Finding Strengths To Improve Weak Performance

In so many performance fields, failure is a given, even among the most talented professionals. The best batter in baseball experiences more outs than hits; the best football quarterback throws plenty of incomplete passes. Among the traders and money managers I work with, losing trades are often as common as winning ones: it’s the risk and opportunity management around losses and gains that account for a significant share of profitability. In life and in business, peak performance requires the ability to handle weak performance. Indeed, we never reach the peak unless we can handle the weak.

It is tempting to use weak performance as a reason for delving into personal weaknesses. When traders lose money, they often become frustrated with themselves and seek to analyze and correct all their shortcomings. Unfortunately, delving deeper and deeper into our negatives unwittingly reinforces our sense of negativity. Yes, it’s important to correct mistakes, but what if weak performance is not necessarily the results of personal weakness? What if our greatest vulnerability is our failure to recognize and draw upon our strengths? That is an exciting possibility, because it suggests that we can best address performance shortcomings by learning to double down on the best of who we already are.

So how can we tap into strengths during times of weak performance? Here are two promising strategies:

1) Become stronger at tapping into our strengths – We might refer to the ability to recognize and access our strengths as a meta-strength. (Another meta-strength might be our capacity to recognize and draw upon the strengths of others.) One way of cultivating this meta-strength is to create exercise routines for the capacities we seek to develop. In their book Your Strengths Blueprint, Michelle McQuaid and Erin Lawn describe a daily eleven-minute strengths-development habit that can fit into the busiest of schedules. The short routine involves taking targeted action that draws upon a strength we want to enhance. So, for example, if I fell short when attempting a project on my own and want to become better at teamwork, I might spend a few minutes each day reaching out to others for ideas and offering my assistance with their projects. As McQuaid and Lawn point out, this typically brings responses that further reinforce teamwork and bring fresh opportunities for collaboration. A powerful strategy for change is to find daily outlets for enacting the person we wish to become, cultivating our meta-strength.

2) Borrow strengths from other areas of life – A very important idea outlined by Dr. Ryan Niemiec is that our character strengths do not exist in isolation, but rather as clusters that interact, creating complex and unique expressions. These clusters are specific to contexts: we blend strengths differently in different life areas. So, for example, I display a different combination of strengths as a parent and as a trader of financial markets. Both of those blends are also different from the clusters of strengths I draw upon in my teaching at a medical school. When we encounter weak performance, it may be the case that the cluster of strengths that we were drawing upon was not ideal for that particular challenge. By borrowing combinations of strengths from other life arenas, we often find creative ways to handle performance setbacks. Perhaps I am very good at listening and staying open-minded as a psychologist and need to tap into those qualities to avoid becoming too opinionated in my trading and investing. Many times, the solutions to our weak performance come from capacities we already have honed in other performance domains.

These strategies are examples of what Fatima Dolan refers to as silencing our inner critics and discovering our inner coaches. Perhaps the most important meta-strength is our ability to coach and mentor ourselves. In the preface to Dolan’s book, Dr. Daniel G. Amen draws the distinction between optimizing the brain’s hardware and software. When we benefit from the neuroplasticity of the brain through methods such as meditation, we enhance our broad capacities for self-determination: we liberate our free will. (Every “mental illness” and “problem” that we seek help for is ultimately a limitation of free will). In working to understand our strengths and extend those, we direct our will toward positive, constructive ends. As any computer scientist knows, there can be no effective software when the hardware is broken and even the best hardware is only so much machinery without the right software. Cultivating the strengths to enhance weak performance, at its best, boosts our hardware and upgrades our software: it enhances our inner coaches.

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