Freud, Adler, and Strengths & Weaknesses

merlin the wizard

This may come as a surprise to many of you, but there are some things that I’m just not as good at as others.  Though it pains me to admit it, there’s a lot of stuff that, well… for lack of a better word, I suck at.  Okay, it doesn’t really pain me that much to admit that.  Everyone sucks at something – probably a lot of things – despite any outward appearances of being a master of all trades.  And I think we all know at least one of those kinds of people: there just doesn’t seem to be anything that they’re not an absolute wizard at.  Well, I’m here to tell you that that person – yes, that perfect modern day Merlin – sucks at something.  And that’s a wonderful thing.

I think our true strengths and weaknesses, those being stable personality traits, are shaped fairly early in life.  Freud and his psychoanalytic contemporaries generally held that much of our personality is generally developed by age 5.  Now, as we all know, old Sigmund had some pretty, well… unique ideas.  Lots of them don’t really hold up to modern scientific scrutiny, and some of them are just outright weird.  But, as the “grandfather of psychology,” Freud can be generally credited with really bringing the unconscious into serious discussion – something that we still don’t completely understand, and is still being studied intensely today in fields ranging from philosophy to cognitive neuroscience.

But it’s one of Freud’s former colleagues, with whom he had a major falling out (as Freud tended to do with pretty much anybody he hung out whose ideas didn’t agree with his) that I think has a bit more light to shed on the issue of strengths and weaknesses: Alfred Adler.  Alfie had a lot of ideas that were very much revolutionary for his time (1870 – 1937).  He was the first thinker in the field of psychology to posit that health and dysfunction are inextricably related to one’s relationship to their community, spawning the term “Gemeinschaftsgefuhl,” or ‘community-feeling’ (aka social interest) as it is sometimes translated to.  He also introduced the idea that the human condition in all cases involves a striving for superiority.  Some called this a “will to power” in contrast to Freud’s psychosexual theories involving a “will to pleasure.”  I just like to think of it in terms of plain old strengths and weaknesses.

Alfred Adler
via Wikipedia

Adler suffered from some serious and life-threatening illnesses in his early life, keeping him from even walking until age 4.  Suffice to say he was well-acquainted with some of his weaknesses in this stage of his life, and these no doubt influenced his later theories that we are all striving for a greater sense of autonomy or power.  However, Adler differentiated between striving in an individualistic, vertical direction, and striving in a community-based, horizontal direction.  Community-feeling/social interest could only be cultivated by contributing to our surrounding community.  Individual material gain would give only the illusion of superiority, as it doesn’t help out anybody else.

So we come back to strengths and weaknesses.  As far as I know, since the agricultural revolution and likely before even then, human society has been based around having a bunch of people around with diverse talents.  Back then, this would mean having some people who were good at farming, some at making tools, some at hunting, fishing, making medicines, leading spiritual practices, etc.  Fast forward to today and cultural evolution has created a need for much more specialized roles within most societies.  More than I even care to guess at.  As would be expected, this means there are myriad ways for one to make use of their unique strengths to contribute to the workforce, and thus a successful society.

So why are so many people focusing not on their strengths – the things they are good at – but on the things they suck at?  Weaknesses are often a source of major insecurity that eat away at us relentlessly.  They are a voice in the back of our heads telling us we’re not good enough as long as we’re carrying them around.  They demand us to get better at something and then laugh at us when we inevitably fall down in our failed attempt to do so.  They are the salt in the wounds of our shortcomings.  They are an itch that we often can’t help but scratch.

Which is why I think encouraging people to focus on their strengths is so important.  It’s not just about writing a great resume or cover letter or having a great job interview.  It’s not just about finding a career that you’ll love.  It’s about feeling better about ourselves by reflecting on the things that we are great at.  The things that come naturally and effortlessly to us and precisely because of that we often take for granted.  The things that if we acknowledge, embrace, and continue to enhance, will not only help ourselves, but also the people and the community around us.

Here’s the important part.  We have to suck at something to be great at something else.  And that’s a wonderful thing.

“The only normal people are the ones you don’t know very well” – Alfred Adler

Cross-posted at the Career Services Informer.