We have a slightly different type of episode today. I want to talk about weaknesses and strengths. Yes, we often hear things like: “Strengths make you special”, “Work on your strengths; don’t worry about your weaknesses”, “Do what you’re good at”, etc.
First of all, if you want to stick with the easy stuff, you’re basically listening to the wrong person right now. I want to help you excel; not just win some lottery because you think you have a special chance or a special number.
Weaknesses are what pull you down. Strengths are something special, and you want to certainly go with your strengths, but what about your weaknesses? Life is just not simple. While we concentrate on our strengths, that’s okay; weaknesses are going to hold you back.
A lot of life requires you to be much broader than a specific special skill. For example, you may be wanting to be an engineer, you may be wanting to do something else, you need to make presentations. What are the skills for those presentations? You’ve got to speak well, you’ve got to learn to speak in front of people, you’ve got to be able to use logic, and you’ve got to understand what motivates people. When you get into that, you’re also talking in other areas as well. In sales, you also have to understand people and what motivates them, and you also have to stand in front of them.
Many occupations, probably just about all, require you to do networking. You have to meet people, and you have to get over the shyness, etc. that you normally might have. I bring up shyness because that was one of my biggest problems when I was young. I couldn’t talk to anybody. I couldn’t stand in front of a class when I was in junior high school and high school. I had to, but I was nervous and shaking, and everything. I had to learn it.
I noticed that when I was in the security agency, I was asked to brief colonels, and that was a very, very nerve-racking experience. I wasn’t even standing up. I was sitting down across a desk from them, but it was still very nerve-racking.
When I got my PhD at Berkeley, I went around on the interview circuit. One of the universities where it was a foregone conclusion I’d be accepted asked me a question that was so simple, we’re talking about as basic and as simple as you could be – I couldn’t believe it. I tried to start thinking of all the things, got nervous, and I froze.
I realized I couldn’t go on in that situation. How would I do this? I tried all kinds of tricks. You hear them, you imagine different things. You imagine the people in their underwear or some other stupid thing. That wasn’t enough. What I did is when I got my job working in research labs, talking to different people and trying to look up ideas, I ran across a Dale Carnegie course. It doesn’t matter whether it was my situation going to the Dale Carnegie course, or your situation in some other capacity. We have tons of things where we have weaknesses and we have to learn. I’ll give you a few more examples.
To give you an example let me explain what I did to step out of my comfort, because this is a big one for a lot of people. They say the biggest fear that anybody has is being in fire, second is speaking in front of people. So I went to the course and all these people were gathered around in the classroom, they’re all talking to each other. They’re really good outgoing people. I sat in the front row, and I sat there before the class and I was just sort of by myself. Sort of chatted a little bit with the person next to me, but these people were really having a good time.
One thing was: why was I in the first row? That’s a very uncomfortable position, generally, to be there. But why? Because I had read when I wanted to learn how to study—I didn’t know how to do it best—I read a book on studying and learning, found something and it said: “Sit in the first row. Why? Because you won’t be distracted by other people.” So I just copied it—remember that episode (see copying mentors)—I just copied and did exactly what the experts said to do. Yes, it was way outside my comfort zone. (click here for episode 15 on the comfort zone)
The class started, the instructor got up there, and he started talking about all these little prizes that they were going to get. They were all mechanical pencils, and on the side of them there was inscriptions for the different things that you would win. There were about 8 or 9 categories. They’re talking about most improved, impromptu speaking, there’s a lot of different categories of different things that you would get on special topics. As I was sitting there, the only thing I could think of: “Well, there was no way I was going to win anything possibly, except maybe after enough weeks went by, most improved.”
As I was sitting there, I also realized: “Wait a second. I don’t know anybody. I don’t know anybody in this classroom, and I really, really want to get as much as I can out of this thing.” What I decided at this point is I’m never going to see these people again. I’m going to go into this all the way. No matter what they say to do, I’m going to do everything that they say, the best that I can be. They ask me to ask like a garbage disposal, I’m going to be the best garbage disposal. Actually, that was something I actually did do. The whole idea was nobody was there that I was going to know, so even though I was jumping way outside my comfort zone, I kept in the back of my mind that I knew nobody and would probably never see them again, and that was the only reason that I was able to do it.
