Forget Your Weaknesses, Focus On Your Strengths

We live in a world that glorifies failures, weaknesses, and mistakes.

By the same token, our journey for self-improvement seems to be too focused on an ingrained need to address our lagging qualities.

Always wanting to improve is a good thing. After all, if you don’t improve then you’re not moving forward.

As Scott Belsky poignantly writes in Making Ideas Happen:

“You don’t need to see a finish line in sight but you do need enough momentum to stay afloat. When you stop moving, the music stops.”

But too often we strive for improvement just by focusing on what we’re bad at, what we can’t do well, and what we’re criticised for.

Sure, addressing our weak spots is always a good place to start.

This is why constructive feedback is one of the best ways of helping us improve. Such feedback on our weaknesses is valuable, especially if the person giving it has your best interests at heart.

But this emphasis on weakness makes us forget about the things we are actually good at. We don’t pay enough attention to our strengths which are the skills we should always strive to leverage in life.

We should make the most of our gifts and use our talents to our advantage.

shannonblue via Flickr

Sadly, some people don’t even know what they’re good at. How should they?

To a person who has remarkable social acuity and social saavy, their ability to navigate the social world is second-nature to them. It’s so automatic that they might be unaware of their gift.

So what if you knew what your gifts were and focused more on making the most of them? Focused on improving and refining what you’ve already got a penchant for; on what you’ve always been good at?

In this article, you will learn of an interesting feedback technique that encourages improvement by focusing on your strengths and refining these gifts. Hopefully, it will help you in your business, group projects, relationships, and in making your ideas happen.

Appreciations: a strength-focused form of feedback

In his book Making Ideas Happen, Scott Belsky recounts the peculiar teachings of Jay O’Callahan who he describes as “one of the greatest storytellers in the world – a true master of his craft.” Here’s Scott on O’Callahan’s practice:

“Appreciations is a technique that O’Callahan and other storytellers use to improve students’ skills without any demoralising consequences. It’s a unique form of feedback that helps creative professionals focus on developing their strengths.

Here’s the concept behind appreciations: having just shared a story (or, in other contexts, a presentation or idea), you go around and ask people to comment on the elements they most appreciated.

The exchange of appreciations is meant to help you build upon your strength, with the underlying assumption that a creative craft is made extraordinary through developing your strengths rather than obsessing over your weaknesses.

And I noticed that a natural recalibration happens when you commend someone’s strengths: their weaknesses are lessened as their strengths are emphasised.”

The significance of appreciations

We’ve learned that through appreciations, strengths will be built upon and weakness will naturally be lessened as a result. This is an important end-result of this strength-focused form of feedback.

But how do appreciations facilitate the process of improvement? What is it about appreciations that make them so important?

Jeff Goins in his book The Art of Work draws on the example of Ellen Frank, who owns a small studio where she practices a way of teaching that is similar to O’Callahan’s appreciations. 

As Jeff writes in his book, Ellen teaches “a handful of interns the art of illuminations, a technique that involves using gold to embellish sacred documents”.

In her teachings, she places an emphasis on the profound effect that validation in “a first-hand mentorship from an experienced artist can have on an apprentice.” Here’s Ellen:

“They [apprentices] also acquire validation. It’s not teaching through critique. It’s not teaching through judging their own work. It’s teaching through saying, ‘yes, and why not try this?’ and, ‘yes, can you push this further?

Goins then further clarifies the significance of this sort of encouraging feedback:

“With soothing words of affirmation and phrases that build anticipation, like ‘this is the magic moment,’ she helps you feel the significance of what you’re doing, which in turn leads to confidence.

Some interns, she admits, have even become better than she is at certain techniques. This is the power of the process. A good apprenticeship isn’t about an exchange of information; it’s about passing on the skill of the master and multiplying it.”

So we see how important these appreciations might be, especially in young people with a budding talent. Appreciations accentuate our own strengths and the strengths of others through encouragement, validation, affirmation, and confidence.

Importantly, appreciations give a sense of significance to whatever it is that we are doing right and encourages to continue doing this behaviour with a purpose.

As a culture, we are too weakness-oriented

As Belsky recounts in his book Making Ideas Happen, Jay O’Callahan emphasises our culture’s fixation on weakness and how it’s affecting our ability to see the beauty in our own strengths. Here’s Jay:

“It’s strange that, in our culture, we are trained to look for weaknesses (…) When I work with people, they are often surprised when I point out the wonderful crucial details – the parts that are alive. (…) If our eyes are always looking for weakness, we begin to lose the intuition to notice the beauty.”

So does the answer then lie in beginning to share feedback that applauds our strengths?


But Scott Belsky says it might not be that simple. He goes on to write that because of our weakness-fixated culture, we might fundamentally struggle to share appreciations. Here’s Scott:

“The ability to recognise and share appreciations may, in fact, be more difficult than offering constructive criticism. Humankind is critical by nature. It is easier to hear an off note in a symphony than to identify the perfectly played note that makes all the difference.”

It seems as though we need to find some middle ground between criticism, constructive feedback, and appreciations in the effort to properly emphasise what our strengths are without focusing too much on our lagging qualities.

Closing Thoughts

Appreciations are an unconventional form of feedback but definitely have a lot of merit.

The fact that people resort to such techniques is indicative of a more pressing problem.

That our culture is fixated on focusing on our weaknesses and lagging qualities at the expense of our strengths, robbing us of the awareness we need to actively devote the sufficient attention it takes to properly build upon our gifts.

Sharing appreciations helps build a positive ecosystem of emotion with the people that you share them with. Appreciations builds team chemistry and strong rapport on an individual scale.

They give budding talent guidance and a sense of significance to their effort. They literally rewire your brain to scan the world for positive things, in turn influencing your overall well-being and happiness.

Now that you have read this, you know how much of an impact you can have on someone by appreciating their strengths.

Your feedback for someone could make a world of difference.

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