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The mirror is not your enemy

It used to be much harder for me to look in the mirror. Not because of the way I looked, but because I was not content with the man staring back at me. I saw wasted potential. I saw weakness. Now, despite the grey hair coming in around my temples, I am at ease when I look at my reflection. That’s because I see a man that has come to terms with himself. For a long time, I have worked on accepting my weaknesses as part of me, as things that will hold me back from professional success. But I don’t let them; I work with my weaknesses, not against them, and that has propelled me to greater professional success and satisfaction.

Defining your weaknesses

During business school, my university offered mock interviews to help its students prepare for real-world interviews. Seasoned professionals from venerated companies came in and conducted a fake 20-minute interview before providing us feedback for the next 10 minutes. My first interview went about as well as possible. My interviewer told me that I was excellent, and that in her opinion, I did not have much to work on and that she would be happy to interview me for a real position a few months later. Despite the positive feedback, I did not feel adequately prepared, so I scheduled another interview. After the interview portion, I felt as good as I did during my first interview, but as soon as we started the feedback portion, my interviewer tore me to shreds. This interview took place over a decade ago, but I still remember everything he told me. His first question, “what do you think I do all day?” showed me just how superficial my knowledge was about his speciality. Moreover, he critiqued my appearance (“unbutton your suit jacket when you sit, button it up when you stand”), which revealed how little day-to-day experience I had wearing suits, which showed how little time I had spent among businesspeople. While I was a little stunned at first, I thanked him quite sincerely when I left the room. I do not remember the man’s name, but he helped me be a far better candidate for the rest of my life.

After you start your first job, there are no mock interviews, so you have to be more resourceful to find constructive feedback. Thankfully, there are many tools available for those who want to define their weaknesses.

Tool #1: Assisted Introspection

It is deceptively difficult, if not impossible, to be objective about your own weaknesses. We think we know about most of them. After all, we receive feedback throughout our lives, don’t we? During our childhood, from our peers, parents, teachers, and coaches. During adulthood, from our partners, colleagues, and bosses. One problem is that most people do not know how to separate the wheat from the chaff. Which issues are things I need to work on, and which will go away on their own? Who is actually leading me in the right direction? Another complicating matter is the issue of ad hominem. The ad hominem fallacy is when you direct your argument against a person rather than the position they are maintaining. For example, sometimes you receive quality feedback from someone who should not be providing feedback, or someone you cannot respect in that field. If someone who is 40 kilograms overweight tells you that you are 5 kilograms overweight, you will likely ignore it.

That is why you need to seek feedback from someone you respect. Someone who you aspire to be like. They must be rough, honest, and raw. If they try to sugar-coat it, their feedback will be as filling as cotton candy. Personally, I receive my feedback from my boss. We have an explicit agreement for him to be brutally honest about my work and performance. It’s the opposite of “if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all”. That adage may help people survive, but it certainly does not help people improve. Because of this brutal honesty, we have been able to piece together patterns in my weaknesses. If something happens once, and I can correct it going forward, then I do not classify it as a real weakness. But when there is a repeated occurrence, especially one that always rears its ugly head during stressful times, then I take note.

The mirror is not your enemy

Going all the way

One of my most consistent weaknesses plaguing my private and professional lives is my inability to execute all the way. I am exceptionally talented at getting everything almost done. Privately, that means rinsing the dishes, putting them in the washer, but forgetting to unload it. Were it just limited to my private sphere, I would dismiss it as harmless. But it is not so innocent when it comes up in my work! When completing a complex project, I will bring 5 of its different elements to 90% completion, but when my boss asks me how many elements are 100% done, I have to respond, honestly, that no one part is ready. This is frustrating for all parties involved, and it can hurt my image in front of colleagues and clients. Naturally, I do my best to work around this, but more on that later.

Tool #2: Psychological Assessments

When I took assessments in the past, I received the feedback that I expected to receive. Since I was young, people pegged as a “natural-born” leader, so I was extra motivated to prove that I was indeed leadership material. Naturally, my assessment results showed the same. But as I progressed in my career and started managing more and more people, I began to feel less and less comfortable. I had some deep-seated doubts about my leadership qualities. I knew I had skills, but I also had doubts about them, which I could not express to anybody for fear of being exposed as an imposter. Plus, someone at the Director level like me could never express misgivings about their role for fear of being fired.

When I took my first psychological assessment, it was a breath of fresh air. My results showed that I was a complex character, meaning I possess significant quantities of all 4 of the main personality traits. Among my traits were leadership skills: of course they were in there, that’s why others could see them. But my results also showed my sizable propensity for doubt, an internal quality that others saw less often. Most importantly, this assessment had revealed my personal curse: as a complex personality, I am a jack of all trades, but a master of none. Although it may seem like this is an awful thing to hear, my life began to make much, much more sense. Because I was good at everything, I was never exceptionally great at any one thing. This meant that I bounced around to a lot of different areas (I changed majors as an undergraduate, after all), which in turn led to superficiality. Moreover, it also meant that when I was leading people, it could get confusing for them, as they would see various sides of me while working under me. I was not able to provide them with the consistency they needed.

Just learning about my weaknesses was not enough. Sometimes, if I am honest, dwelling on them too much made me sad and regretful. That is why it was tough to look in the mirror sometimes. But sooner after, I chose to stop wallowing in self-pity and to make an action plan to fight back against what was holding me back.

Adapting work habits weaknesses

Between professional assessments and personal feedback, I have come to accept my major weakness: superficiality and the inability to bring things to completion. Suffice it to say that these two are very much interrelated. Simply put, I do not put myself in situations where I can be superficial. It cannot even be an option. For example, when working with a consulting client, I do not offer any short market analyses. Instead, I force myself to deny this impulse, and instead only offer more complex analyses. That way, my only option is to do a deep dive into a topic, and the result is inevitably superior. Earlier in my career, I made this mistake too many times, sometimes when trying to appease a client who demanded a “quick estimate”, and other times when failing to hold my superficiality at bay. It can be hard when a client wants to feed your weakness, but I am experienced enough to work around my weakness, not against it.

Likewise, I also have my methods for bringing a task to full completion. For me, the most important tasks were never the problem — I would have had a very short career had I not been able to execute within deadlines — it was always the midsize tasks with flexible deadlines that were my undoing. I started small: every night, the kitchen is wiped down and the washer is running before I go upstairs to sleep. No exceptions. Eventually, I started applying this completionism mindset to every aspect of my work and private lives. Now, when it comes to my work, the first thing I think about when receiving an assignment is how I am going to avoid my weakness: I make a precise plan to outsmart the little devil. Take this article, for instance. When taking it from outline to draft form, I did not allow myself to skip around to different parts of the outline. Instead, I willed myself to finish each section before moving on to the next. Because I have established proactive habits that thwart my inner demons, the battle has become far easier to win.

Don’t set yourself up for failure

Sisyphus was cursed. For his punishment, he was forced to roll an immense boulder up a mountain. Whenever he neared the top, the boulder would inevitably roll back down, and Sisyphus was doomed to repeat this action for eternity. Everybody has their personal boulders. We cannot get rid of those; they are what hold us back. But we are not cursed to go up a particular mountain. We can roll our boulders in any direction we like. If we get them going with enough momentum, they can even allow us to break through formidable barriers. If you find yourself failing repeatedly, ask yourself if you are in full control of your weaknesses. Only then can you determine if you are rolling in the right direction.