Sunday, February 13, 2005

The Twin Forces of Personal Development

Wanting to become a better person is perhaps the first step in personal development. Without it, everything else will be meaningless. You can’t teach someone who’s unwilling to learn, and that includes you. But even if you’ve accepted the fact that there’s room for change and growth in your life, that still doesn’t give you concrete advice on how to grow. What do you do next?

If you ask other people that question, they’ll probably give you one of two answers. The first one is probably for you to expand your horizons, to learn new things. For me, that can be summarized as patching up your weaknesses. For example, if our knowledge is too specialized and there’s a lot of things we know little about, taking the time to learn about all those other stuff we’re clueless about aids us in making our ignorance less evident. I mean if you’re good in only Math, taking the time to study other subjects you’re weak in such as History or Science makes them less of a weakness.

The other answer people might give you would be to specialize, to become better at what you’re currently doing. I call this developing your strengths. In the example above, if you’re already great at Math, be even better at it. If in the past you merely got a B+ on the subject, strive for an A this time. This advice too has merit since people who stand out are usually the ones recognized by people. I mean let’s face it, people, be it our teachers, our employers, our coworkers, or even our friends, pay attention to the extreme qualities of a person. Pinocchio, for example, drew much attention to himself when his nose was very, very long. The same goes with our strengths. Sometimes, it doesn’t suffice to be “just good enough”, but rather one must be excellent. A person who does his job well, for example, is well and good, but if you want to catch the attention of your boss, you sometimes have to go beyond the call of duty and exert initiative or be extremely good at what you do (whether that means finishing a deadline ahead of time or delivering something of superior quality, or even a consistent optimistic demeanor).

With that in mind, your initial impulse might be to ask which one is right. Personally, I think they’re both right. If you want to be a better person, you must at the same time compensate for your weaknesses and improve your strengths. For me, exclusivity or having only one answer is a myth perpetuated by those who want simple answers and don’t think things through, or those who aren’t willing to commit the needed time and effort. But I will concede priority must be given, since we can’t always work on both things at the same time. As for the answer to that, it depends on you. For some people, it’s advisable to work on their weaknesses. I mean when you’re in school, for example, it’s not enough to excel in one subject only to fail in the rest. If you want to graduate, one at the very least must be competent in all your subjects. On the other hand, if you have a specialized job such as graphic design, working on your weaknesses isn’t as important as developing your strengths since the latter is your main output. I know someone who’s a graphic designer but has other skills as well such as the ability to write and edit. But make no mistake, he recognizes the fact that people pay him for his skills in graphic design more than for his two other skills; if he wasn’t competent in the first, they wouldn’t hire him. It’s nice to offer bonuses such as his ability to write and edit but first and foremost, he has to be really good at graphic design.

Be that as it may, one can realize their true potential by working on both strengths and weaknesses. One example I have is the basketball player Shaquille O’Neal. His biggest advantage is perhaps his size, which enables him to catch rebounds. That’s his strength, and it’s because of this skill that he’s a great basketball player. Never mind the fact that he’s not so good at the other aspects of basketball but because he’s so good at rebounding (which has both offensive and defensive potential), he’s often one of the starting players in the team he’s in. His rebounding ability compensated for his other weaknesses. Yet there was also a time that free throws were one of Shaq’s weaknesses. Because of that, rivals would often prefer to foul Shaq rather than allow him to get the rebounds because Shaq had a lesser chance of success when it came to free throws. Of course later on, Shaq would work on his free throws, making it less of a weakness. Whenever he’s fouled, he’s still not as good a free throw shooter as, say, Kobe Bryant, but around half of the shots he attempts sinks into the basket. If Shaq wasn’t good at his strengths and never overcame his weakness, he wouldn’t have enjoyed as much success as he did.

Another example I have shows synergy. Jim Lee is a great artist in his own right. His ability to draw is one of his greatest assets. Yet there was a time when he studied medicine, something that seemed totally unrelated to his existing strength. But it was because of his experience in medicine that he became the renowned comic artist that he is now, since one of the benefits of studying medicine is that one learns about anatomy and how the body works. Jim Lee was able to utilize his knowledge of medicine in his art, drawing realistic characters and body movement, with muscles and joints fitting perfectly.

A final example I can cite is working in a call center. As a call center agent, you must be able to multitask and excel in several things, such as communicating to the person on the line, empathizing with them, satisfying their needs, and recording all of this in the company’s database. At the very least, you must be competent in all four and capable of executing them, even if you’re not really good at it. But even if you’re not particularly adept at three of those requirements, if you’re particularly good at one, such as empathizing with the customer, you can enjoy recognition and success. When I was working in the call center industry, I heard this story about an agent who wasn’t really good in communicating but because he was able to empathize with the customer and solve their problems, he eventually got promoted. Similarly, there was also this person who didn’t have much technical knowledge but because he excelled in delivering his point across, got recognized as well. And of course, every call center agent is expected to work on their weaknesses and become better people; there doesn’t necessarily have to be extreme change in your performance, as long as there’s an improvement.

While exclusively honing your strength or weakness is good, it’ll never be as effective as working on both of them. I mean an overspecialized person might be in a precarious situation once his knowledge becomes either outdated, or placed in a field he’s unfamiliar with. Similarly, if you’re too spread out in your resources, you might enjoy moderate success but you’ll never stand out of the crowd, never enjoy the benefits of being a paragon in a certain field. If you want to grow as a person, you better start thinking of your own strengths and weaknesses (and no matter how much you deny it, you have your fair share of both), and how you can work on both of them.