Transforming weaknesses into strengths

Tired with coffee

I’m tired today. Normally, that’d be a bad thing, but it doesn’t have to be. For every perceived weakness we have, there’s a way to manage it, mitigate it, or even possibly transmute it into a temporary strength. Being tired (occasionally, not as a chronic thing) can be a temporary positive, in that it can stimulate creativity and non-linear thinking as your brain operates differently than it does when you’re well-rested.

There are positives and negatives to every state we can be in as humans. When you’re angry, there’s an incredible cocktail of chemicals rushing around your bloodstream that are triggering various fight/flight responses. You could attempt to suppress that anger, but in doing so, your body chemically is attacking itself unless you dump that energy.

This is true of every “negative” state you can imagine. So, the logical question is – how do you take advantage of these states? If you’re tired, make it work for you. Do creative work, do brainstorming, do things that make use of the state you’re in. If you’re angry, make that work for you, too. Go to the gym. Go running. Bleed off that energy, that adrenaline, by making it useful and serving you, rather than hurting you.

The trick to making this all work is to be self-aware. If we don’t know what state we’re in, we then can’t make use of it. Be aware of what you are like in any given state and what that means, what you should do about it. Equally important, be aware what you cannot do in those states. If you know that you are tired, do not attempt a 10-hour driving trip. If you know that you are angry, do not attempt to be rational until you have bled off that energy.

How do you become more self-aware? Keep a journal of what your various states are, how you got to them, and the things that worked less or more well until you have a good sense of what to do in any given situation to maximize what you’ve got at hand, rather than try to force yourself to be or feel something you’re not. Life will be a more powerful experience, and you won’t frustrate yourself with attempted self-delusion!

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The cognitive importance of storytelling

Last week, I shared Dr. Klaus Oberauer’s research into how working memory operates and how multitasking is more fiction than reality. One of the key findings in Dr. Oberauer’s work is that there are three functional components of working memory: the active center of attention that is being processed by the brain, the active data being stored in working memory, and passive working memory that is associatively linked to long-term memory.


For example, let’s say we’re at a networking event, a mixer or a reception. We may be paying attention to the person in front of us and listening to what they have to say. We may be keeping the name of the person in active working memory. But how often do you remember that person or the dozen other people you meet that evening? What makes one person more memorable than another?

The answer is in Dr. Oberauer’s work – our ability to store data in passive working memory is based on our ability to associate it with information stored in long term memory. We can form stronger links to things we already have stored in our regular memories; thus, we might remember someone more easily if we share associative memories, such as going to the same college or sharing interests in the same TV shows.

So what does this have to do with storytelling? Cognitively, if we remember best when we can create linkages from active working memory to passive working memory to long-term memory by associations, then it makes logical sense that stories with familiar components are more easily recalled. Thus, if we learn to tell stories that contain good flow, entertainment or emotional content, and plentiful associative material, our stories are more likely to be linked to passive working memory and long-term memory; doing so makes our stories more easily recalled later.

This is one of the many reasons that content marketing using pop culture is so powerful and effective; you’re essentially using existing stories and the pre-formed associations to quickly build more links from active working memory to passive working memory to long-term memory. This is why you remember some people more than others, or you recall certain facts more easily than other facts. You probably can’t remember the name of your elected representatives, but you can still recall the ingredients of a Big Mac (and might even be able to sing it).

Take this knowledge and incorporate it into your own content marketing efforts. Add associative elements wherever and whenever you can do so reasonably, so that you maximize the chance of leveraging as many different parts of working and long-term memory as possible.

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Strengths, weaknesses, and Goldilocks

MFA Buddhist Art

Daniel Johnson Jr. recently asked:

For every one of my strengths, there is a balcony and a basement level. The balcony level of a strength is when the strength is showing up at its peak effectiveness. The basement level is when the strength can potentially become a weakness. For example, I’m one to whom strangers are simply friends I haven’t met yet. This means that I meet others and break the ice very easily. This is great when I’m in situations where I need to put myself out there. The basement level of this strength can be in coming across as surfacey: I know many people but not that well. What do you think, sir?

