A Winning Career Strategy Starts With Your Strengths
What I learned from years of tending to my weak spots
You may have done nine out of ten things right,” a former boss told me, “but it’s that one mistake that was glaring.” I hated hearing that and refused to believe it. How can one bad thing outweigh everything else?
But here’s the bitter pill of life: When weighing up the positive and the negative, society generally places more emphasis on the latter. That’s our negativity bias; human survival relies on our capability to sense a threat, so it makes sense for our brains to point out what’s wrong, what’s lacking, or what doesn’t seem to “fit.”
This phenomenon has its way of manifesting inwards, too. We notice a gap about ourselves and can’t help but fret, “I am flawed. I must fill in this gap else I shall never unleash my full potential!” Even the expression “room for improvement” paints us this picture — a space that must be filled, attended to, or worked on. So what happens? Our weaknesses appear front and center. To craft a career — and ultimately a life — that matters to you while also having a good chance of succeeding, you cannot have your weaknesses in the driver’s seat. You need, as Nick Wolny put it in his newsletter, to “let your strengths dictate your strategy.”
My first ever career goal was to be a brand marketer for some big-shot consumer goods multinational firm. When I entered the industry, our marketing director shared the three things he believed made a great marketer. “First is creativity,” he started. Okay, check. I enjoy ideating and creative stuff. “Second is project management.” Yeah, I can do that, too. “Last is you have to be good with numbers.” Yikes. It’s not that I can’t deal with numbers, but neither is it my best asset. Still, I thought, “I can work on this. I can teach myself to get comfortable with crunching numbers and P&L statements and that kinda stuff.” Then, I entered a new job in the pandemic in the same industry and in a role that was a step closer to brand marketing. But with the virtual setup, I couldn’t keep denying my relationship with numbers — I just could not stay awake when an excel sheet was flashed on the screen, and we had to talk about demand adjustments and sales forecasts and… Zzzzz. What I’m saying is that I’ve spent a great time tending to my weaknesses instead of my strengths. As Marcus Buckingham argues in his book Go Put Your Strengths to Work, the problem begins with our narrow definition of strengths and weaknesses. If you’re good at writing, then that’s a strength. If you’re bad at public speaking, that’s your weakness.
But Buckingham suggests a better approach. Rather than thinking of what you excel at, it would be better to ask, “What energizes you?” And it makes sense: A strength makes you feel strong — in intuitive, engaging, and probably, inexplicable ways. The activity feels natural, and growth comes with less friction.
We like to think that as we get older, we get wiser. But the thing is, as we get older, the world only gets noisier, and our lives faster. Capitalizing on your strengths sounds common sense. But amidst everything we’ve ever been taught, believed, and observed about how other people approach and succeed in their careers — which, then, often leads us to think we should be competing in the same way — we’re hard-pressed to remember our own leverage.
We have finite time and energy. Every moment you spend filling the well of your weakness is a moment lost to amplifying your strongest chords. When you fixate on your shortcomings, you sell yourself short. Weaknesses are a reality — yes, sometimes, in glaring ways. But they are manageable. Much like that annoying colleague of yours you’d rather lessen your interactions with, you can find workarounds. If it ain’t your cup of tea, you don’t have to drink it.
Here’s how my former marketing professor played it: His pinned tweet says, “I like marketing but I don’t like most people — and that is the core challenge of my life.” As a young, brilliant marketer, he could’ve had a long, illustrious career in the multinational space. But as he admitted, he just couldn’t deal with one big aspect of being a professional marketer. Perhaps he knew that, in a way, that would always be his weakness. But does that mean he can’t be a marketer? Does teaching the subject make him any less of a marketer? I wouldn’t say so. It’s been five years since I took his class. He’s still there, with a pay that’s nothing compared to a regular marketing job — but with a way of working and a sense of fulfillment that his corporate experience could not provide.
Crafting a meaningful career becomes a lot less daunting when you anchor it on your natural talents and inclinations. It becomes easier to see your unique potential. And the next logical step won’t feel as vague or out of reach. You’ll see the possibility that the path of least resistance may actually be the right path. As Wolny said himself, “I am a fan of fighting battles I know I have a shot at winning.”
Wolny’s newsletter landed on my plate exactly when I needed it. I was applying for a job in media advertising — a more creative industry. I wasn’t sure if it was the right career move, plus with the comforts of my job then, it almost didn’t make sense just to quit. But it was down to these two choices: Do I want to keep selling beauty products? Or do I want to tell stories?
As I proudly reasoned in my application, the latter “more strongly aligns with my creative eye and love for a story well-told.” I am now working there as a content strategist. Lots of creativity. Some project management. The best part? Minimal encounters with excel sheets and figures.
This learning reminds me of this beautiful quote from Randy Pausch: “We cannot change the cards we are dealt, just how we play the hand.” Whatever your next step in life will be, make sure it brings your natural talents into focus. Build on what you already have.
Play your strongest hand.
Let your strengths dictate your strategy.