Don’t Confuse Strengths and Weaknesses with Skills


If you’re not good at something, is it a weakness? 

If you’re good at something, is it a strength? 

No, it’s not that simple. 

There’s a difference between natural talents or strengths, and things that you learn over time by building skills and knowledge. 

There are many things that when you start out, you will be unskilled.  That’s not a weakness. 

I’ll pause right there, to let that sink in. 

Own Finding Your Strengths

It’s a key concept when you’re trying to figure out your strengths and weaknesses. 

While I wish there was one simple way for you to just figure out your strengths, in my experience it’s not that simple. 

There are many great lenses, but at the end of the day, you really own figuring out what your strengths are. 

Tests, lenses and feedback provide the clues, but you have to test what works for you. 

You spend time with yourself 24×7, so the least you can do is figure yourself out, if you haven’t already 🙂

Key Points

Here are some key points that can help you identify strengths and weaknesses vs. skills:

  • Start with some simple self-awareness.   Some tools such as the Myer’s-Briggs Type Indicator or NLP Meta-programs can help you find your core preferences and patterns for thinking, feeling, and doing.   They’re just lenses, but they can help you see your durable and pervasive strengths.  For example, do you recharge by spending time alone or with others?  If you recharge by spending time alone, you might be an introvert.  Just knowing that can help you tease out some strengths vs. weaknesses vs. skills.
  • Distinguish between strengths and weaknesses.  Strengths are your dominant thinking, feeling, and doing patterns that come naturally for you.  You grow stronger when you spend time in your strengths.  A weakness drains you and you no matter how much you work at it, you don’t really improve.  It’s like going against the grain.  Another way to think of this is, know what kind of bike you’ve got.  If you take your street-bike off-road, you can make it work, but you’re not making the most of it.  Keep in mind that one person’s strength is another’s weakness.  For example, I know some people that can do, but can’t teach, and others that can teach, but can’t do.
  • Distinguish between weaknesses and skills.  Some things require skill, knowledge, and experience.  Don’t write things off as a weakness, just because you aren’t good right now.  Consider whether you’ve had the right training, put in enough right time, or have the right coach.
  • Distinguish between strengths and skills.  Skills are a learned ability to do something with competence.  For example, I’m good at drilling into details in a spreadsheet.  It’s not a strength, it’s a skill.  It makes me weak and I don’t enjoy it.  On the other hand, I can whiteboard all day.  It’s a strength and I leverage my ability to share information visually.
  • Distinguish between information, knowledge, and experience.  Information is just raw facts, figures, and data for a given situation.  Knowledge is putting that information to use.  Experience is you’ve been there and done that. Information transfer is easy.  Knowledge transfer is tough.  I’m a fan of mentoring, apprenticeships and first-hand experience for that.
  • Distinguish between intellectual, emotional, and physical stages.  You can read about a diet and regurgitate the information.  That’s at the intellectual level.  You can experience it first hand, and have an emotional reaction to the information.  If you adopt new habits, eventually it’s burned in physically (your basal ganglia and muscle memory.)  Think about this when you first learn something new.  You have stages to go through before you’ve burned it in intellectually, emotionally, and physically.
  • Know the continuum from unconscious incompetence to conscious competence.  When you don’t know what you don’t know, you have unconscious incompetence.  When you know what you don’t know, you have conscious incompetence.  When you can think your way through it, you have conscious competence.  When you can do it without thinking, you have unconscious competence.  For example, you can probably drive your car or ride your bike without thinking, but it didn’t start off that way.  This is similar to going through the intellectual, emotional, and physical stages of learning.
  • Distinguish between motivation, skills and feedback.  There’s a difference between wanting to do something and having the right technique.  If you need to find your motivation, change the why or change the how, and that just might lead to your next break through.  If the problem is your technique, find a mentor that helps you find the right technique for you.  For example, everybody can take martial arts and learn how to punch and kick, but a great instructor can help you find and perfect the technique that works for you.


