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Maximize Strengths or Minimize Weaknesses?

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I'm really not a big reader of books. Perhaps it's my short attention span, but web articles usually work best for me. However, I'm starting to read Tim Ferriss' The 4-Hour Workweek, a gift that I got for Christmas. I'm a really slow reader and time has been at a premium so I'm only around page 70. I've found myself nodding and agreeing with most of Tim Ferriss' reasoning. A lot of it is what I was trying to get at when I started this website. However, on page 34, there was one suggestion that has had me puzzled over the last week:

Emphasize Strengths, Don't Fix Weaknesses.

Ferriss' explanation for this logic is this:

"My body was built to lift heavy objects and throw them... I tried swimming and looked like a drowning monkey. I tried basketball and looked like a caveman.... It is far more lucrative and fun to leverage your strengths instead of attempting to fix all the chinks in your armor. The choice is between a multiplication of results using strengths or incremental improvement fixing weaknesses that will, at best, become mediocre."

I understand what he's trying to say. The odd thing is that he uses his physical body as an example, when he's mostly talking about mental attitude. Is this a universal truth? I suggest it's not.

For instance let's say I want to become a great calligrapher (you know those people who can hand-write perfect wedding invitations and such). I give it a shot and I'm really good with most of the letters, but I have a real problem with the letter "S". Should I just focus on taking clients who have no need for anyone to write the letter "S"? No, I should work on that weakness, so that I can be a great all around calligrapher.

Here's another example... this time from baseball. The Boston Red Sox have a player known as David Ortiz. He's particularly famous for hitting ball only to right field. When he steps up to the plate, the opposing team will shift the defense to right field so that they will be more likely to have a defender there to play the ball. While David Ortiz is often good enough to hit it by this defense, it will still stop him a good percentage of the time. One of David Ortiz's weakness is that he is not a good bunter (when you attempt deaden a pitch in the infield). If he was a better bunter or if he made a conscious effort to hit it to the other side of the baseball diamond, he'd have a much greater chance at a hit (since the defense has shifted to the right). If Ortiz focused on his weakness, the defense would have to respect that aspect of his game, and the result would be more opportunities to get hits in right field.

You also see this all the time in football. The most successful teams are not one-dimensional. The team is a good running team, a good passing team, has good defense, etc.

Now, I'm not suggesting that the calligrapher trains his/her non-dominant hand. Nor am I suggesting that David Ortiz train to be faster (he's a very big and slow player). However, I think you need to use basic judgment to figure out if improving a weakness is pay you a multiplication of results or incremental results (to borrow Mr. Ferriss words).

In personal finance, I almost always find that it's better to improve your weaknesses rather than focus on your strengths. If you are really good at being frugal, there's not a to be gained by being extra frugal. It's the law of diminishing returns. However, if you are a shopaholic, some quick gains can be made to bottom line with some minimal effort. I like to say it's low-lying fruit.

So what do you say, maximize strengths, minimize weaknesses, a little bit of both, or does it depend on the situation? Let me know in the comments.

Posted on January 11, 2010.

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18 Responses to “Maximize Strengths or Minimize Weaknesses?”

  1. I agree with you!

    In our world of personal finance, if you follow the books advice, you would only worry about making a lot of money and not how you spend it. That doesn’t work, ask MC Hammer…

    I think a better aproach would be to keep perfecting your strengths, and still work on all the other areas that need to be worked on. If you don’t, it’s like having a speedboat with a hole in the hull, yeah you’ll be able to move for a while, but eventually you weaknesses (the hole) will take you down :)

    The authors approach might work for a small minority, but that’s about it…

  2. Craig says:

    This makes sense because you can outsource something that is your weakness and it would take more time and money for you to learn how to do that. Concentrate on what you know and get better at that.

  3. Lazy Man says:

    How does David Ortiz outsource his weakness as a baseball player?

    I guess there’s a distinction of a weakness that’s attached to a strength and maybe that’s what David Ortiz, the calligrapher, and the football team all have in common. Their core strengths are in their professions and it’s not like they are trying to do something different.

  4. Craig says:

    For David Ortiz, easily. Play DH so he doesn’t have to worry about fielding. Your bunting situation, he just doesn’t bunt, pretty simple (plus no one wants to see him bunt, especially if you have him on your fantasy roster).

    But 4 hr Workweek doesn’t apply to everyone in every profession although I have yet to read the book.

  5. Yana says:

    This is a principle, and reminds me of nature vs nurture. I believe that nature dominates, but nurture isn’t of no effect. Similarly, maximizing strengths is more important to me and my household. You make the most of what you have, whatever that happens to be. To minimize a weakness is to attempt to overcome a liability, yet it is still a liability. Overcoming a weakness is one thing, but putting effort into minimizing a weakness beyond a certain point is a waste of energy and a further liability.

  6. Wes Y says:

    I think that this concept needs to be looked at in conjunction with the 80/20 law: you’ll get 80% of the results with 20% of the effort by maximizing strengths, while only getting 20% of the results but using 80% of the effort to minimize weaknesses.

    Also, I think your examples are exactly what Ferriss was saying: Ortiz learning how to hit to different points on the field would be maximizing his strength as a baseball player. If instead he tried to learn calligraphy in the time where he should have been on the field practicing, that would be minimizing weaknesses, and a poor use of resources. Ferriss’ examples are similar: he is naturally predisposed to be good at lifting, but working at becoming a better at certain exercises is maximizing his strength as a lifter, not minimizing his weakness at that exercise. With no natural gifts as a swimmer (I can identify with this one!), the opportunity cost of developing his aquatic skills makes that option a bad choice.

