How to Keep Your Weaknesses From Ruining Your Career

mm Russ Finkelstein

Even the most successful among us has a weak spot. Our challenge is how we deal with it.

First, I ask you to consider the myth of the warrior Achilles. His mother bathed him in the protective waters of the River Styx, but by holding him by his heel, failed to guard him against would-be attackers, there. Most of us recognize multiple weaknesses in ourselves as professionals, but often there is an area that we have particular shame or fear in being less adept at.

So as you continue through this article I want you to be aware of four questions:   

  1. Is what you believe to be a weak spot actually one?
  2. How much power does it have over your choices or opportunities?
  3. What, if anything, can or should you do about it?
  4. Am I really prepared to commit to do the work to improve it?

This post is about the baggage we carry and how it can direct what we think our lives and careers can be.

I spend a good deal of time speaking to people who are struggling in their careers. Some are extremely successful, but are stuck or coming up against a problem they have no idea how to solve, or struggle for some reason in implementing a solution. Then I ask questions, listen and try to work with them to develop solutions.

I met Candice at a networking event in Portland, Oregon and agreed to meet for coffee a week later. It was during that meeting that she shared with me a career arc that had been filled with success. However, she was haunted by an experience in one of her first jobs where she managed an intern, and it went badly. She couldn’t get him to be a productive member of the team and her intern had blamed her for that. Based on this, she decided that she was a bad manager and should avoid ever managing anyone in the future. Now nearing thirty, she has stayed away from any opportunities that would require that of her.

Why is this problematic? Mapped to the first three questions above:

  1. She is taking a small sample size and an unreliable narrator as truth. Candice is allowing one person with even less experience to dictate who she is and can be. We can only begin to understand what’s true with multiple conversations and typically we want them to be with people whom we hold in high regard. We often allow self-doubt about our newer or less developed skills to make us accept criticism too readily. She does not yet really know that it is a weak spot, although it is surely a sore spot.
  2. She is greatly limiting the arc of her career. Candice is now reaching a place where companies expect her to have a vision that she can create and implement whilst managing others. The jobs that intrigue her require people with that skill and experience, if not an enthusiasm for developing others, and she recognizes that she has limited her options.
  3. She is taking this feedback as a life sentence. Even if it is true that Candice has been a poor manager, why is she letting that serve as who she has to be for her future? We often allow an initial struggle to dictate whether we can improve. We often don’t believe in our ability to improve in the way we do our friends and professional peers. Candice must figure out what she can do in and outside work to develop skill and/or confidence in this area.

Candice’s example is one of many I’ve encountered in my time as a career coach, where someone let a temporary setback, or perhaps some negative feedback, get in their head and deprive them of opportunities for a good long while. It’s only during coaching relationships where you have built up some trust that these things tend to come out, but I’m hoping to save you the pain by getting you to tackle your weakness intentionally, now. Or at least, right after you read this post.

The point is, Achilles could have been fine, and without even blaming his mother, if only he’d recognized what was happening and had worn a pair of better shoes. We all have weak points. Don’t let yours hold you back, or worse still, shape your possibilities for years to come!

I have another friend who founded an organization, but for reasons I’m about to share, Nate just hated to attract any kind of media attention for his work. He was quite shy and after he’d had a bad experience with a newspaper, it gave him justification to let his Achilles heal get into his head and make the decisions. As a result, as his organization grew, Nate didn’t hire a communications person because a fear of being a public figure and bad press meant that he veered towards no media at all. Fewer would-be funders heard about his work, as did fewer prospective beneficiaries and partners. His staff knew of the issue, but no one had a way of solving for it. And for a while things were OK, but eventually a lean period hit and the organization almost closed and decided ultimately to bring in a leader who was comfortable embracing the media.

People often make decisions about their careers based on where they feel most confident and where they have been affirmed. To use an often heard gym example, you will hear people discuss someone who only works out their biceps and ignores their legs. They know that people notice and comment in a good way about one part of them, and that to focus elsewhere could mean hard and painful work, with slow improvement. When it comes to your work, what are your biceps and what are your legs?