Remember that and think of that when you’re doing something, you’re trying something – if you would go to do the same thing, don’t bring a friend with you. You bring a friend, you’re going to be chatting back and forth, you’re going to be comparing to each other, etc. It limits you to how far you can go when there are people around that you already know.
By the end of the course, I did not get that most improved for a particular class, however, I got everything. You can only win one once, and there were some that were multiple, but I won every single mechanical pencil award that there was. It taught me a lot by just letting myself go, doing all I could to the best of my ability. It really wasn’t that hard. I was just doing exactly what the instructor had said to do. Again, I copied the instructor, precisely. He was the expert.
How many times have you heard somebody say they’re bad at math or they’re bad at English? Interestingly, and I was really hit by this sideways when it happened, but a Russian friend of mine came up to me one time, and said: “Can we ask you something?” It was him and his friend together. I stepped outside; we were at a meeting. He said: “I don’t understand. Why do Americans actually not only say they’re bad in math, they actually sound like they’re proud of it?” I won’t give you the exact response, but it was sort of soul-searching to hear that, and say that, and realize that: yes, Americans seem to be proud of their own weaknesses. It’s a weakness. It’s not something to be proud of; it’s something to fix.
I found a little unknown secret many years ago, and I just sort of stumbled upon it, that while we try to focus on our strength and what our weakness is, we’re limiting opportunities. In school subjects, and it’s not just school subjects like speaking, math, goal setting, etc. but in math, what I found was I ran into some people that were early in high school. Actually in two different cities, some kids of friends of mine. In both cases, they both were supposedly bad in math.
I explained something to them. I asked them some questions, for example: -“Why do you think you’re bad in math?” -“Oh, I always do poorly.” What I explained to them is: -“I can understand that. You are good in English and history, and things like that.” -“Oh, yeah, yeah. I read a lot. I do very well.” I said: “I bet what happens is you get on to a page in a math book, you’re going through there, and you just don’t seem to get it in a reasonable amount of time.” They said: “Yeah, I just don’t get it.” I said: “You know I’m good in math. Do you know that on a math page, you’re actually calculating, figuring something out, and it does require a lot of time? I may spend 45 minutes on a page in a math book,” and they’re shocked. You see, to them, who read books and usually only spend a couple of minutes on a page, believe it’s beyond them before they give themselves a chance to solve the problem.
What happens is they and others had them convinced that they were bad in math because they were used to going through a book relatively quickly. They sort of self-diagnosed themselves into being bad at math. The explanation is a little bit longer than I went through with them. About a year and a half later, I was talking to them both at different times and in the different cities, and each of them, I asked: “How are you doing in school?” Etc., like that. -“How’s your math?” -The replies were entirely different. “Oh, I’m good in math. I’m really good in math.” Interesting, completely their perspective and their expectations changed what they thought they had.
Let’s get back to some of the skills. I just don’t want to talk about math or speaking, but there’s lots of others. There’s literally: what are your table manners? How do you speak in public? Do you say: “I run good,” or: “I run well”? That’s one of my pet peeves, the “good” and the “well” thing.
A while back, 20-25 years ago, people were actually left back in school when they didn’t do well, say, in something like math. You didn’t do it, you didn’t pass the subject, you were held back and you had to repeat it the next year. Now that’s never done. Now, somehow, all those kids were able to figure out how to do well enough to pass those subjects. People aren’t any different than they were then, as far as their brain capacity, whatever you want to call it.
Keep in mind, I’ll repeat it, your weaknesses are temporary. Weaknesses are something to just overcome. People often marvel and say things to me about my Japanese or former Russian, which I don’t speak anymore, but both Russian and Japanese, and they’ll say: “Wow, you must be really smart. That must be really good that you speak Japanese.” I used to literally think and dream in Japanese. My reply is: “The dumbest person in Japan speaks Japanese.”
It’s not a matter of being smart or dumb. It’s a matter of putting in the effort, and learning how to learn. Yes, learning how to learn. It’s not always the obvious way that you might think. It’s not your weaknesses that weed you out of the area of success. It’s self-selection that takes you out of success.
I’d like to thank you for listening to this episode. Send me your comments, thoughts, disagreements, whatever. Thank you very much, and I will speak to you again soon.