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Monday, 03 January 2011


My father, who worked in education, says that it's easy for a teacher to tell students what they're doing wrong, but much harder to identify what they are doing right, so that they can consolidate it and build on it.
Same concept.

In line with David's comments - well in parallel with them actually - the process of Appreciative Inquiry is worth looking at. Although aimed at organisations facing change, it could also be seen to apply to individuals. After all, a New Year's resolution is about change. One of the facets of AI is to concentrate on what works, which could mean what you're good at, or what you're successful at. Plenty stuff on the web, including Wikipedia of course......


I think I may of said something similiar i my comment on that previous post, totally agree.

I agree that we should use our strengths. To practice and polish them to excellence. Weaknesses should be addressed when there is a desire to be better at something as well. For me conversation with strangers is a weakness that I wish to address. It's not really a show stopper, just something I'd like to be better at. So this year I'm doing a 100 strangers project.

It isn't so much about attacking weaknesses as it is about filling gaps. Play to your strengths by all means; but attack the weaknesses that prevent you from doing so as effectively as you might.

And then, life isn't all career. I often find it salutary to do things precisely because I'm not particularly good at them.

Interesting line of thought - from your fear of dental work on yourself to our weak (and strong) points. I also was afraid of going to the dentist for most of my life, until lately. Last year I had a root canal treatment, and tho my colleagues at work gave me the horrors in advance, being there was actually nice. The dentist is a very attractive young lady, and during the treatment I sometimes looked at her back-lit hair and had thoughts like: "Wow, what a great photo this would make!"

Wishing you the best for your treatment as well.

I respectly disagree. You were right the first time.

I don't know what pain meds the dentist gave you, but when they wear off you might want to re-think this last post. Your original post was thoughtful, reasonable, and may help some individuals explore areas that have challenged them in the past.
With great effort I (respectfully) will not comment on the idea of having a corporate HR trainer direct the ideas of making photographic art.

Dear Mike,

Heh, I'm averse to getting new glasses. An even less rational dislike than yours-- doesn't even hurt and costs a lot less. But I always put it off waaaaaaay beyond all sanity.

I'm about a year overdue right now.

I'd make a New Years resolution to get new glasses,'cept I generally ignore'em. Last year's were a bust-- I ain't even gonna try.

pax / Ctein

And this is why I respect this blog; because its authors can admit when they might be wrong and acknowledge it gracefully, unlike the multitude of bloggers who use their little nook of the interwebs as something akin to a bully pulpit.

And might I just perchance suggest that next time a visit to the dentist is required you seek out someone like the father of Facebook guru Mark Zuckerberg, a successful dental practioner who works under the motto: 'we cater to cowards'.

That's the kind of dentist I'd like to go to.

I have to disagree on this one Mike.

I suck at portraiture, to the extent that I wouldn't do it even for my family. Since having my children, I realized that if I don't do something about it, I'll never see photos of my children, except through the eyes of another. My portraits are still lame, but I do get a few keepers now and again and I have a happier family now. The more time I put into it, the better I get. I still don't enjoy the work, and far prefer to shoot other subjects, I at least can get the job done and feel okay about it.

If one is weak in a particular area of life, taking time to assess the weakness and strengthening it, like exercising a weak muscle, will make it stronger and more effective. This effects the strong areas as well despite the emphasis on the weakness. If the issue is about focus, not correction, then pretending the weakness is not there, or ignoring it all together simply shows you are either overconfident or myopic. This is not to say that the majority of ones life exercising should be concentrated on weaknesses, but some time and effort should be made to address them. Doing so improves the whole, not just the parts.

In my life, I can say with much conviction, I have never been let down by giving my weaknesses some TLC. Not the most fun way to pass the time, but it always generates a reward in the end.