Perhaps you’re good at making connections with people on a one-on-one basis, like I am. This is part of the reason that I’ve pursued a career in coaching. But I’ve always avoided two things: Writing, because two colleagues told me I didn’t have a facility for it; and public speaking, because I’ve frozen up a couple of times on stage, particularly when I’m addressing something that really means a lot to me.

Up above I mentioned four questions to keep in mind while reading:

  1. Is what you believe to be a weak spot actually one?
  2. How much power does it have over your choices or opportunities?
  3. What, if anything, can or should you do about it?
  4. Am I really prepared to commit to the work to make it improve it?

If you have been paying attention you may have noticed that I never quite responded to the fourth question. I’m turning to that now. Once you have decided that you have an issue that you need to address and a way to do so you will need to prompt yourself with a question around your commitment to implementing a solution.

I believe that to address your weaknesses, you need to do three things: 1) seek help, 2) set aside a generous helping of patience and kindness for yourself, and 3) incorporate addressing the perceived weakness into your regular routine.

Not doing these things is setting yourself up for a poor outcome — most often feelings of guilt, frustration or hopelessness. I’m a big fan of trying to avoid that cluster of despair. So, let’s use me as an example.

In my work at ClearlyNext we decided that I was best positioned to write about the challenges people face when it comes to their careers. I mulled over the task before me for a few months, spoke with some friends and began to feel the urgency of coming up with a solution. I finally decided I needed to believe in and invest in myself in making it happen.  

So, last year I sought the help and support of my friend and colleague Matt Davis, an accomplished writer and writing coach, to help me figure out how better to shape my thoughts into persuasive written content. It meant reaching out to an expert and confessing to my own vulnerability about writing and believing in his ability to help me. We set up a routine, and now, we speak weekly and he helps me to refine my ideas and experiences into content I produce weekly that helps others.

Likewise, my friend and colleague Stef Cruz, an online guru, helped me to make my initial pieces look good and be the best fit for the web. She liked what I was doing enough to share them with others. As a result of this routine and supportive colleagues, I have been thrilled to write posts on LinkedIn and now Forbes, too. I know that I can create compelling content and share what I say one-on-one to larger audiences. This was something I had long ago given up on. In fact, in the first year of my writing, my pieces have received 200,000 views. And I’m excited to see where my newfound confidence in writing takes me next.

You will notice I also skipped #2 on the list above, about being generous and kind to yourself. At the start of this writing process I regularly deal with insecurity about what I am writing. Why does my voice and experience matter? Will anyone read it? Will it change how people face their challenges? I regularly have to revisit my rule of being as nice to me as I would be to a good friend expressing the same challenge. I’m less anxious now, but the flare-ups do come up now and again!

The intoxicating thing about vanquishing, or greatly reducing the fear, associated with a perceived weakness is: It makes you want to take on others. So, now I’m given thoughtful consideration to public speaking. To be honest, I get a fair number of requests and mostly try to move away from speeches and instead make them Q&As because speaking off-the-cuff is easy for me.

I’m asking myself all the questions I have prompted you to ask yourself throughout this article. I attended a Heroic Public Speaking training a few weeks ago and the quality of the instruction and instructors made me believe that they could be the solution to my public speaking problem. Where I am right now is trying to decide whether I am prepared to take on the practice of doing this work.

What has motivated me is clarity about my goal: To share the importance of addressing our professional dissatisfactions through coaching, because 75% of Americans are unhappy in our work. Rather than focus on how difficult I find it to stand up in front of an audience, I’ve focused on how important it is to share my message with those of us who could envision better for themselves.

I think the key question to ask yourself is: What are the opportunities in your professional life that you have closed off, and that you have accepted will never be yours?

I see for you the future that you have been denying yourself. Please follow the steps I mentioned above. Figure out that goal, get yourself the support you need to make it happen, develop a routine and be kind to yourself along the way. It’s that simple, as long as you’re convinced that it matters enough, and I think it does.

We are all Achilles. You too are the hero in this life of yours, and have an ability to take on the challenges before you. Don’t let them define who you are, but rather let your ability to overcome them be part of what makes you an inspiration for those around you.