The Good Life

Positive psychology and what makes life worth living.

Strengths or Weaknesses?

Strengths and weaknesses both matter, and both are us.

 

When positive psychologists advocate a strengths-based approach, I hear it as an important correction to decades of interventions (in clinics, schools, and workplaces) that focused on problems and their remediation. I do not hear it as advice to ignore weaknesses and problems or as an assertion that change is only possible if a person is already skilled at something. Somehow this completely reasonable advice has been morphed into the completely unreasonable proposal that only strengths matter, and I have been asked repeatedly about the evidence in favor of addressing only one's strengths if one wishes to achieve a good life.

We don't need studies to refute the claim that only strengths matter, just common sense. Regardless of what they do especially well, workers need to have the "strength" of showing up on time, and they need to have the "strength" of being minimally civil to their coworkers. And so on.

Should we put people in positions where they can make use of their strengths? Of course. In my university department, "good" lecturers are asked to teach large-enrollment courses. We can do this because there are enough faculty members with the requisite skills.

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That said, none of my colleagues was born a good lecturer. Those who can keep the attention of a large class and convey information in a clear and engaging way have talents, but these talents were developed by a lot of practice, a lot of mentoring, and a lot of feedback that was taken seriously.

The other side of the coin is the assertion that talent is overrated, which is equally silly. I can only assume that the statement refers to innate talents, not to those developed over time. And how many of these innate talents exist?

As a basketball fan, I know that the two of the most "talented" players of our time, Larry Bird and Michael Jordan, practiced incessantly. It didn't hurt their games that Jordan had springs in his legs or that Bird had uncanny visual ability, but even these ostensibly inborn talents were no doubt honed by practice.

It seems to me that either-or debates like these (strengths versus weaknesses; talent versus practice; nature versus nurture) will never be resolved because it all matters when we look at the whole person. I'm reminded of the rhetorical question "Which contributes more to the area of a rectangle, its height or its width?"

One more point. The term "strengths" is a sprawling one, and it seems to include talents like perfect pitch, moral virtues like kindness, and the situated workplace themes of interest to the Gallup Organization (like WOO, winning others over). We should be careful when speaking about strengths and strengths-based approaches to be specific about the sorts of strengths we mean. Ditto for problem-focused approaches.

Strengths and weaknesses both matter, and both are us. I had my own insight into this a few years ago when one of my positive psychology colleagues urged me to join a gym and lose weight. I responded: "Why don't you just pay attention to what I do well?" Her response stopped me in my tracks: "Do you want a fan, or do you want a friend?"

That was 45 pounds ago.

Christopher Peterson was professor of psychology at the University of Michigan.

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