Don’t Let Your Strengths Become Your Downfall


Read enough business or self-help books and they’ll inevitably tell you to identify your strengths. This is a good starting point. Understanding what makes you good at what you do allows you to take on the right challenges. It enhances your productivity and allows you to rise through the ranks.

But your strengths often become the qualities that get in your way and hold you back.

I know this firsthand.

Growing up, my strength as a star athlete was having the ability to have a mind-numbing level of dedication. I could run 15 or more miles a day, often just on a 1.5-mile loop, if I thought it would get me faster. As a 15-year-old, I gave up McDonald’s, Taco Bell, and just about every other fast food, simply because a coach said diet was important for my performance. If it seemed to matter to my running, I could flip the dedication switch very easily.

Or consider my more recent endeavor, writing. My strength as a writer is being able to sit down and do the work. If I turn the internet off and throw the phone in the other room, I can stare at a screen for four hours and crank out something halfway decent. I’ve never really struggled with writer’s block.

But those same strengths also lead to my downfall.

In running, the ability to compartmentalize and obsess led to overtraining and overindexing on running as a large part of my identity. In writing, I can crank out work but I tend to overwrite and under-edit. If I didn’t have constraints my books would be 500 pages, explaining every study or interesting tidbit that I came across.

In writing, I’ve learned how to counterbalance my strength. I build in time to reflect and re-read. I play games to get me to emphasize the opposite. With every book, I have a Word document titled “writing I didn’t use.” As I delete paragraphs, or even chapters, from a manuscript, I dump them all in that document. For my most recent book, Do Hard Things, my goal was for the document to be 15 pages. It ended up being 27, or nearly 35,000 words. The actual book is only 82,000 words.

I wasn’t so smart or lucky in running. I was also a lot younger. So perhaps from running I’ve learned about my temperament, and that’s what’s helping me nowadays as a writer.

Whenever I’m working with someone who is a pusher or striver in their pursuits—be it athletic, creative, or intellectual—my goal isn’t to motivate them but rather to work on helping them find contentment. To get them to be okay sometimes doing things without a purpose or without forward momentum on the ladder of progress. No, my expectation isn’t for a striver to transform into a Zen Master, but I need the CEO to move away from striving just enough so that they don’t push their ethics away as their drive turns into obsession and their love of winning turns into win-at-all-costs.

It’s what Phil Jackson tried to do with the star athletes he coached. Shaq, Kobe, and Jordan weren’t going to transform into monks; but a dose of humility, of quieting their egos, of getting them to let go, was going to take just enough edge off of their massive strengths so that those same strengths didn’t destroy their teams.

Our strengths are great. They allow us to perform at our best. They are our superpowers. But they can also push us off balance. That’s why it’s important to do some work going the opposite way. Not all the way. But enough.

— Steve

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