Here are a couple of examples that might make this real for you:

  • Learning an instrument.  When I was younger, I took saxophone lessons.  I didn’t have the passion at the time.  I also had no idea how to practice right.  If I hit a note, I figured I was done.   Why practice if I already proved I could hit the note?  Well, it’s one thing to hit a note while concentrating, it’s another to hit it without thinking.  I never practiced enough to reach a flow state.  I assumed I had no talent, when really I never even gave myself a chance.
  • Learning martial arts.  When I was younger, my Dad introduced me to a lot of martial arts and I picked up some heroes to model from.  One of them was Bill “Super foot” Wallace.  He’s kicking speed was clocked at more than 60 MPH, give or take.  I decided I would kick like him.  Long story short, after a lot of wicked stretching and leg training, I could kick my foot above my head and snap my leg against my upper chest in the fraction of a second.  It was as if I could make my legs do whatever I wanted.  I remember one incident really surprised me.  I was walking through a parking lot with friends.  I picked up a soda can, threw it up in the air, and with perfect timing, jumped in the air, spun around and sent the can flying.   I had unconscious competence and could just do it.

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Photo by Jordan Cole.


  1. JD,

    Another high quality article. You’re obviously skilled at writing a good blog – that’s a skill. Is is a strength or weakness though? I guess that depends on whether it energises or drains you. Excellent point you made about distinguishing between the two!

    ps: And if you even get angry with me, remind me to stay a mile away from that power kick of yours!

  2. Those are GREAT ideas for identifying strengths and weaknesses. I’m going to set some time aside to really think about what you’ve written here. Great post, JD!

  3. “Know the continuum from unconscious incompetence to conscious competence” This concept is so useful in navigating projects and daily life. Knowing what you don’t know is critical to avoiding what others might consider to be simple mistakes. Unfortunately this is where most of us start after the excitement of learning a new skill or fact. Things are never as simple as they appear.

  4. One cannot go wrong learning Martial Arts, the ultimate discipline I think. Of course, Maria Montessori always said the learning of a musical instrument is the pinnacle of what the human mind can achieve. Perhaps. It is funny how musicians make it look so easy. Even the “easiest-appearing” instruments actually require a ton of skill and practice. Expecially the sax!

    My Performance Coach always said “we’re defined by our weaknesses,” so we learn to really play up our strengths. Whiteboarding is not easily attained by all.

  5. Hi JD,

    Cool on what you did with that can when you kicked it. Daphne is right, that is enough to indicate no one should mess with you. 🙂

    Now on to the matter at hand, like Jannie said, usually when someone makes something look easy, it is because they have practiced so much, it has become a part of them. My current take on the whole strength and weakness issue is to understand both and see what you can do with them. A weakness is only a weakness if a person lets it paralyze them. Actually, sometimes a weakness can be turned into an asset, it just depends on the person.

  6. I’m not sure I agree. I think that one can identify weaknesses and work on them to turn them into strengths. Think of them as muscles – you have weak muscles, you work out, and you grow stronger. In terms of writing, one may struggle with grammar, but can overcome that weakness by studying and learning grammar. This perspective on weakness is interesting though.

  7. Hi JD

    Exceptional post. This one has me thinking. Also motivating.


    Thank you

  8. @ Daphne

    Thank you. It actually helped me make a first pass at sorting out some really important distinctions. In fact, I need to elaborate more on the “natural talent” vs. strengths vs. weakness concept.

    A good couner to the kick is The Wuxi Finger Hold.

    @ Positively Present

    Thank you! One way to find your strengths is to remember what your passions, interests, and natural talents as a kid. It cuts to the chase.

    @ Fred

    I agree. One thing that’s helped me is I cycle through what I call 30 day improvement sprints. It’s a practice I started a couple years back to give myself a new focus each month. A month seems to be enough time to dig into something new and see some progress. It’s also nice to get a fresh start each month.

    @ Jannie

    So true. Some musicians make it look way too easy. I think that’s how I got fooled as a kid. Too many people made it look so easy, so I figured I better not over do it on the practice, or I’m doing something wrong.

    @ Nadia

    I’m harmless, it’s just cans that should move out of my way.

    I gues the simplest metaphor is rather than swim upstream or go against the grain, you play your best hand with the cards you’re dealt.

    I think the cutting question is, where’s your best bet for results?

    @ Melissa

    I think it depends on whether it’s a talent issue or a skills issue. A skills issue goes away with practice. A lack of talent limits your potential.

    I think the cutting question is, where can you be your best?

    @ Juliet

    Thank you! There is more to come.

  9. Hi J.D.

    I believe we win with our strength. Yes, we can try to improve our weakness but I wouldn’t everything on weakness. I would work harder on improve my strength instead.
    Thanks for sharing.
    Giovanna Garcia
    Imperfect Action is better than No Action

  10. @ Giovanna

    That’s a perfect way to put it – “we win with our strength.” I’m a fan of playing to strengths and limiting liabilities. I’ve definitely found better results by investing in my strengths than my weaknesses.

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