The first round of the Tri-Wizard Tournament is approaching. Harry Potter has learned that he and the three other Tri-Wizard champions will have to face one of four deadly fire-breathing dragons. Being younger and weaker than his opponents, feeling totally inadequate, it fills him with dread. But the new Defence Against the Dark Arts teacher Mad-Eye Moody has taken it upon himself to help Harry through the challenges. What is his advice? Go the gym? Learn Dragon-killing spells meant for more advanced wizards? No, he asks Harry one question:

“What are your strengths?”

Harry eventually outwits the dragon, riding his flying broomstick. His light weight and fast reflexes allow him to outmaneuver the beast and steal its precious golden egg, the key to the next challenge.

In Monsters University, Mike Wazowski struggles in his dream to become the scariest monster ever. He is not scary. Despite many challenges, he barely keeps up with his fellow students, including future best-bud Sulley. In the end, Mike is expelled from the school, but he and Sulley have learned something about themselves. Sulley is far superior at being scary than Mike, but they cooperated, and together they managed to get farther in their quest than they would have hoped. Sulley is the scary one, Mike is the smart one. They realise that they complement one another, and decide to be a permanent team. In Monsters Inc., despite their respective weaknesses, they save the city of Monstropolis from an energy crisis.

Master story-tellers J.K. Rowling and Disney/Pixar teach us a valuable lesson: you will be worse at some things than other people, and your best chance of success comes by concentrating on what you are good at. Play to your strengths.

In these stories, we might have expected the hero to succeed on the terms that were set out for them. Harry might have worked really, really hard and ended up killing the dragon with a powerful spell. Mike may have finally become scary. But this is not a good moral lesson. That would affirm mediocrity and deny our uniqueness as human individuals.

What does it mean to play to your strengths?

It means going against what we are taught from the crib, that we must devote the bulk of our time to who we are not. Tom Rath calls this ‘The Path of Most Resistance’ – when our weaknesses are revealed, our first instinct is to devote all of our attention to correcting them. Young people in particular are expected to be at a certain level in every one of their subjects. They are not considered simply unsuited to the subject but behind, and by extension time should be allocated to getting back up to speed.

We are each born with varying and unique attributes, with propensity to be better than other people at some things, and worse at others. The big secret is that it is far more efficient to focus on, develop and accommodate our strengths rather than attempting to fix our weaknesses.

Management guru Peter Drucker put ‘What are my strengths?’ as the first question a self-improving person must ask. “One cannot perform on weaknesses, let alone on something one cannot do at all”. Succcess-seeking must start with introspection, and asking who you are.

Gallup builds their own program on strengths, running strengths-based leadership workshops and tests. Their research found that employees were six times less likely to be disengaged at work if their manger focused on their strengths. Buy their book Strengths Finder 2.0 and you will be given a code for a strengths analysis test.

It is folly and arrogance to pretend that one can be all things to all people. Instead, hone in on what you are good at, and cultivate it. Henry Hazlitt implored students to focus on one area of reading until comprehensive knowledge of a particular subject was achieved.

When your friends get into an argument on some question within your chosen field they will remark, “Ask John Jones. He ought to know”. And even when you have to confess abysmal ignorance on some question outside your domains, you may still have the satisfaction of believing that people are excusing you within themselves with an “Oh, well, but he knows a lot about someology”.

And apart from the inherent pleasure in and social benefits of being a specialist in something, whether it be a skill or an area of knowledge, it gives you a greater sense of self. You enhance what you are good at, and you are making a more streamlined version of yourself, not moulding yourself to others.

I recently re-worked my job-seeking strategy with my strengths in mind. My CVs, cover letters and interviews were filled with what I thought employers wanted to hear rather than what defined me. I told them I was ‘hard-working’ and ‘confident’. Although not untrue a stranger would be none the wiser to my personality and skills. I realised that if someone is going to hire me, they are going to hire me for me and not this mythical perfect worker. I am now emphasising my analytical and communication skills – what defines me.

Indirectly, the truisms we get from economics also tell us to concentrate on our strengths. Consider the concept of the division of labour. Economic actors find it more efficient to allocate time and resources in the production of one particular good or service rather than all. Welfare is increased when every individual specialises. An economy like this creates demand for specialists, who are strong in infinitely specific things.This requires single-sightedness, following the path of least resistance to improvement. This means concentrating on strengths.

It makes sense to us to play to our strengths, but we have plenty of obstacles, not least the public school system that instead seems hell-bent on playing to our weaknesses.

Think of little Suzy who is a bright spark, and has a particular skill in drawing, yet struggles with her spelling. The teacher tells her parents that whilst all of the the things she is good at ought to be praised, something needs to be done about that spelling. Therefore, he encourages the parents to dedicate extra time after school for spelling tests and reading study. The parents don’t want Suzy to feel embarrassed at being behind the other children, so they oblige. She struggles, and with much stress her spelling is now at an acceptable standard. But what is all of this for?

