Strengths and Struggles
‘Tell me about your biggest weaknesses?’
(cheesy confidence) ‘Sure. I work too hard. I care too much. Some people say I’m too much of a team player. And … this is embarrassing, but I’ve never lost. I don’t really know that’s like.’
The whole weakness as a strength thing has been ruined by the typical interview question and answer. But in reality, discovering and working on your weaknesses really is one of the best things you can do. A general rule for myself is the less I want to do something, the more I need to go out and do that. Public speaking, anyone?
Today I’m going to share two stories of different people who turned what could be considered a ‘weakness’ into a strength.
For the first example, I’ll tell you about René Descartes. Some of you are likely already familiar with him, and may have heard this story before.
For those of you who don’t know, or in case you don’t know much about him, he was a philosopher and mathematician in the 1600s. Starting as a young boy, he struggled with illness and his teachers allowed him to stay in bed until noon.
Descartes got into the habit of staying in bed until noon and continued this for much of his life, but he used that time to think about his favorite topics – philosophy, and math.
One day, while laying in bed, he was watching the ceiling and a certain fly who was flitting about. He began to think to himself, ‘how would I describe the location of this fly to someone?’ Maybe he was thinking about yelling, ‘moooooom, will you come kill a fly!?’ He figured out a solution to his problem – he would use the fly’s location relative to the walls in the room!
That might look something like this (draw graph on board). You probably recognize this from … oh I don’t know, 3rd grade math til the last math class you took. It’s the coordinate plane, otherwise known as a Cartesian plane.
I don’t know about you, but I think this would create such an opportunity for someone to quit on him or herself. To be so limited in your activities, to be tied down and forced to be still, it would be hard to stay motivated and use that time productively. Especially if this starts when you’re a child and so full of energy. But Descartes turned this seeming disadvantage to his favor, using the time to engage his brain and creating something that every person knows and loves (or hates, depending on your relationship with math).
Next, my wife, and her alcoholism.
For various reasons that would be a whole different speech, my wife began drinking when she was young. Middle school. My wife is smart, and was able to get by in school, but outside of school her habits had gotten her caught by her family, and the police. Things were getting worse for her, and while her family had tried a number of things to help her – AA, NA, therapy – nothing had worked.
Her senior year she finally got caught at school. She was drunk, and had alcohol on her. The principal decided to send <my wife> to a sort of ‘second chance’ high school. The school represented a ‘scared straight’ approach (which is a terrible idea in my opinion). To get in every day you would go through a metal detector and a quick search, and then you would complete any school work from your actual high school. One of <my wife’s> teachers pulled her aside at the end of one day and said, ‘you don’t belong here.’
After leaving that school <my wife> began down the long path that actually proved effective. With treatment, a good, stable family that could afford treatment, and a lot of hard work on <my wife’s> part – she managed to get herself turned around. Her sobriety date is actually tomorrow, and she will have been sober for thirteen years.
Now for the turning this around aspect. <My wife>, approaching her senior year of college, realized she wanted a career where she would be helping people. She got her master’s in clinical social work and has been working as a therapist, specializing in … addiction. She rarely shares personal information with her clients, but when one of them shares about feeling overwhelmed or not knowing how they’ll make it past this or that milestone of sobriety, she lets them know that she personally understands how they’re feeling and that it is possible.
<My wife> was able to take her struggle with addiction, and turn it around into an ability to better help people cope with their own emotional struggles.
There’s an important point in both of these anecdotes, an underlying message. And that is the perception of the person who was presented as having a ‘weakness.’
Imagine hearing just the facts without the anecdotes … René Descartes, due to medical issues, had daily bedrest til noon. <My wife> began drinking as a young girl, became an alcoholic, and in case you weren’t aware, once an alcoholic, always an alcoholic.
With just those facts it’s easy to imagine an awkward exchange. You might see <my wife> at a Toastmasters social, you’re standing there with a beer and feel awkward wondering, ‘is she thinking about my beer? Should I not drink in front of her?’ Or, let’s say ol’ René comes back from the dead and you see him and say, ‘oh man, I am SO tired. Can’t wait to get in bed tonight … ohh … uhh.’
But instead, knowing how they embraced a ‘weakness’ and turned it into a triumph, you might run across them and be delighted or impressed by what they have done.
If Descartes, or my wife, or anyone was still viewing something as a weakness it could create tension or discomfort anytime it is thought of. The key here is to find the supposed weakness, take it on, make it your own, make it something you own and are comfortable with and then you can make it a strength.
Today I shared two stories about taking on supposed weaknesses and turning them into strengths. We are fresh into the new year, a time that is rife with people looking to stop bad habits, start good ones, or change their perspective in some way.
I encourage everyone to think about these stories, think about yourself, and honestly look at what your faults or weaknesses are, because these could very well be amazing opportunities for you to learn, become a better version of yourself, and hopefully help others in the process.
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