Indeed, this is almost exactly right. Any attribute that we have as human beings has three general grades. Think of it almost like Goldilocks and the three bears from the old fairytale. There is too much of an attribute, too little of an attribute, and a range of “just right”.

Take, for example, the ability to meet new people. Too little of this and you come across as shy or antisocial. Just right and you come across as friendly, eager, and inviting. Too much of this and you come across as shallow, that guy who is passing out business cards like candy at a networking event.

In my martial arts tradition, there are four archetypes that have these ranges, these spectra: Earth, Water, Fire, and Wind. From the Earth, we learn the attribute of confidence and firmness. In the right amount, confidence and Earth energy provide you with the ability to stand your ground when you’re faced with a situation. Too little of it and you are easily overwhelmed. Too much of it and you are stubborn and intransigent even when faced with the need for change.

The Water element is one of dispassionate, scientific thinking. Too little of it and everything is guesswork or corrupted pseudo-scientific thinking, the inability to think clearly about a topic. We see this often today, especially around fad diets and powdered foods and things like the anti-vaccination fraud. The right amount of Water energy allows you to be cool, calm, and collected under pressure. You can make decisions while giving yourself enough distance and time to think. Too much and you’re cold, calculating, and manipulative, totally heartless.

The Fire archetype is all about passion and connection, very much related to Daniel’s question. Too little Fire and you come across as shy, unable to take initiative, and disconnected from yourself and the people around you. The right amount of Fire energy makes you eager, outgoing, and happy to make connections. You are connected to your emotions and passionate about the causes you believe in. Too much and you are a Marilyn Monroe, an Elvis, or a Kurt Cobain whose passion just burns away balance. You self-destruct because you go beyond passion to desperation.

The Wind element is one of benevolence and seeking a higher cause than yourself. Too little, and everything you do in life comes with a “what’s in it for me?” silently (or not so silently) voiced with everything you do. The right amount of Wind energy inspires you to take up causes without necessarily seeking benefits for yourself, recognizing the greater good in life and the role you can play to make the world a better place for all. Too much Wind energy, and you are easily distracted and taken away from your core purpose by every new cause that crosses your desk. You never have enough time or money to be productive so that you can make a difference.

From these archetypes, we learn that any individual strength can be insufficient, present in a balanced amount, or overabundant. Equally important, we learn from these archetypes that each has a counterbalance.

Earth energy is counterbalanced by Wind energy; standing firm and yielding to others are each important at certain times. Water energy is counterbalanced by Fire energy; cool, scientific thinking and passionate, bright outreach each have their place. A deficiency in one allows another to become overabundant. Think about your own personal strengths! What are the counterbalancing attributes to your personal strengths, the things that help balance you out?

Being outgoing is counterbalanced by being introverted, and there is a time and place for each. Being greedy for money even has its place as long as it’s balanced by altruism, just as altruism must have at least some level of counterbalancing greed so that you can be productive, generate resources, and ultimately be able to help the causes you so fervently believe in. Being chaste and being lustful counterbalance each other and there is a time and place for each as well. Think about something regarded as negative like procrastination. Putting off eating junk food would certainly be a twist on a seemingly negative attribute!

The ultimate lesson that the archetypes and our personal strengths teach us is that no attribute in and of itself is good or bad. No attribute is absolutely positive or negative. Everything is relative. Everything has a time and a place that is appropriate, an amount that is in balance and out of balance in either direction, and is devoid of its own values. When you think about yourself and what you need to work on for your personal growth, resist the temptation to label parts of you as good or bad and instead ask, “Am I using this attribute in the appropriate place and time to benefit myself and the world around me most?” In that way, you’ll develop a healthier self-image and see how even perceived negative attributes can be made to serve you.

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