Should you focus on your strengths?

Should you focus on your strengths? Or should you focus on your weaknesses?

Which orientation will lead you to more personal growth, business growth, and career growth?

It’s all the rage these days to say that we should focus mostly on our strengths. Books have been written on the topic. And, isn’t it obvious anyway? If you look at anyone who has had a successful career (Steve Jobs, Oprah, Michael Jordan, and so on), haven’t they focused on their strengths and largely ignored their weaknesses?

But there are things to say on the other side of the issue as well. If you play basketball, and you’re the shooting guard, and you are a good shooter but a poor defender, you will need to spend some time improving your defense if you want to be more effective in your role.

So I’m already tipping my hand. My ultimate answer will be some version of “sometimes we need to focus on developing our strengths and sometimes we need to focus on correcting our weaknesses.”

And, if that’s all I had to say, it would be boring, predictable, and not particularly helpful. But it turns out that there’s a fairly universal logic driving positive growth across all areas of life. And, once we understand this logic, it will help us know when to press into our strengths and when to improve our weaknesses.

My overall argument will unfold over the course of several posts. This is part one of X (where X is still to be determined).

Let’s start with an argument from economics for focusing on strengths.

Ricardo’s Comparative Advantage Argument

David Ricardo argued that a country should focus on producing goods for which there is a comparative advantage. It should trade for the goods for which it has a comparative disadvantage.

Comparative advantage of two countries relative to two goods

Suppose workers in Agristan can produce either 4 tons of bananas or 2 computers for the same labor (and other inputs), and that Techistan can produce either 6 tons of bananas or 6 computers for the same labor (and other inputs).

Techistan has an absolute advantage in both bananas and computers. Yet it will be still be better off trading for its bananas. And that’s because it has a comparative advantage in producing computers over bananas, while Agristan has a comparative advantage in producing bananas over computers.

Comparative advantage is a matter of the substitution ratios for the goods in the two countries. Techistan can substitute computers for bananas at a 1:1 ratio. And that’s higher than Agristan’s 1:2 ratio. So Techistan has a comparative advantage in computers. On the other hand, Agristan can substitute bananas for computers at a 2:1 ratio, which is higher than Techistan’s 1:1 ratio. And that gives Agristan a comparative advantage in bananas.

Working the Example Out Completely

Let’s see why countries are better off producing the goods for which they have a comparative advantage by working the example out just a little further.

If Techistan wants another ton of bananas, it can produce it itself. But, in order to do this, it will have to shift labor from computer production to banana production. And, essentially, it will cost them one computer to get one ton of bananas.

But, if it keeps those workers producing an extra computer, and then trades that computer to Agristan, it can get up to 2 tons of bananas for that one computer (since computers are twice as valuable in Agristan as bananas).

Since 2 tons of bananas are better than 1 ton of bananas for the same cost (one computer), Techistan is better off trading.

On the other hand, if Agristan wants another computer, it can produce it itself. But it will have to shift labor from banana production to do so. And, essentially, it will cost Agristan 2 tons of bananas to get that computer.

But, if it keeps its workers producing bananas, it can trade those two extra tons of bananas for up to two computers.

And since 2 computers are better than 1 computer for the same cost (two tons of bananas), Agristan is better off trading.

Both countries are better off specializing in their area of comparative advantage and trading for the other goods.

Now I said Techistan can get “up to” 2 tons of bananas for a computer. And Agristan can get “up to” two computers for two tons of bananas. But those numbers assume the respective countries capture all the benefits of trade for themselves. In reality the benefits of trade will be split somehow, and we might imagine that a banana:computer exchange rate of something like 3:2 will emerge, which still leaves both countries better off when they specialize and trade instead of producing everything themselves. (We’re ignoring trade costs here for the sake of simplicity).

From Countries to Careers

And we can extend this principle of comparative advantage to individuals in the labor market. Just imagine one guy named Techie Techerson, and another named Aggie Aggerson, and the example runs through essentially the same way. Techie is better off developing tech skills, while Aggie is better off focusing on agricultural skills.

If they each do what they're good at, they can trade for what they other person's good at, and they'll both be better off.

So there’s a strong case to be made that, in our careers, we are better off focusing on our areas of comparative advantage. That is, we should focus on our strengths, and ignore our weaknesses.

But there’s a problem with this line of thinking -- both with individuals and with countries.

The Banana Republic Problem

The problem here is that, even though Agristan is, at the present moment, better at producing bananas than computers, it will find itself in a trap if it goes all in with bananas. Being a banana republic will maximize short term prospects, but will stifle its long term prospects.

Imagine that, at some point in the past, Japan had it’s highest competitive advantage in rice production, and its leaders, having read Ricardo, had decided to lock the country into rice production forever. Would Japan be better off today if it produced only rice than it is with a full-fledged modern economy capable of competing in electronics, auto manufacturing, robotics, and many other fields?

In the short term being a banana (or rice) republic wins. In the long term investing in weaknesses to try to gain better strengths down the road is better.

To see how this can apply to individuals, imagine the following dialogue with a 12 year old:

12 yo: what should I do for a career?
You: well, what are you good at?
12 yo: I’m pretty good at mowing lawns.
You: then you should mow lawns.
12 yo: what about school? I’m not very good at math or writing compared to mowing lawns.
You: then you should quit school and start mowing lawns full time.

Question: Suppose this child takes your advice. Will he thank you when he’s 40 that you advised him to become an individual version of the banana republic?

The Take-home Lesson

Again, this is part one of a several part series where we will explore the question: “Should I focus on my strengths or on my weaknesses?”

We’ve seen in this post that there’s a case to be made for focusing on our current strengths. But there’s also reason to exercise some caution before going all in with this advice.

Here’s an exercise you can do to bring these ideas down to earth and start you thinking about their implications for your own life.

Ask yourself these questions:

  1. What are my present comparative strengths?
  2. What do I want my comparative strengths to be in 5 years.
  3. What weaknesses will I have to improve in order to have better strengths in the future?

I’ll leave you for now with those questions rattling around in your head. 

Stay tuned for more on this topic.

And, now that I've had my turn, let me know what you think in the comments section.

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