Strengths and Weaknesses are Two Sides of the Same Coin

Strengths and Weaknesses: Two Sides of the Same Coin

We often think about strengths and weaknesses in a vacuum, as if they were completely unrelated to each other. We think about building up strengths and eliminating weaknesses.  That’s a bit disingenuous and logically impossible because you end up stuck in the middle, with no real strengths or weaknesses. You end up averaging out strengths and weaknesses, resulting in an unidentifiable and uninteresting mediocre mix of traits. 
Instead, we should be thinking about both the strengths and weaknesses tied to a given trait or characteristic.  Every strength has a corresponding weakness, inherent to the underpinnings of that strength. 

Company size as both a strength and weakness
If you’re a large company, like Google, you can throw dozens of engineers and other resources to try to a problem. That’s a lot of momentum moving in one direction, but that also means it’s harder to get going, harder to change directions, and harder to react to uncertainties or changing environments. On the flip side, if you’re a small company, you may not have a lot of resources, but you can be nimble, make faster decisions, and out-maneuver larger competitors.  
Personal strengths and weaknesses
Personal traits also inherently have strengths and weaknesses. Most of the time, we get feedback throughout our lives about the weaknesses or limitations, and end up focusing on reducing or eliminating those. We don’t realize that we’re also weakening the complementary strength. We end up settling for the lowest common denominator.

I compete in everything I do, big and small, creating competitions out of non-competitive things, keeping score in every game where score is kept. That competitive outlook has helped me in almost everything I’ve done, from succeeding in sports my whole life, to my academic career, to the current startup world I’m in.  But it does have a complementary weakness. Über-competitiveness can be off-putting in certain social situations. But the reality is that it’s not something I can just turn it on and off.  I’m willing to manage and deal with the social awkwardness that may come with being über-competitive.
The power of confidence can create a positive feedback loop of increasing confidence, increasing ambition, and increasing achievement.  But there are also inherent weaknesses of confidence.  The classic is hubris, a self-defeating pride that can lead people to forget their limitations and pursue unattainable and ultimately fatal goals. Another more benign one is that extreme confidence can also occasionally seem arrogant and egotistical, especially in a crowd of non-confident people. 

I don’t give up very easily, will fight to achieve long term goals, and will work hard and summon other strengths (like confidence and competitiveness) to get things done. Like the two traits above, perseverance is so entrenched in my world outlook, that I don’t doubt it will get me through the darkest and most challenging times. But it also comes with a cost, the complement of perseverance is stubbornness. Even the word stubbornness has both positive and negative connotations. It’s important to be aware of both, and to understand the balance, but to realize they go hand in hand.
Managing strengths and weaknesses
Given that strengths and weaknesses are different ways of looking at a particular characteristic, the next step is to think about how to manage or deal with weaknesses.  The goal is not to eliminate or mitigate weaknesses, because that would inherently eliminate or mitigate the corresponding strength. 
Understanding the tradeoffs of each trait is a sign of maturity. Being able to acknowledge weaknesses that are the flip side of a strength is important. Next time you’re thinking about a weakness, think about it’s corresponding strength – somewhere in that weakness is an inherent strength.  Then think about whether it’s worth tempering that strength in order to temper the weakness.  Or even better, how to be aware of both and use it to your advantage. 
This is also highly relevant when building a team for a startup or other endeavor. Don’t worry about mitigating weaknesses, instead focus on finding a team whose strengths work well together, and whose inherent weaknesses balance each other out.