Let’s think economically. What would be a more effective use of one’s time: A. Spending 3 months training on drawing to get to an exceptional level, or B. Spending 3 months training on spelling to get to an acceptable level? Even if there was no evidence one way or another that being exceptional at one particular thing is more valuable than being OK at everything, we would still have to consider the considerable stress and anxiety that comes with emphasising aspects of a person that do not come naturally and are not enjoyable.

In this literate world, spelling and grammar are important, and Suzy will not want to look stupid when she’s older, not knowing her ‘ie’s and ‘your’ and ‘you’re’s on social media. But perhaps there is a spectrum. For some, spelling and grammar is central to their occupation, whereas for many other occupations it can be only minor. Suzy probably belongs in the latter group, so why not let her wing it for now and concentrate on what she feels good about?

“If at first you don’t succeed, try try again” is the mantra plastered on the classroom walls for pupils who aren’t all-singing, all-dancing masters of all things good and wonderful. “Connor here is doing well in Maths, English, Geography . . . hold on, what’s this anomaly? Tut tut, Connor is only getting Cs in History. Extra study during lunch time for him”. Apart from being economically inefficient, what kind of psychology are you encouraging when you’re constantly picking on a person’s weaknesses? It’s no surprise that children often feel that despite everything they’ve succeeded in, they are never quite good enough.

Public schooling is burdened by the fallacy that there is one objective standard for success, and there is a single scale in which at the top we have achievers, and at the bottom we have non-achievers.

A successful school report is defined by the number of A’s attained. In theory, grades will reflect aptitude in their respective subjects. In practice, grades represent success in one particular skill: passing exams. After a number of years of public schooling, the more perceptive students figure out that success is not about how much you know or how good you are at something, it is about figuring out which hoops the examiner wants you to jump through. Teachers give you tables in which what is expected from you is scientifically specific – “the candidate will demonstrate knowledge of the text by citing at least four sections with reference to . . .”

The kicker is that being good at this is supposed to be some measure of life success too, when in actuality it is totally arbitrary. We can know only one thing about a pupil that excels in exams: that she is adept at remembering a block of information for an hour at a time and reproducing it clearly. In theory, there is some job, somewhere that pays, and requires this specific skill, but only a fool would say it is this skill that is the ultimate definition of success in life.

If exams are not the arbiter of success, then surely it has to intelligence? The most common notion is that intelligence is a line going top to bottom in which the most intelligent are at the top and as you go down people get dumber. It’s a simplistic framing of things, at best.

A lot of us have got it better in distinguishing between people that are academic from people that are more practical. We recognise that both are valuable and have their place, but it does not go far enough. Academic at what? Practical at what?

There are many different kinds of intelligences. We know about IQ, but social scientists have proposed the existence of other types, like EQ (Emotional Intelligence) and SQ (Social Intelligence). Emotional intelligent people are good with other people, quick to pick up on subtle cues and true intentions and can interact and cooperate with others harmoniously. Organisations with high ambitions will want to utilise all kinds.

We all know ‘practical’ people. But we can not say that our friend that is practical in organising and logistics is practical in the same way as the plumber down the road. Some are good with electronics, others are good with a hammer.

School’s justification for playing to our weaknesses is that a well-rounded person is more employable. Your teachers will tell you that employers, when looking at your CV, will see any inconsistency in your grades, say a single C amongst As, and think you a less viable candidate. This is a lie.

Employers are not interested in someone who is good at everything (they are actually smart enough to realise that graduates are only good at one thing if anything: passing exams). They are concerned with how well you would perform the specific job that is advertised.

The individuals that are valuable in the marketplace are those will skills that are rare and in demand. The reason why Bill Gates is a multi-Billionaire is because he was the only person in the world capable of producing operating software useable and affordable for the masses. It is an extremely difficult, specific skill requiring decades of intensive, specific learning. Teachers would have told Bill to brush up on his P.E.

Equality is a given. Schools would have us equally mediocre at coding software, baking bread, crunching numbers, writing essays, no one more capable than anyone else at anything, and valuable to no-one. In such a ‘utopia’, choosing a career would be an arbitrary decision. We would be inclined to do what we enjoyed, but then, contrary to Trotsky who imagined we’d branch out in every direction equally, we might actually improve on those things faster than others. Then we are back to where we started: innately different.

There is nothing wrong with being different, or I dare say, unequal. Murray Rothbard gets close to something like spiritual truth in his essential essay Freedom, Inequality, Primitivism and the Division of Labour:

It is the fact of each person’s uniqueness — the fact that no two people can be wholly interchangeable — that makes each and every man irreplaceable and that makes us care whether he lives or dies, whether he is happy or oppressed.

Each of us, by virtue of our differences, occupy a unique place in society. When a young girl dies of cancer, we don’t shrug our shoulders and say “meh, there are plenty of other young girls”. The fact that this girl, this special individual with her signature personality, was taken away from us, is a tragedy. We will never again be blessed with the presence of this particular soul.

To be different is to be unequal, so we must thank God that we are indeed unequal. We should concentrate our lives, not on competing against everyone with everything, but like Harry Potter and Mike Wazowski, on being the best version of ourselves that we can be.

Strengths and weaknesses.
Concentrate on the former,
for more successes.