Hope for your financial life and beyond

The Futility of Being a Well Rounded Person

a well rounded personI used to think the best way to achieve big-time personal success was to be a well rounded person, with knowledge and skill spanning many different areas. I’d become the Cliff Clavin know-it-all type, the person who could be plugged into any situation to give advice or help facilitate a positive outcome.

By being a well rounded person, jack-of-all-trades type, I would become indispensable and people would flock to me for advice and counsel.

Isn’t this philosophy what our school systems promote through the curriculum track? A student with exceptional talent and designs on a career in science must still take general education classes in English and social studies, perhaps even a foreign language. Those classes serve some but not much purpose in relation to the students desired outcome, which is to meet the requirements for graduation.

This post isn’t about the challenges in the educational system. I’ve been involved in education for 15+ years, so I understand the value of having students touch the various fields of study. We would be doing them a disservice if they didn’t have some basic math or grammar skills by the time they finish school. But how much math does the average graduate really need to be functional in society, especially when it comes to managing their financial life?

They basically need to know how to add and subtract so they can balance a checkbook.

What I’m suggesting here is the notion of being a well rounded person only serves to generate mediocrity. Being a jack-of-all-trades means I’m a master at none. Who wants that? I’d rather work to become awesome in a few things instead of average at many, wouldn’t you?

A Well Rounded Person or Awesome Person?

Why should we ask a student to become elite in math when there is no potential for that? Even when they work hard, their brain is not math-oriented enough to achieve an A-level status. So what happens when a child brings home a report card filled with all A’s, except the C in math and shows that to their parents?

The parents push their child to spend extra hours after school with teachers and on the weekends with tutors all in an effort to pull that one grade up. Keep in mind this is in an area where the child is not predisposed to excel. So maybe with the effort the child gets that to a B. Was it worth all the fuss?

What could happen instead if the parents pooled all those resources into their child’s strength? Perhaps the child is sitting on the threshold of greatness. Would that same amount of effort focused in the child’s natural area of strength propel them into an elite category of functioning?

Take athletes for example. Many children are gifted from birth with natural athletic talent and could excel decently at any high school sport. Their genetic makeup is coded in such a way as to allow their body to create the movements necessary for the various sports. Sure it takes sport specific practice, but it comes easier to them because of what they were endowed with. This is how we get students receiving high school varsity letters in multiple sports.

Somewhere along the way though, many athletes choose to specialize. One sport stands out slightly over the others and they begin to focus all their efforts solely in that area. These will be the athletes more likely to reach the next competitive levels for their sport because they’ve chosen to become elite in one skill area as opposed to average in many.

Look at it this way in relation to another area of life, our personality traits. I’ll list some below and give each a number that corresponds to how prominent that trait is in a person’s life. The scale is 1-10, with 10 being elite:

Outgoing: 3

Persistent: 7

Creative: 4

Adaptable: 6

Persuasive: 2

Accurate: 7

In this example, I’ve listed three personality traits that fall above average (persistent, adaptable, accurate) and three that fall below average (outgoing, creative, persuasive) on the elite-ness scale. Obviously there are three that are closer to elite status and three that aren’t. So which ones should I focus on to help me move forward?

My natural reaction would be to hit the three below average ones and develop a program by setting some goals to improve in those areas and become a well rounded person. My above average traits are already functioning at a high level so why focus on those, right? The logical conclusion is that it must be the three lower ones that are holding me back.

But let’s take a contrarian’s view for a moment. How many units on our scale would it take to move all three of my above average personality traits to a level of 9? The three of them together only have to move a combined 7 units (persistent = +2; adaptable = +3; accurate = +2). That will require intense effort on my part but the distance to cover to become elite in those traits isn’t that far.

Meanwhile, I’d really have to move the needle to get my weaknesses to a 9. Outgoingness would have to move 6 units, creativity 5, and persuasiveness 7. That’s a total of 18 units on the scale. Even if I only wanted them to become equally as prevalent as my strengths, I’d still need to move them about 12 units so they would all equal a 7.

That’s going to take much more effort. And remember, these are my weakness. I’ll have to overcome a lot of mental and emotional resistance to the idea of working in my weaknesses. It’s going to take a long time and there is a great chance it will never happen. I’ll have channeled all that time and effort on becoming better at personality traits I’m not naturally predisposed to.

A leader of a company could use the personality information to decide where best to focus his or her efforts in leading the organization. If they are not outgoing or creative, perhaps they delegate the tasks that require those skills to someone else. This relieves pressure from the leader to perform in areas in which they are uncomfortable. The leader can then concentrate on intensely pushing to make sure all the details of a project are accurately followed – clear strengths from the example above.

Maximize Potentials

I know this post will rub some the wrong way. The idea of neglecting our weaknesses seems irresponsible and defeatist. I felt that way for a long time.

At this point in my life though, it has become all about maximizing potential and pinpointing the skill that will create the most immediate and long-term value. I’ll give my weaknesses a look over to see if I can move the needle a bit. I’m just coming to believe there is a greater chance of realizing how great I could become if my focus is on strengths and enhancing those areas before anything else.

So, are there ever exceptions where you might choose to intensely focus on a weakness? I’ll have a brief follow-up post on that tomorrow (click on “Next Post” below).

