There are many different philosophies around working at your peak. One of these involves focusing on your strengths. But what would happen if you got a promotion and all of a sudden those weaknesses became a whole lot more important? Well, you’d just work on them when the time came, right? Not so fast.
Focussing on your strengths is a great idea, but the other side to this strategy is using compensation or avoidance strategies to combat your weaknesses. That is, being able to avoid situations that show your weaknesses or using compensating by using alternate skills.
Why avoidance strategies don’t work
The inherent problem in this strategy is that you will never get better at the things you can’t do, and the reality is that, at some stage you’ll be faced with the need to use these weak skills.
Behaviour research and learning shows us that if we don’t use a certain neural circuit – a certain skill for instance – that skill doesn’t just lie dormant, to be activated if and when we need it, it actually disappears.
Use it or lose it
In his landmark book on plasticity, The Brain that Changes Itself, Norman Doidge reflects on one of the early, definitive experiments that showed what takes place when we don’t use a certain skill.
In this particular experiment, subjects were blindfolded and the researchers observed what happened to the ‘visual’ part of the brain by an increase in the use of ‘touch’ instead of vision. Over a period of days, the part of the brain devoted to processing visual information started to become activated by ‘touching’ things. The skill that we weren’t using ‘disappeared’ – the area of the brain devoted to this decreased – while the skill that we were using repetitively – touch – started to take over this area so that more of the brain could be used for processing this information.
So what this tells us is that when we don’t use certain skills or behaviours, not only do get de-activated, they actually get taken over by something we are doing more and more of. If you only focus on your strengths, those strengths will take up more neurons, while the brain region devoted to the weak skill, if never used, might disappear altogether. If you need to activate this, it might not just be difficult, it might be impossible.
So, while focusing on your strengths is a pretty good idea, we also need to focus on doing the things that we aren’t so good at. As we build these circuits we become better and more efficient, and we stop our current habits and strengths from becoming the only ‘tools’ we can use.
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