At nearly every job interview I have ever had, I was asked: "What are your strengths?" Then, "What are your weaknesses?" In this focus on our strengths, everyone is special, everyone gets a trophy era, we are led to believe that our strengths are what makes us great. We have to live in strengths, always be positive, always leave things in the right light, and never burn bridges and a million other cliches that we have accepted as part of not only our professional vernacular but part of our professional beings. We shudder when we are asked that inevitable question, "What are your weaknesses?" We have been told to try to choose something we can turn into a positive, something that will make us feel less ashamed, less vulnerable, and allow us to still focus on our strengths, build bridges, and make us look like somebody who maybe will fit in with that organization. Fingers crossed.
This came to mind to me today as I read Tom Wolfe's essay, "The Me Decade." I pondered how Gestalt therapy and "lemon sessions" would play out in today's world. If you used Gestalt therapy in an interview, what would you say? What would I say? I could tell my interviewer, "Listen, I don't want to tell you my weaknesses because that makes me vulnerable to you. You are a complete stranger. Why should I trust you as you sit there looking more at your note pad and computer than you do at me, with this odd smirk on your face like you know something about me that I don't know?" Still, there are others who believe in this outdated method and that this is the stuff of which secret societies are made, thanks to the cinema. Some believe that a person is taken into a room and made aware of all the things others do not like about them. Then, somehow this is supposed to magically transform the caterpillar into the biggest, baddest, best leadership butterfly...make that eagle...that ever flew.
Here is what is at the core of this method of "Tell me what you think is wrong with you" line of questioning. I think we are all quite self-aware, for the most part. There are some, perhaps, who live in their own separate reality and really believe that they are great for every second of every day. Most of us, though, we have our weaknesses and our flaws, and we know what they are. Still, that doesn't mean we want to go around telling everyone. What if someone uses it against us? What if that flaw is the reason we don't get the job, the contract, the project, the assignment, the career, the promotion, the awards? What if telling that flaw makes us weaker and not stronger, and what if that is only opening the flood gates for others to pick and pick and pick to find all of our flaws and expose them to all the world? My further question is, why does all the world care, anyway?
|Photo courtesy of Pixabay.com|
As I read Tom Wolfe's essay, written in 1979, I tried to put it into today's world of everyone should be positive, everyone gets a trophy, and we should practice, as Brene Brown suggests, embracing our imperfections. How can we be all of those things at once? We went through this period of telling someone everything that is wrong with them, and then through a period of telling someone that everything was special about them. The truth is, neither one was authentic or real. There is always something someone can find that they don't like about you. There is always something you can do to earn a ribbon or a participation trophy. Still, what matters most is whether those things that are identified as your weaknesses or for which you are receiving the ribbon are real to you. I received plenty of participation ribbons growing up and "thanks for playing" certificates and awards. Those ended up in my toy box or as book markers or as little tidbits of "why do I still have this" to throw in the trash. By the same token, there is always someone who wants to criticize and is more than willing to do so. I bet I could contact one hundred of my social media "friends," and they would all gladly tell me something different they did or didn't like about me. I could then sit at home and read it over and over again every day and mull over how I could change and become exactly the person they wanted me to be. I could wonder what I would change to get them to like me, but then I might worry that if I changed those things about myself then someone else might not like me after the change, either. There is no winning in that game.
As we have moved past the "Me Decade" and the "Everyone Gets a Trophy" era, perhaps we need to re-examine how we balance strengths and weaknesses. I'm sorry, but everyone does not deserve a trophy because you showed up. Because you tried out doesn't mean you get to be in the play or have a place on the team. I can certainly tell you from my hundreds, if not possibly thousands, of rejection letters, that applying doesn't get you the job. The interview isn't even a guarantee of employment. To me, employment isn't real until my butt is in the seat. Still, I should get to go home every night thinking that I possess some kind of relative awesomeness, something that makes me special, something that makes me unique, and some strength that gives me determination and dedication to get up to go through it all again the next day. At the same time, I know what my weaknesses are. I don't need someone who barely knows me or only knows me from a snapshot in my life's photo album to tell me that they have some special, new observation on my life and my weaknesses that I have somehow overlooked in all my years on this planet. I try not to perseverate on my weaknesses so that I can continue to function. Yet, when someone else wants to focus on my weaknesses, everything that is wrong with me (some of the things may not even be true of me but may actually be based on gossip or other false information), I wonder when do I get to reciprocate and tell them everything that is wrong with them? I may or may not choose to do so. If I did, it may turn into some battle of whose weaknesses are worse, mine or theirs, a never-ending verbal version of a blood feud, until finally someone gives up or gives in.
I propose that we create some sort of system that, I don't know, rewards excellence and achievement. People who work harder earn more and do more and become more, and the sense of entitlement because I showed up and participated is thrown to the wayside. I further propose that although we do need to know each other's weaknesses, it's more important for us to know our own and share as we see fit. As a leader, it is important to say "These are my weaknesses" and to find a way to balance out those weaknesses with a good team or other good leaders.