A wise advice, and a modification I wholehartedly agree with. Photography was my first artistic passion, and as a young man I had a reasonable measure of success. Professionally, I ended up in an other field because I couldn't support a family (or myself, when I didn't want to always live in a small attic somewhere) on a more than temporary basis as an artistically stubborn photographer. And I loved music - started to play electrical guitar, played in an amateur band, learned my blues chops & licks and so on. My musical talent is limited, so I had to work very hard. But it was great fun. Then a time came when I realised I would never get beyond imitating the lesser parts of the music of the great ones (to me, to mention a few, B.B. King, Clapton, Hendrix, Peter Green). And that in photography (whatever other people might think of my photographs) I was secure and my own man. It was back to basics, swimming in my own waters, so to speak, from that point onwards. And the 'easiness' of photography for me makes it all the more adventurous to really do my utmost. Very rewarding - it makes my happy. Of course I stil play the guitar every once in a while.


Whilst the craft side of photography might benefit from pursuing such performance management goals as maximisation, repeatability and the elimination of variation, it don't sound like a route to Art to me. I strongly suspect you can't turn creativity into a process. Therefore, I wish you a Happy and Serendipitous New Year.

He's right you know. If HR-Managers would know that and act accordingly the workspace would be a better place to be for millions of people!

Greetings, Ed

I completely agree too. The focus on someone's weaknesses is actually part of our education system.

Sir Ken Robinson has some interesting thoughts about that: http://www.ted.com/talks/ken_robinson_changing_education_paradigms.html

Speaking as an MBA with over 30 years of business experience, "work on your strengths, not your weaknesses" sounds like bad advice.

Let's say your job involves customer contact by telephone, and you have difficulty returning calls quickly. I'd say this is a weakness you'd better work on, and quickly; otherwise, you just may find out the truth about HR advice.

And, as always, it depends. For instance, I love music, but I'm literally tone deaf. I could work on this weakness 24/7 and never make any progress.

In summary, you have to understand your weaknesses and your strengths, what can be improved and what cannot be improved, and work on the "whole package."


Damn, I just sold the Xbox to concentrate on "life"... please make up your mind.

Employers want predictability, they have a position to fill. Living your life to the recommendations of a HR manager seems a very constraining thing to me. Conforming is bad.

Whether you are good at something is irrelevant. What you want to do is.

What we learn from struggling is critical. How can you triumph if you only do what you know you can.

Closing off experiences which will arise from trying things is a terrible idea.

There again I've only ever been employed for a couple of years after university the rest I've organised myself.

Working with a number of young photographers over the past couple years, I’ve had plenty of time to think about this subject. Yes, ultimately of course you want people to build upon their natural talents. But until and unless they’ve gotten serious about photography, many people simply don’t know their own real strengths and weaknesses. What they do know are their own interests and passions, and I think that should always be the starting point.

Many, for example, would love to do street photography but feel that they are by nature too shy to photograph strangers. Once you help them get over that, some take to it just wonderfully. I’ve worked with others who wanted to get into professional travel photography but lacked the confidence that they had what it took. Help them develop the skills and, very often, they do fine.

Beyond that, I’ve always encouraged young photographers to try a bit of everything, just because it gives them a chance to discover areas that they might otherwise have overlooked because they seemed too difficult or different. So, speaking from a creative point of view rather than a corporate one, I’m all for attacking one’s weaknesses. Shake things up, push your limits. It tends to lead to discoveries, certainly for beginners and maybe even the rest of us too.

My life is too short not to challenge my weaknesses. Don't confuse marketability with personal accomplishment.

I strongly agree with this sentence: "What we're good at comes easily to us, so it can seem less important, less 'earned'—as if 'anybody can do that.'" I think this is extremely important to people working in creative fields. It's going to be challenging anyway, so honour what the gods have given you and be ferocious precisely where the work comes easily for you. Taking the difficult path can be the dumbest thing you ever do. It takes some experience to sort this out, but once you recognize a true strength, honour it.

"'we cater to cowards'"

The fault is not in my dentist, but in myself....


Mike, I found that a morbid, illogical fear of dentists can be cured by having your jaw broken, preferably by a bottle-wielding moron at a party. What they do to you then will make any future mouth treatment seem like the proverbial perambulation in the civic open space.