  7. Jim says:

    I think it depends on how / where you apply it. I’m good at math but I suck at art, should I go to a lot of art school or should I just become an engineer? On the other hand if I am horrible at time management then I should improve that because it could really hamper my career as an engineer.

  8. Lazy Man says:

    … or as an artist.

  9. Ben says:

    In the realm of Personal Finance, I see this as a similar argument to maximizing income vs. minimizing expenses. Minimizing expenses will have a dramatic and immediate effect for most people. Maximizing income takes a long time and a lot of effort that most people aren’t willing to put in.

  10. No Debt Guy says:

    If you are weak at an essential skill I would think that you should strengthen it for your own good.

    I do love this book though. It was an Xmas present for me as well.

  11. Matt says:

    I think that its a matter of finding the right balance; in some situations I think that Tim is 100% right but there are situations where you are only missing one key component where there are a lot it makes sense to maximize. In the examples that you gave Ortiz is bad at hitting to left field – he’s still an amazing baseball player that is earning millions a year doing it. The level of granularity becomes important as does taking it out of context. I think what Tim was getting at is that if you’re great at doing something like hitting to right field then maybe there is something that he could to do improve his chances of hitting over the batters that have shifted to compensate for his hitting.

    Keeping the context when determining the strengths and weaknesses to tackle is important. Simply adjusting your mental attitude can make a huge difference. In your example Baseball is a strength for Ortiz should he continue to improve that? Of course. It just a matter of applying the right perspective.

  12. Great insights! I too have read Tim Ferriss’ book 4-hour workweek and I totally agree with his argument on maximizing your strength. I also see your point why minimizing weaknesses could be a good idea.

    I remember a Michael Jordan feature film where he was portrayed initially as a one-dimensional always driving to the basket to score type of player. Even with only this weapon, he was lethal. However, as he “matured” he realized he needed to polish his game and minimize his weaknesses. Most of his critics say he is not good shooting from the outside. So he went to work and learned how to shoot from the outside – and he eventually became good at it. Next, his critics say he can score but his defense is not good. So, he also worked on it, and eventually became very good to be awarded several times by being included in the all-defensive team.

    I guess, it has to do with maximizing returns. Initially, you have to use your strengths. After sometime, maximizing your strengths will only take you so far…and the only option to improve is to minimize your weaknesses. At the end of the day, it all comes down to one thing – being better, and better, and better everyday…always improving, always learning.

    Great article. More power!

  13. This reminds me of the “maximization of utility” problems in economics, when I was in college during the latter stages of the previous century.

    I think the relative strength of weakness makes a big difference. It makes no sense for me to focus on improving my art skills, because I could spend a thousand hours on it and gain very little improvement.

    There’s also the fact that the value of improvement is not constant. Going from the 80th percentile to the 100th means going from very above average to elite. A very above average baseball player (let’s say a guy who tops out at AA) doesn’t make much money. An elite baseball player does – a huge increase in financial value.

    Whereas a bump from the 0 percentile to even the 60th might not have a noticeable financial reward.

    This is the exact opposite of diminishing marginal returns – increasing marginal returns.

    This isn’t just applicable to sports, either. Elite performers in most professions are paid very well.

  14. Banker says:

    Certianly makes sense but easier said then done. You need to figure out what you do well and sometimes give up on a dream. Now if you are terrible at something it is easier, but what if you think you have a chance at success, then what? Giving up on that dream becomes much more difficult.

  15. I’d say a little of both. Like you said, you can only save so much when you are trying to be frugal, but if you have a weakness like not being able to earn very much- this is better worth improving because the sky is the limit. “Well rounded” is my motto, and I tell all my readers at http://financialsecrets101.com that they should automate their financial lives so that human error and weakness does not get in the way. Finding ways to take weakness out of the equation can turn those areas of your life into strengths.

    Just my opinion. Thanks for the post.

  16. Yana says:

    There really is a weakness in not being able to earn very much, but it is even worse when such a person contributes to his own exploitation by paying what little money he has to schemers who would take advantage of that weakness. It is really a sense of helplessness, I think, and it’s a nice dream to think you can pay it away.

    Maximize your strengths, and don’t validate your weaknesses.

  17. Roger says:

    I think the main determinate of whether it’s better to maximize strengths or minimize weaknesses depends on whether the skills we’re talking about are broad personal skills or specialized skills. Things like personal finance, time management and relations with other people are all broad skills with which everyone should be at least semi-skilled. If you are good at money management but bad at budgeting time, it makes sense to put more effort into learning how to be more efficient rather than studying up on savings.

    On the other hand, specialized skills, whether David Ortiz’s baseball skills or my own biochemistry knowledge, should be focused on and developed. Within our respective fields, yes, we may wish to diversify our skills (Ortiz could try different batting techniques, I can learn different types of instrumentation), but it doesn’t make sense for either of us to try to become experts at each others’ fields.

  18. Slinky says:

    I think it depends on whether or not the weakness is actually harmful to you or not. I think it’s good to negate weaknesses (and there’s lots of different ways), but it’s not necessarily productive to work on them beyond that. I don’t cook especially well. I’ve negated this in two ways: I can make a few of my favorites really well, and my fiance loves to cook. On the other hand, he’s not very good with a needle, while I grew up learning to sew from my mother. Discovered your pants are too long five minutes before we need to leave? No problem, let me just find some matching thread. For both of us, we have these areas of weakness, but there’s also little incentive for addressing the issue because it’s not hurting us at all.

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