I recently listened to an episode of Adam Grant’s “WorkLife” called “When Strength Becomes Weakness.”

This got me thinking about how much – if any – time we should spend working on our weaknesses.

CrossFitters pride themselves on the amount of time that they spend working on their weaknesses – doing endless rowing intervals to try to improve their engine, constant EMOMs of strict handstand push-ups, and accessory sessions of banded pull-aparts and seated external rotations to try to improve their shoulder muscle endurance.

Lots of business advice, however, recommends the exact opposite.

Here’s a quote from Paul Brown’s Forbes article “Forget about working on your weakness, play to your strengths!”:

Yes, I got marginally better at all those things. But, I was still really bad and putting in all that effort for so little gain made me extremely cranky. And worse, I wasn’t having any fun.  Spending every day being reminded of what you are awful at is enough to make anyone depressed.

Eventually, I realized I would be far better off doing what I do well–solving business puzzles–and NEVER managing again.

So, how do you decide which advice is correct? How do you know when to work on your weaknesses vs work on your strengths? Am I talking about fitness or business?

Who can really say?

Anyway, I have some thoughts on how to decide whether it’s best to spend your time on doubling down on your strengths or shoring up your weaknesses.

To figure out where our time is best spent, we have to consider three things:

  1. What is the “unit of competition” or “unit of action”?

  2. Are playing a bounded or an unbounded game?

  3. What is your current limiting factor?

What do I mean by “unit of competition”?

In business, organizations compete with each other. So, while it may not make sense for an individual to spend significant amounts working on his or her weaknesses, the organization as a whole may need to do so.

What does this mean?

Well, if your organization struggles with management, it may not make sense to try to train a bunch of impatient people with poor social skills to manage. It ‘s obviously better to put those people in roles that require less interaction with others and allow them to play to their specific strengths (maybe something like strategic thinking or creating systems).

The organization as a whole will probably benefit from individuals within it focusing on their specific strengths and staying away from their weaknesses.

What about the “unit of action”?

However, roles within an organization don’t always allow for an individual to fully stay away from their weaknesses – and there are many situations where someone will need to improve a weakness since it becomes a limiting factor for them relative to their ability to execute on their strengths.

In some cases, it can make sense to simply delegate all of the tasks that an individual struggles with – I know several entrepreneurs, CEOs, law firm partners, etc. who are seemingly incapable of keeping a calendar or handling e-mail in a reasonable way, but they have assistants who essentially keep them on track.

But, what about a CrossFit coach who struggles with providing feedback without sounding judgmental? It doesn’t make sense for that coach to “delegate” giving feedback on movement to an assistant coach while they focus on their strength of providing clear explanations and demonstrating movements correctly.

In this case, the coach is a self-contained “unit of action” and will see the biggest gains in his or her capabilities as a coach through improving the ability to give feedback without triggering defensiveness in clients.

Are you playing a bounded or an unbounded game?

The possibilities of significantly outsized results can completely change the incentive structure for whether or not you should work on your strengths or work on your weaknesses.

We may as well use CrossFit competition as an example here, since I think this is a particularly salient example of this phenomenon.

In most competitions, one of two scoring structures is typically used.

You either receive a point total relative to your placing on an event (1st place gets 1 point, 2nd place gets 2 points, 3rd place gets 3 points, etc.) and the lowest point total wins. This is the scoring system used in the Open.

Or, you get points relative to your placing with some scaling in the interval between places (1st place gets 100 points, 2nd place gets 95 points, 3rd place…28th gets 24 points, 29th gets 22 points, etc.) and the highest point total wins.

This is a bounded game – meaning that you don’t get an advantage by winning an event by 10 minutes compared to winning an event by 10 seconds.

And, based upon the way the scoring works out, it’s much more important to not have weaknesses than it is to have significant strengths. For example, someone who finishes in 5th place across five events will beat someone who finishes, 1st/30th/1st/30th/1st.

So, CrossFit athletes respond rationally to the incentive structure and work hard to eliminate weaknesses.

But, what if you’re playing an unbounded game? (Or at least a game that allows for totally outsized results).

In that, case it would make a lot more sense to double down on your strengths. If, for example, the margin of victory mattered in CrossFit, we would see a totally different incentive structure for training. It would be possible to have people competing who would push the extremes on strength events and endurance events far past the middling numbers that CrossFitters currently put up relative to elite powerlifters or runners.

If we take an example from business, PayPal left millions of customer support e-mails unanswered while they were rapidly scaling in the online payments industry. Did that hurt them? Probably a bit – but they still sold to eBay for 1.5 billion.

Would they have been better served by focusing on their weaknesses in customer support or by doubling down on their strengths in fraud prevention and detection and serving the eBay users that provided their initial case of product market fit?

The answer seems obvious to me.

What is your current limiting factor?

If we think about the above factors, we should be able to come up with an understanding of what your current limiting factor is.

Is it possible that – by developing your strengths – you can achieve a significant and outsized reward? Are you playing a “winner-take-all” game?

Can you delegate your weaknesses? Or come up with a creative solution to get around them?

Or, are you yourself the unit of competition and your weaknesses are either holding you back (by preventing you from accomplishing a key and irreplaceable aspect of the task that you’re trying to complete) or they are potentially creating the possibility of a significant negative event in the future that could derail your success even if it is outsized (significant accrual of technical, management or cultural debt).

It’s not always obvious where the highest leverage activities lie, but it’s clear that blanket advice to “focus on strengths” or “fix weaknesses” doesn’t take into account the variability in the types of games that people are playing or the ways that they compete in those games.