Mind the gap

Take a look at the image below. 

What did you see? Where did your eyes go first? Chances are you saw an incomplete circle and your eyes first went to the gap in the circle. More importantly, I'm sure you had an urge to complete the circle. 

It’s not by accident that we tend to hone in on what’s missing or what’s wrong with something. From a young age, we have been conditioned to overlook what is right and instead spend an inordinate time fixing our shortcomings.

Think about school. You get your report card, which shows you got an A in math, an A- in English, an A in physics and a C- in chemistry. Most likely, your eyes glaze over the good grades, then lock in on that C-. Not only that, but conversations with your school counselor and parents will all be about “you gotta get that chemistry grade up.” You may even decide to spend less time studying math and pick up more hours hitting your chemistry books. The same trend continues in college.

It’s no different in the workplace. When was the last time during a performance review with your boss, they said “You’re really good at _______ so I want you to make it a goal to continue developing that skill so you become even better”? Chances are the conversation is centered on what your “opportunities” are and how to get better at them so you become a more well-rounded employee. 

Or how about when you’re scrolling through Facebook? Do you see what all your friends are doing and think “Good for them. I’m glad they are successful, but I know what I’m good at and I’m sticking with that.” Or do you think “I should be doing that” or “I should work on getting better at that” or “I wish I was good at that”?

The bottom line is that we are constantly getting our attention drawn away from our strengths and redirected towards what’s missing, what’s falling short or what we don’t have. And, because of technology and social media, it’s happening at a pace and volume that is unprecedented. We now have multiple platforms telling us what other people are doing, giving us opportunity after opportunity each day to compare ourselves to others. When we center our attention on where we are falling short or how many other skills we don’t have, the gap in that circle stretches wider and wider. It sets ourselves up for an endless pursuit of being well-rounded. 

I'll give you a good example. I had a conversation once with a boss about setting my development goals for the upcoming year. She started the conversation awkwardly, saying "I can't figure you out. You're really smart and intuitive, but you seem to really struggle with details and planning." I'm thinking to myself, "You can't figure me out? What does that suppose to mean?" She went on to say she was "concerned" about my lack of project management skills and I should prioritize them as a development goal. 

To her credit, my boss was 100% correct, I do struggle with project management. But the whole conversation made me feel like something was wrong with me, like I needed to see some kind of professional development therapist. "I wanted to ask her, 'why are you concerned'? Isn't is normal for all people to be good in some areas and not in others?'" But alas, all my development goals focused on fixing my weaknesses and none of them were about developing my strengths.

Of course, there is nothing inherently wrong with trying to fix our weaknesses and close the gap in the circle. But we live in a world where it is literally impossible to completely close that gap. Not only that, but I believe it isn’t even in our nature to be completely well-rounded. We are deeply social beings who depend on each other to get things done, and it is only within the last couple centuries that we’ve begun to see our work as an individual endeavor rather than a collective one. Centuries ago, we worked in tribes, each playing a part that fit our strengths, allowing the nature of a tight knit team create one full, interconnected circle.

It was really the Industrial Revolution in the early 1900s that started to redefine work as a siloed activity. Take assembly lines. Each person took their position on the line and had a specific role in making a product. This actually worked quite well due to the nature of the work. It was largely algorithmic, meaning that there is a clear and defined way to complete a task. There were a few specific skills needed, and through repetition people began to master their craft.

Over time, work has evolved to become more heuristic, meaning that there can be many different ways to complete a task. It also means that, unlike assembling a car, it is much more challenging to be certain what the “right” way is to do one’s work. With that, role clarity can quickly get convoluted and employees are expected to become “unsiloed,” expanding their skill sets and becoming competent in areas beyond their natural talents. Of course, it’s never a bad thing to learn new skills, but when the focus is solely on filling the gaps instead of focusing on strengths, it can lead to disengaged employees and burnout. This is because it is significantly more difficult to master a craft. Instead, we divide our development efforts, resulting in an average ability on multiple skills.

This shift in work—from it being relatively easy to achieve mastery to a general feeling of  adequacy—is, in my opinion, a big reason why about 3 out of 10 American workers are engaged at work. Daniel Pink, in his book Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, posits that autonomy, purpose and mastery are essential for people to be engaged at work. Mastery is only achieved when we are able to hone in on a manageable number of things, then devote time and attention to it until we get good at it. Of course, complete mastery is never achieved by anyone, but I’m we all know what it feels like to get close.

Consider this: is it more reasonable to believe that a person could master every instrument in an orchestra, or just the violin? Sure, it’s possible that a person could learn every instrument, but they wouldn’t play any of them well. And at the end of the day, I’m sure all of us would rather be really good at one instrument rather than being mediocre at twelve of them.

But the nature of work today compels us to enter into this unfulfilling pursuit of mediocrity; we are forced to learn to play every instrument well. On top of that, some of us are in jobs where frequently new instruments are added to the orchestra. It’s impossible to keep up with all the skills and competencies necessary to be “well-rounded” and we can easily find ourselves spending most of our time focusing on our weaknesses. 

But if you ask anyone who has been successful, they will tell you that the best way to achieve success and fulfillment in their work is to get very clear about what you are talented at and just as clear about what you’re not talented at, then be ok with that. Be ok with the circle not being complete. Be ok with acknowledging weaknesses. Be ok with seeking others to complete the circle.

Instead of being discouraged by the gap in the circle, focus instead on what has already been completed. Focus on all the A’s instead of the one C-. Doing so will provide clues to what you excel at, what you’re energized by and where and how you provide value. Most importantly, it will free you from the endless and impossible pursuit to become well-rounded and instead put you on a path toward honing your already existing talents and strengths. 

“Do I just ignore my weaknesses then?” you ask? No, this is where others come in. Find other people who complement your strengths and lean on their expertise. Not only will these collaborations make you better, but going to and saying “you’re really good at _____, I need your help” is a powerful form of recognition.

In order for anyone to do this, however, it requires the courage to say “no.” As Greg McKeown says in the book Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less: “Sometimes what you don’t do is just as important as what you do.” 

The circle need not be complete, because it will never be completed on our own. What needs to be complete is our understanding of the best we can be and that collaboration with others makes us well-rounded.

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