Questions: What do you think is the more valuable path to achieving success – to be a well rounded person or be a specialized person? Should we focus on already established skills to enhance them more or work to develop or weakest areas? In what area of your life are you working to become awesome?

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Next Post: When Passion Meets Weakness

Prior Post: Fire Brings Out the Best in You

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Comments

  1. I completely agree with you, Brian. Reminds me of a quote I like to repeat to myself: “Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.”

  2. Student Debt Survivor says:

    Interesting posts. I’m not sure I’m solidly in on camp or the other. Right now I’m working on being more patient. It doesn’t come naturally to me, but it is important and something that builds character. I should be working on being better at math. I have fears that when I have children I won’t be able to help them with 5th grade math. It was never my strong suit and as a result I sort of took the easy route out. In college I needed a math class and instead of applying myself I took “Math in the Modern world” it was basically how to balance a check book lol.

  3. I do agree that we can spend too much time focusing on improving our weaknesses rather than building up our natural strengths and talents. Generally the skills that we’re weaker in are also the ones we are less interested in. So as much as I think we should know our weaknesses, spending all of our energy and time to become better as something we don’t enjoy really doesn’t have a huge payoff. As a leader, I want to know both my employees strengths and weaknesses. Ideally they would spend the bulk of their day using their strengths, which should make them happy and me happy because they are delivering outstanding work.

    • “Generally the skills that we’re weaker in are also the ones we are less interested in.” That’s absolutely true Shannon. I find myself experiencing that with my blog…gravitating towards topics I like to write about and shunning posts or blog activities that aren’t up my alley.

  4. I liked the math example you gave. I excelled at everything besides math in school, and I was always attending extra-help sessions to no avail. I didn’t enjoy math, and it crushed me as a perfectionist who wanted all As. Eventually in college I accepted the fact it wasn’t meant to be. I would say I tend to evaluate myself and my goals. I’m introverted, but I wasn’t happy with how difficult it was for me to make friends. Over the years, I’ve grown to be more outgoing. It’s not easy for everyone, but I realized that talking to other people is important in a lot of jobs and life in general, so I made it a priority.

    I tend to agree that we should focus more on our strengths to be the best we can be at something we naturally excel at and enjoy. There’s not much use in pushing our limits and ending up frustrated that we keep failing unless absolutely necessary (for health or job reasons).

  5. Here is my premise:-
    a) Life is short/Time is limited

    b) There are just so many things you can pick up in that time
    c) Your aim is to maximize happiness using as little time as possible of the limited you have.
    It therefore follows that it would actually be more prudent to focus on those areas you are good at, which will take less time to master and since you are good at them you will have the confidence to do them expertly. People love experts and they’ll more than likely pay more for your skills. That you are helping people in something you are good that or that comes naturally to you is a recipe for happiness, equation solved 🙂
    That said, I also can see some instances where it would pay to work on your weaknesses.

  6. That’s a great question! And I really don’t know which would be better. lol! I think you have to TRY to maybe get better in those weaker subjects, but not place too much emphasis on it that would ruin a child’s self esteem. For example calling a kid stupid because they got a D in math but an A in English. Maybe that’s an extreme. I guess I have to go back to I’m not sure really…

    • I think you are right…we don’t want to damage a child’s self-esteem or get them confused about what’s important to focus on. I’ll share more on this tomorrow but some of it depends on the end goal. If you are poor at public speaking but know you have to do that to promote your ideas or a company, then you will have to improve in that area a bit.

  7. This is a big debate right now. I know that “Strengthsfinders” has been a huge success as far as a corporate/life training tool, and they essentially advocate focusing on your strengths instead of improving weaknesses. I think there is something to be said about recognizing where you excel and where you do not. I will never be good in front of a camera, but I may be really good at organizing and managing a television show because of my organizational skills and being able to juggle multiple priorities. Overall I think it’s better to pick the things you are good at and focus on those.

    • I was a two sport athlete in high school – soccer and basketball. I never practiced soccer outside of practice time. I was athletic enough to sprint downfield in the wing position to get in position to score. But I knew, no matter how much I practiced, I would never become good enough at ball handling to control the game like the midfielders can. So I focused on basketball all year long…and became quite good at it.

  8. FI Pilgrim says:

    You make some great points Brian. I see the issue you describe with the C in math all the time from a management position. Someone might be managing a department full of A-players, except for the B player who is complaining all the time. But instead of encouraging and facilitating the work of the great employees that squeaky wheel gets the grease, the attention, the worry, etc. There’s a limit to trying to maintain balance!

    • Love the thought…so true. We spend way too much time trying to grease the squeaky wheels. Better to turn our attention to those committed individuals who can move the organization forward.

  9. At the highest level, I agree with the idea of focusing on your strengths for all of the reasons you mention. At the practical level I still think that should be the primary objective, but there will need to be some balance depending on what you’re trying to do. I think you’ll find more success and more happiness when you focus on your strengths, but you’ll need to make sure that your weaknesses aren’t dragging you down and improve them at least to the point that they aren’t hurting you. Great stuff Brian.

    • Something I failed to mention that you touched on here is that just because something is a weakness doesn’t necessarily mean it’s hurting you. It could be, that’s why I might try to move the needle on those, but only a little bit. And only give them secondary considerations to my strengths.

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