Monday, June 23, 2008

Strengths and weaknesses

One of my favorite little bits of philosophy I got from the fortune in a fortune cookie. "Your strengths are your weaknesses," it said. I have no doubt that there is some more noble source for this piece of wisdom, though I've not chosen to find a deeper source.

The nice thing about a simple aphorism like this is that it can resonate on deeper levels if you seek to find that deeper understanding. Like a zen koan, the exploration triggered by an aphorism can be more interesting than the first order level of meaning.

I didn't actually start this because I wanted to talk about that one aphorism, and so I won't explore it any further. I titled this post thinking about the habit of worry--a habit with which I certainly have a great deal of familiarity from my own personal experience. I also have a fair amount of experience talking about it with other writers.

One writer I've been working with recently always has a story about what cannot be done. The responses always focus on what cannot be done and what the weaknesses are. No matter how much is accomplished, or how much I ask to hear about what is working well, no strengths or successes are reported. If I throw a handful of suggestions out and say "use any that you find useful," the response I get back will almost always be about which ones cannot be handled.

In order to have any sense of optimism and any sense of progress, we need to realistically assess our progress and our abilities--which means acknowledging our strengths as well as our weaknesses. We cannot be blind to our abilities. Indeed, if one wishes to maintain that he or she has no ability whatsoever, then why is that person even attempting to work on a writing project of any sort--much less a dissertation.

I work less frequently with people who can see only their strengths and not their weaknesses. Such people are much less inclined to seek help. But that too can be problematic. We need some balance--ignoring our weaknesses will cause problems just as will ignoring our strengths.

I suppose to wrap this up by winding back to the aphorism: if we remember that our strengths and weaknesses are intimately intertwined, it's easier to remember that we have both.

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