by Antonia Macaro and Julian Baggini
We could spend years in therapy trying to perfect ourselves but wouldn’t it be better to work on our strengths?
What should we work on more, asks a reader, strengths or weaknesses? This is often a work dilemma. Say you’re a people person but your job is primarily about number-crunching, or a wizard at number-crunching but have somehow ended up in a job that brings you into contact with the public all the time. Unless you happen to have strengths in both areas, the situation is likely to bring stress all round, so it makes sense to address it in some way. Which is it going to be: changing the job or the weakness? The answer will depend partly on the availability of alternative jobs but also on whether changing the weakness involves only some minor tweaking or an attempt to morph into a different person.
Even more important than success at work is being a well-rounded person, and similar questions arise when it comes to developing our character.
We could spend years in therapy trying to perfect ourselves but how much effort is it really worth devoting to obliterating – or just mildly improving – our flaws and weaknesses? Wouldn’t it be better to work on building our strengths instead?
Carefully cultivating strengths is advocated in positive psychology. Some forms of therapy consider it the most important task, which can have the added benefit of drawing on inner resources to deal with any weaknesses. In that sense it’s not an either/or. If you feel generally more fulfilled you’ll be in a better place to address any problematic areas and your life will be better for it anyway.
When weaknesses don’t yield to self-improvement, we may still be able to befriend them. This could be a self-serving bias but I can tolerate my own propensity to be marginally late, for instance. But if a weakness is serious enough it may not be feasible or desirable to work round it. If your Achilles heel is a tendency to explosively lose your temper or a disabling lack of assertiveness, the only solution may be to tackle it head on.
I once had to give a thinking-skills seminar to a group of senior managers. My co-trainer and I thought the obvious place to start was with the principles of deductive reasoning. The problem was that as we set them out, they all looked far too obvious. Wouldn’t smart, busy people feel patronised by the elementary logic contained in examples of valid syllogisms such as the well-worn “All men are mortal; Socrates is a man; therefore Socrates is mortal”?
So we had an idea. We would begin the course with an apparently easy task. It was a version of the Wason Selection Task, in which people are asked to judge whether a simple rule of the kind, “If this, then that”, has been followed. In one scenario, the rule has a social context, such as, “If someone has an alcoholic drink, they must be 18 or over”. In the other, the rule is abstract, such as, “If a card has the letter P on one side, it is yellow on the other”.
It doesn’t sound very challenging and you wouldn’t be surprised to know that about 85 per cent of people give the right answer in the social setting. But in the abstract one, about the same proportion get it wrong – even smart senior managers.
The exercise teaches a powerful lesson: the human mind is well adapted to solve social problems but it isn’t built for logical reasoning. Even when we really try to think straight, myriad cognitive biases and dodgy heuristics prevent us from following the argument wherever it leads, as Socrates implored us to do.
It can take an exceptional mind to come up with a real insight but the processing part of thinking well usually requires no mental gymnastics. All you need to do is make no mistakes. To do that for even a single day requires exceptional mental rigour. So when it comes to reasoning, it seems obvious to me that being vigilant about our weaknesses is the key to building strength.
The Shrink & the Sage live together in southwest England.