Work From Your Strengths. Train Up Your Weaknesses.

One of the most important personal development principles is that your weakest area will limit your ability to take advantage of your strongest area. The various parts of our lives — physical, mental, social, spiritual — are deeply interwoven, and we cannot simply consider each part in isolation.

People often identify themselves with their strongest area: I’m an athlete (physical). I’m a geek (mental). I’m a party animal (social). I’m a Christian (spiritual). But then they may fall into the trap of allowing their other areas to lag behind.

While capitalizing on your strengths is good advice, your ability to do that will largely be determined by how you handle your weaknesses. A dumb, unfocused athlete is unlikely to do as well as a smart one. An anti-social athlete will miss out on the chance to be part of a team. And an athlete who experiences spiritual chaos may lapse into drugs, steroid use, or immoral behavioral that ultimately hurts his/her body.

Consider each possible pairing of physical, mental, social, and spiritual and notice how each element can help or hinder any of the others.

It’s tempting to continue working on our strengths while ignoring our weaknesses. Our most important results will often come from our strengths — that’s true. However, the best way to improve those results is often to work on our weakest areas. This helps us in two ways: First, by shoring up our weak areas, we prevent them from getting in the way of our strengths. Secondly, if we take it far enough, we can turn those weak areas into secondary strengths that augment our primary strength.

For example, let’s assume that my primary strength is in the mental area and that I make a living through my writing. That’s an oversimplification, but it will suit us for now. If I focus all my energy on writing and identify myself as being predominantly mental, I might do OK for a while. Some good writers treat their physical body as if it’s a hunk of useless garbage. However, the body and mind are very connected, and neglecting the body will prevent the mind from achieving its full potential. A good writer might become a great one by taking better care of his/her physical equipment. I recall that as I switched to a vegan diet many years ago and started exercising regularly, the most significant benefits I experienced were mental, not physical. My concentration improved dramatically, I felt far more clear-headed, and I also perceived an increase in my ability to think more deeply about complex subjects. It was like getting a mental upgrade. Many people tell me that my writing is very deep, and I largely credit that to diet and exercise. I can sit for hours at a time totally absorbed by a single topic without being distracted and without feeling physically uncomfortable. Moreover, my physical activities also provide source material for my writing, such as martial arts, running, yoga, various diets, weight training, etc. Similarly, most physical activities work the mind too, helping thoughts to become more focused and less chaotic. So there’s a synergistic interplay between the mental and physical.

What about social? If I’m a writer, doesn’t that mean that social development must lag behind? Not at all. If I become a recluse, I won’t have nearly as much to write about. I’m very active in Toastmasters, I frequently give speeches, and I recently started doing improv comedy. Plus with a wife and two young kids, I’m rarely alone in the house. My rich social activities challenge me mentally, keep me from becoming dark and brooding, and give me abundant writing ideas. And because of my writing, I find it easy to socialize with people because I always have something interesting to talk about. The mental and social parts of my life enjoy a mutual flow of energy and ideas. If either side were to lag behind, the other side would be crippled as well.

And finally there’s the spiritual. This means different things to different people. I consider this area equally important for atheists, Christians, and Buddhists alike. What’s your purpose in life? What is your model of how the universe works? Are your beliefs accurate? By striving to develop an accurate and empowering belief system, I generate a lot of interesting ideas to write about. In fact, this has been a source of many of my most popular articles, such as The Meaning of Life Series. Also, by writing about these topics publicly, I receive a lot of feedback that helps me greatly in my own spiritual growth. I don’t pretend to have all the answers, but I do my best to keep asking the questions.

And of course we could go on and do all the other pairings, but I think you get the point. Each area of your life has a powerful effect on every other area. If you allow any one area to lag too far behind, it’s like attaching a lead weight to all the others. You’ll experience drag. No matter how hard you continue to work on your strengths, it will feel like you’re getting out a lot less than you’re putting in.

It’s rare that all of these areas are in perfect balance. That certainly isn’t the case for me, despite working on this consciously. At different times in my life, at least one area is always lagging behind. Two years ago when I moved from L.A. to Vegas, my social area dropped because I didn’t know anyone here. So for that first year, I put a lot of effort into building a local social network. Now it’s one of my strongest areas. But in the process of doing lots of writing and expanding my social activities, I didn’t exercise as much as I used to, so recently I’ve recommitted to the physical and have been hitting the gym every morning. While putting more energy into that area, some other areas may slip a little. It’s an ongoing process of shoring up the weakest area, so that I can extract the maximum value from the strongest.

Some slippage is OK, as long as the choice is made consciously. I’m OK with letting my spiritual area slide a bit while I work on improving my physical conditioning. I probably won’t meditate as often as I used to, but I can always return to that later. Whenever a weak area falls too far behind and needs several months (or years) of focus to bring it back into balance, you may have to divert resources from the strong areas. But this is temporary.

One simple technique I use is to rate each of these areas on a scale of 1-10. Then look at your strongest area and your weakest area and understand the connection between them. How would your strongest area improve if your weakest area went from a 2 to an 8? Yes, it may take some time to reach that 8, maybe even a few years, but the time is going to pass anyway, so why not emerge with an 8 instead of a 2?

If your physical area is lagging behind, you can improve your diet and exercising habits. If your mental area is your worst, begin reading a book a week, and listen to audio programs or podcasts that make you think. If your social area lags behind, join a club (keep trying until you find one you like). And if your spiritual area has been neglected, read some books in this field, begin keeping a journal, and try meditation.

What if all your areas are down in the dumps? In that case I recommend you start with the physical. Repairing those other areas will require lots of energy. If you get yourself into good physical condition, it will help you feel better emotionally too. And that physical and emotional energy will serve you well in making changes across the board. If you’re really fat and out of shape, this is especially crucial. Your body is with you all the time, and carrying around too much extra weight will slow you down and wear you out. Plus you’re not as likely to feel good about yourself when you look in the mirror. There’s no need to worry about becoming a fitness model, but make basic physical fitness a priority in your life. Turn off the TV, and hit the gym instead.

If you want to go deeper, you can expand this 4-part model into a 12-part one:

  1. Work
  2. Financial
  3. Relationship
  4. Home & Family
  5. Physical Health
  6. Mental
  7. Social
  8. Emotional
  9. Spiritual
  10. Character
  11. Contribution
  12. Fun & Adventure

For more detail on how to analyze your current performance in these 12 areas, listen to Podcast #2.

You can’t make all 12 or even the basic 4 areas your top priority at the same time. You have to pick your primary training area and let the others slide a bit. Don’t neglect the importance of training though. It’s obvious that proper training can transform a person’s physical body, but it can produce gains just as powerful in any other area of your life too.

I think you will find as I do that by training your weakest area up to an acceptable level, you get even better results than if you continued to focus only on your strengths.

Work from your strengths. Train up your weaknesses. And always be training.