Guest Post | The Freak Factor

lyamachado | June 17, 2015

David Rendall was one of our incredible keynote speakers at this year’s DIRECT conference in Napa Valley. Both our team and the attendees came away inspired and charmed by his presentation. We received such positive feedback from his talk, in fact, we asked him to contribute to our blog. Enjoy!

Discovering Uniqueness by Flaunting Weakness

We do not believe in ourselves until someone reveals that deep inside us something is valuable, worth listening to, worthy of our trust, sacred to our touch. – e.e. cummings

The most common approach to self-improvement is to build on strengths and fix weaknesses, usually with special attention to fixing weaknesses. This is prevalent at work where annual appraisals are focused on overcoming our apparent limitations. Similarly, in homes and schools, parents and teachers expect children to excel in all academic subjects, athletic activities, and social skills. Those who are lacking in any particular area are confronted with their flaws and given strategies for improvement.

The obvious goal of these remediation efforts is to foster success by producing well-rounded people. However, do these efforts really work and is being well-rounded a worthy or realistic goal? My experience as an individual, professor, parent and leader indicates that efforts to fix weaknesses are ineffective. Furthermore, I believe that the goal of being well-rounded is both undesirable and impossible to attain. So what is the alternative? In this article I’ll share a four-step process for getting better by embracing your weaknesses and amplifying them, instead of fixing them. 

Awareness – Weaknesses are important clues to our strengths

“We are led to truth by our weaknesses as well as our strengths.”- Parker Palmer, Let Your Life Speak

Each of us has unique characteristics. These characteristics have both positive and negative features. These features, which we usually refer to as strengths and weaknesses, cannot be separated. They come in pairs. The positive and negative elements are inextricably linked.

This claim may seem outrageous and that is why I created the chart below. It lists 16 strengths and their corresponding weaknesses. Do any of these resonate with you? Have you seen these pairs in your own life or the lives of friends, co-workers or employees?

Screen Shot 2015-06-17 at 11.03.14 AM

Unfortunately, instead of seeing a weakness as natural and unavoidable consequence of its corresponding strength, we see weakness as a problem to be eliminated. Our efforts to eliminate weakness are doomed to fail because any characteristic has particular advantages and disadvantages. 

Acceptance – Apparent weaknesses are strengths in disguise

“Strong people always have strong weaknesses too. Where there are peaks, there are valleys.”- Peter Drucker

When I ask students and seminar participants if they should fix weaknesses, build strengths or do both, most choose to do both. However, there are a number of problems with this approach. Most importantly, since weaknesses and strengths are linked, attempting to fix a weakness can actually diminish the corresponding strength. This fact is best illustrated by the discount retail industry.

Walmart’s main strength is low prices and its weaknesses include poor quality merchandise, long lines and unhelpful employees. On the other hand, Target’s main strengths are higher quality products from well-known designers, attractive stores and helpful associates who are quick to open a new checkout lane. Unfortunately, Target’s weakness is that its prices are not as low as those at Walmart.

So, what would happen if Walmart tried to do both? What if they tried to build on their strengths and fix their weaknesses? What would happen to their low prices, their primary strength, as they added better products and extra employees at the registers? The answer is simple, their prices would climb, thus diminishing their strength.

Similarly, what if Target decided to fix their weakness by lowering prices? What would happen to the level of customer service and the great products that give them their advantage if they focused more on cost cutting? Again, the answer is straightforward, their quality and service would decrease, thus diminishing their strength.

If you don’t believe me, just look at Kmart.

Kmart provides an illustration of what happens when a company, or individual, loses focus and tries to do both. Their historical leadership in discount retail was based on the blue-light special, a symbol of low prices. However, they did not focus exclusively on this price advantage and began to lose customers to Walmart.

Kmart then began adding designer products from celebrities like Martha Stewart, but wasn’t quite ready to shed their low-price image. This allowed Target to capture higher-income customers that were design conscious. Kmart’s failure to focus ultimately led to bankruptcy. They weren’t the best at anything, so customers had no reason to shop there. Their failure illustrates the dangers of doing both, of trying to be well-rounded.

There is a compelling reason to go to Walmart, low prices. There is a compelling reason to go to Target, a better shopping experience. There is not a compelling reason to go to Kmart, so people don’t.

This is very important. If you try to be everything to everybody, you’ll end up being nothing to nobody.

Appreciation – We succeed because of our weaknesses, not in spite of them

“Every limit is a beginning as well as an ending.”- George Eliot

Dyslexia is a disability. People with dyslexia get letters and words mixed up and this leads to major problems with reading and writing. This, in turn, is a major barrier to success. Or is it?

A recent study showed that 35% of small business owners have dyslexia. This is surprising because only 10% of Americans have dyslexia, but they make up more than 33% of entrepreneurs in the US.

Another study found that people with dyslexia are far more likely to become millionaires. In fact, almost half of the millionaires in the study had dyslexia. Examples of wealthy dyslexics include Virgin founder, Richard Branson, JetBlue founder, David Neeleman, and Kinko’s founder, Paul Orfalea. The subtitle of Orfalea’s book is Lessons from a Hyperactive Dyslexic who Turned a Bright Idea into One of America’s Best Companies.

How does this happen? What explains their success?

It seems that dyslexia is a two-edged sword. The obvious weaknesses are accompanied by important strengths. When asked if his dyslexia has hindered his business success, Richard Branson said “strangely, I think my dyslexia has helped.”

Experts suggest that people with dyslexia are often better than most at being “creative and looking at the bigger picture” and this can make them better strategic thinkers. Daniel Pink, author of A Whole New Mind, believes that some of these advantages might result from a greater ability to use the right side of the brain. They don’t focus on their disability. Instead, they focus on their unique abilities.  

Alignment – Don’t force yourself to fit in. Find the right fit.

“Every individual has a place to fill in the world and is important in some respect.”- Nathaniel Hawthorne

Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer was different. He had a major and obvious flaw. This flaw made him unpopular and led to rejection and isolation. It looked like Rudolph was destined for a life of pain and misery, but then the situation changed.

Rudolph discovers that his nose isn’t really a weakness. In the right situation, a “foggy Christmas Eve,” Rudolph’s nose is an irreplaceable advantage. When the situation changed, the value of his unique characteristic changed as well. He didn’t succeed in spite of his weakness; he succeeded because of his weakness. Rudolph’s success was a result of a perfect fit between his unique qualities and the situation.

Do you want to succeed? Find your foggy Christmas Eve. Find the right situation, the one that offers the perfect fit between who you are and what is required. Unlike Rudolph, we don’t have to just wait for the right situation to come along, we can seek it out or even create it.

If you want greater happiness, success and fulfillment, follow these four steps.

  1. Become aware of your unique characteristics.
  2. Accept your weaknesses, instead of trying to fix them.
  3. Appreciate the strengths that correspond with each of your weaknesses.
  4. Create alignment between who you are and what you do.

About the Author

Screen Shot 2015-04-14 at 12.41.27 PMDavid Rendall has spoken to audiences on every inhabited continent. His clients include the US Air Force, the Australian Government, AT&T, State Farm Insurance, Ralph Lauren, and BASF. Prior to becoming a professional speaker, he was a management professor, stand-up comedian and endurance athlete. He earned a doctor of management degree in organizational leadership, as well as a graduate degree in psychology, and is the author of three books:

Follow David: twitter linkedin facebook