I heard something the other day that made all my fur stand on end and had me feeling like a cat being petted backwards. I was in a class, and the topic was strengths and weaknesses, especially in relation to having a successful, satisfying career. The speaker quoted author Marcus Buckingham, who maintains that we grow most in the areas we already know and love the most. We may be able to bring our weaknesses up to a level of proficiency, but they will never be our strengths. (The basic idea is that someone who, say, hates math and is terrible with numbers will be miserable as an accountant.)
The whole idea rubbed me wrong. I grew up believing that I could do anything I wanted to—if I worked at it hard enough. My parents’ oft-repeated quote was the old standby, “If at first you don’t succeed…try, try again.” Their second favorite was, “Practice makes perfect.”
When I started thinking about it, though, I realized Mr. Buckingham is right. I love writing, but there are some parts I’m not good at—at all. Ask my ever-patient critique partners about my greatest weakness and they’ll all say the same thing: story openings. I’m terrible at them. Truly horrible. When I first start a story, I wander around in circles, mired in everyone’s life story until the whole thing reads like an encyclopedia entry. Seriously dull and boring. It usually takes six or seven re-writes before I finally hear; “Now you’ve got it.”
I’ve been trying to figure out a way to make this process more efficient, more streamlined. Okay, I’ve been looking for a shortcut, a quick fix, a magic pill.
But maybe, I don’t have to “fix” it completely. I can build on my strengths. I am by nature a plot-driven writer, so I love, love, love coming up with exciting storylines that draw the reader into the story. Do I have to work harder at inventing interesting characters the reader cares about? Oh, yeah, or my story people seem contrived and constructed of flat, brown cardboard. But my character-creation skills can certainly be honed and improved—and I’m having fun in the process.
I guess the challenge for all of us is to keep working on both our strengths–and our weaknesses–so everything works together to accomplish what we’re trying to do. It seems my folks were right after all: there is no substitute for practice.
Besides, who said anything worthwhile was supposed to be quick and easy?
What about you? How do you compensate for the skills that don’t come naturally to you? I’d love to hear your strategies.