

This exercise of examining the spectrum of your strengths and weaknesses isn’t just helpful when it’s time for your annual review or in an interview. This feedback loop — both from your own reflection and from others — helps to quickly build your areas of excellence so that you can be a better leader, partner, teammate, and athlete.

The takeaway here is to know yourself (and to thine own self be true) and really examine the ins and outs of your strengths and weaknesses. How do they balance one another? How do your weaknesses feed your strengths, and vice versa? What can you build on to be even better at what you love to do?

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