I believe the best idea is to work on your strengths and identify any *relevant* weaknesses. If the weakness has an adverse affect on something your like / need to do then address it: by avoiding it, getting someone else to do it or getting better at it yourself (so you can do it to an *acceptable* level).

Whether personal or business, focusing on strengths (rather than weaknesses) is much like applying the 80/20 rule.

@George Barr: if a person is pursing photography then it indicates they have some relevant strengths, no? Further, I suspect people gravitate to the type/s of photography that are of interest to them and they have some strengths in. Different types of photography have different (but partially overlapping) skill sets.

As an example, a person with shaky hands would (should) avoid street photography but could excel at still lifes by using a tripod. Or: a natural story teller would gravitate to a photo-journalistic style rather than landscapes.

I think some of both is called for.

My sense of rhythm is terrible. This would not be a grave disadvantage, except that I'm a singer. And I'm a cyclist. Metronome drills help a little, but it takes a lot of rigorous work and a lot of maintenance. Dance class seems to help a lot more, for less effort.

You can view working on my sense of rhythm as playing to a weakness (because well duh, I'm bad at it). You can also view it as playing to a strength, since I am a very good singer for an amateur... and a singer who just lets expressiveness dictate her interpretation is not using all the tools she's got. I'm also not bad at using my bike, and having a better sense of rhythm will let me keep cadence better.

Mostly, I tend to focus on the latter view. (and while dance is not something I'm naturally gifted at, it's a fun way to work on a lot of my weaknesses at once)

Many thanks for that! That's wonderful. I'd never seen it before.


Good to hear that (that is, your new position)!
I was nodding while reading your "resolution"; I could do that, and that, and so on. I stopped at the fighting against weakness part. I could hardly do that. My weakness is shooting strangers and now I feel better as I don't have to shoot them anymore ;)

Mike: a further wrinkle: Suppose you want a wholly new skill? For instance, I would like to be able to draw a passable human form. At the moment, it is wholly beyond me. I guess that would be a "weakness" in the sense that it is a skill I don't possess. If I were to practice two hours a day, I'd be significantly better at it than I am right now, although probably I would never be a master. But what of it? If I acquire this skill, it will be wholly to satisfy my desire to be able to do it. (Insert here: cooking, weaving, Pt-Pd print making, book binding, gardening, bread making . . you get the idea). The "play to your strengths" advice of the business world seems to tacitly assume a fairly narrow world. Don't listen. It's advice from the land of the specialists, somewhat useful for work, less so for life.

Ben Marks

The big mistake is thinking that this is an either-or decision.

So sorry you changed your mind about this. Does what was suggested really apply to creativity or artistry? I don't think so. We attack our weaknesses to make us more complete. Corporate philosophy cares not a whit about our individual completeness.

I think if anything this demostrates the problem inherent in buzzwords, jingos and platitudes. PLAY TO YOUR STRENGTHS and ATTACK YOUR WEAKNESSES all sound great and they have a ring of familiarity and self-affirmation to them, but it's too easy to take them at face value. As the comments have demonstrated, these statements only have real value when they are deconstructed and examined in the context of the individual's weaknesses, strengths, and most importantly, desires.

A weakness that is of no importance is an irrelevant weakness, and therefore should not even be thought of as a weakness. As such, there's no point in in attacking it.

Maek Lohnes said "I suck at portraiture." So do I. In his case he has a valid reason to not suck at it; so he can have great portraits of his growning family. I don't have kids and I have very little interest in portraiture. Maek should attack his "suck at portraiture" weakness, but I can safely ignore mine.

So what it comes down to is first thinking about what you want, and then deciding on what gets played to and what gets attacked according to how your abilities line up with your desires.

But then that's the trickiest thing of all, isn't it? Deciding what you want.

Getting here late, but I agree with David Littlejohn; adults should work toward their strengths. But I also suggest trying to adapt those strengths in creative ways toward augmenting deficiencies created by your weaknesses.

I also respectfully suggest that attempts to apply athletic and sporting metaphors to photography are irrelevant at any practical level.

