Jonathan Manz
Graduate Assistant
Office of the Associate Vice President for Student Affairs

When I worked at the University of Arkansas, I became close friends with one of my co-workers. In professional settings, my colleague was known for offering the counterpoint to the prevailing direction. The role of “devil’s advocate” suits him well. I recall a time when a supervisor was explaining an event that needed to be planned and held. Tradition dictated that this program was held each year, though it was at great cost with a low reward. When asked why we did this program the response was simply, “because we’ve always done it.” My colleague challenged that notion, which caused all of us to think of alternatives that could better serve our students. It seemed that my friend always had a point to make that contrasted the theme of the discussion.

It may appear as though he enjoyed being argumentative; that he garnered pleasure from prodding others. I’ve come to understand, however, that my colleague was operating from a place of “strength” when he so freely offered alternative perspectives to others. He had a knack for seeing different views on issues and explaining those views. He was not trying to argue for argument’s sake; he wanted to make sure everyone had thoroughly thought through the issue at hand. His points helped us all think critically about the issue and ensure that we were making well-informed decisions. My colleague was using his “Strategic” strength. He has the ability to naturally see and create alternative scenarios. He combined that strength with “Communication” – his ability to easily put thoughts into words and present to others.

In today’s culture there is a strong emphasis, not on our strengths, but rather our weaknesses. How many times have you sat down with a professor, staff member, family member, or a friend and the person has asked you what’s right with you? Instead, we are trained to see our weaknesses and attempt to improve them. However, weakness fixing simply leads to mediocrity. Peter Drucker, a respected consultant and author, said “It takes far less energy to move from first-rate performance to excellence than it does to move from incompetence to mediocrity.”

At Virginia Tech, students have the opportunity to better understand themselves, their strengths and interests, and align their values to develop self-understanding and integrity. Working on your weaknesses is one approach to this Aspiration for Student Learning; however, not one I recommend. In fact, most often, when we make mistakes, we make them outside of our areas of strength; we just perceive that as a weakness. For instance, I have the strength of “Harmony.” I value everyone’s opinion and I like to be inclusive in my decision making process. However, at times I am hesitant and indecisive when I have to make a decision that I know will upset someone. I have learned that I can still collect valuable feedback from others, but at times I also have to make a decision that is not always “win-win.” As you spend time developing your strengths you will become aware of how misusing them can cause mistakes and how investing in them can cause you to excel.

I tend to take psychological ownership of the tasks and projects. It is one of my strengths. People can rely on me to see things through until the end. Additionally, I am good at creating and working through processes. I am not a visionary, but I get inspired by others’ views of the future and I help create processes to get there. When I operate in this way, I tend to be successful; however, I have to be intentional about my actions. I know that when I have a project ahead of me, it is in my best interest to plot out the process before I start.

Building strengths takes time and investment. Doing what is natural only takes us so far. We need to intentionally take the time to reflect about our strengths and recognize how we can use them to our advantage. Do you remember Michael Jordan as an elite basketball player? Of course! He had to invest in his natural talents to be become such an amazing player. Now, do you remember Jordan as a professional baseball player? Likely, no. However, he did spend time away from basketball to try baseball, but never made it out of the minor leagues. While he was investing time in baseball, he was not successful because baseball was not a strength for him. Michael Jordan then recommitted himself to basketball and won another three championships. We need to be intentional about discovering our strengths and then investing time in developing them.

As you take time to understand yourself, ask, “Where do I excel?” “What gets me excited?” “When am I thriving?” Determine what common themes emerge. These themes you are observing are likely your natural strengths. Instead of focusing on your weaknesses, intentionally invest in your strengths. See what you learn about yourself as you develop your strengths.



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