This article raises the interesting question of whether ones strengths and weaknesses are innate and unchangeable, or whether they are something that can be changed.

For instance, in the case of Dan Budge he could clearly improve his backhand, and indeed it actually became better than his forehand. Is this true in all cases? or are there cases where a skill simply can't be improved, or can't be improved past a certain point?

It is hard to tell - I would like to believe that it always possible to become good at something, given enough time. However, I am forced to conclude that this may not be the case. Of course the practical question, whether the amount of skill you will gain is worth the time you will need to put in, or could you better spend your time doing something else? is simpler, and a matter of judgement in each situation.


On the other hand I have always held the view that "the main difference between a rut and a grave" is the depth!


Variation missing so far (is that possible?) ...

Knowing one's weaknesses and strengths presupposes that one already knows what one is going to be making (thus the sports and business models referenced). But such preconceptions -- in creative endeavors at least -- may be the worst kind of weakness.

If you ignore your weaknesses you will never know if you could have turned them into strengths. You must risk failure to achieve success. Except, apparently, in corporations.

I have a slightly different take on this, borrowed from “The War of Art,” by Steven Pressfield. Instead of attacking weakness I'm attacking Resistance: that within myself that says “oh, you don't have to go create right now, you can do that later, wouldn't a chocolate gelato be just the thing right now?” That tendency to not put off till tomorrow what can be put off until the day after.

This is not a New Year's resolution. Those never work. It's a decision that I came to a few weeks ago, near the solstice purely by coincidence.

To Ctein: does that impact your ability to focus a camera. I went thru a period where I was getting a lot of off focus shots then realized I needed a new vision script. It helped, (now I think I need a newer scrip). Anyway it might help you get over the aversion.

Different play require different skill. To find a good field and game your skill that is useful is sometimes more important. Finding the game first. If you are good or want to good at 100m you should try NOT to think in terms of your strength or weakness in marathon.

In some game, your strength might be your weakness and vice visa.

As one poster said reworded are limited and other than you want to be you and select your own path, I think what we invest has no rule.

For this year, I wish to finish my 9 boxes of 8x10 velvia. 1 down. 8 to go. Anyway kodak 5l e6 kit no more and the game has been changed for me I have to move to another pond to swim. Have to re-think my portfolio.

Here's my modest attempt to bring the 'always' part back into the argument (subject to further qualifications, of course).
How about prioritizing your weaknesses/strengths to begin with? 'Higher order' weaknesses may lead to many particular ones that would remain forever unadressed. I guess not knowing one's own limitations is perhaps the most dangerous of them. Likewise, the ability to recognize your strengths is what really lets you focus in trying to achieve some level of excellence.
Then again, great art seems to be one of those things people accomplish *despite* their limitations (even the ones they are fully aware of).
As Dave wrote: "'Always' is a tough word."

Mike, when you said weaknesses did you mean skills or personal traits? I understood the former and I think you were right.

I have worked in the IT business for 30 years and it's tough trying to make people project managers when they much prefer being technical gurus. It never works too well, although it's good to have some cross training. But whatever your leanings, to be a good manager or guru means earning your stripes and learning a lot and, more importantly, staying abreast of developments. That's what professional development is all about.

I already chose photography but to me it's a skill set. To improve I need to learn the skills I currently lack, even if I stick to my preferred genre.

This is exactly what I would describe as playing to my strengths. If Dan Budge was playing to his weaknesses he would be at night school studying accountancy.

What Michael Roche says is so true - When I started golf at the ripe old age of 35, I was already a reasonable sportsman. My pro gave me two lessons and played a couple of rounds with me then banned me from the driving range for 6 months. I could only practise chipping, putting and bunker play. I was allowed 10 minutes on the range before a competitive round. I got my handicap to 8 in those 6 months but I must say that my long game is still rather shaky after 17 years and my handicap is no better :-(

You do what your well thought thoughts (gut)... lead you to; and if it is fix your weakness - do it with gusto. Take pride in your accomplishment from having done so too.

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