by Jenny Hansen
Does anyone else here do that thing where they worry about their weaknesses too much? I've noticed a worrisome trend in the writing world, and sometimes in my own psyche. It's a disturbing phenomenon that occurs in creative types (especially writers). These creatives seem to think they have to be good at everything. Or that, because they have weak areas, they're not good enough at their jobs.
I have a question for you perfectionist writers out there:
Why is it acceptable for multiple attempts when learning to ride a bike, or dance the tango, or knit but it’s an “epic fail” to write a few books before you get good at it?
Lots of first novels remain unpublished for a reason. They were practice for the other books.
I don’t get why it’s expected to take years to learn a musical instrument but it’s not acceptable to sit down at the writing page and have less-than-perfect prose fall from your fingertips. I don't get why that so often makes words like hack, imposter, what-the-hell-am-I-doing come to mind.
(If you're still in doubt about this, read Laura's Dust Bunny Books post, or watch my favorite pep talk video below.)
Let me tell you a story about the best job I ever had. Before motherhood, I was a corporate software trainer for almost 20 years. The #1 requirement was the ability to be ON each day in the classroom.
It didn't matter whether I was up all night with a screaming baby or if my best friend and I had a fight. Nobody cares about those things when they come in for a day of training. Those students are focused on what they need to learn and it was my job to deliver.
There are personality types who would hate that type of work. They’d get tired by all that “on” business. I saw it a little differently. Every day that I walked into a classroom, I knew:
Do you see a trend with perks I listed above? It was me, me, I, I. Training was a vacation from my own busy head and a chance to focus on other people. It worked for me because it played on some of my innate strengths.
I went to a training conference several years ago that changed the way I see the world, especially the creative world. The keynote presentation -- “Building a Strengths-Based Organization” -- shined a bright light on another disturbing trend:
Society, starting with our schools and continuing through our workplace management teams, puts a mighty amount of focus on "improving our weaknesses." They use words like shore them up, compensate for them, overcome them.
After hearing some speakers at that conference, I started thinking crazy thoughts....
What kind of mountains could we move as writers if we applied our efforts toward being stellar at the things we’re good at, rather than focusing all our energy on our “faults?”
I’m not talking about turning into a bunch of narcissists who can do no wrong. I’m talking about making it a primary goal to discover your innate strengths and spend more time playing to them.
We did an exercise in the conference pre-session where we listed the things we were good at – we had 60 seconds to scribble them down. The first ones that came to mind - no deliberating. We were directed to find the skills we’d always been good at, for as long as we could remember.
Go ahead. Grab a piece of paper, set a timer for 60 seconds, and scribble yours down. We'll wait.
Don't think. Just start scribbling a list of the things that are easiest for you, whether they have anything to do with writing or not. You can do a writing-specific one later if you want.
Now stare at that list and be honest with yourself about how much focus you put on those talents.
It's interesting to me that most people don’t see their innate skills as anything nifty or unusual. In other words, they don’t see their own "specialness."
Just to give you an example, my innate strengths, in no particular order, were:
I felt extremely lucky when I looked at my list. Life pushed me early into a job I am uniquely suited for. Except for the “doing hair” part, my innate strengths describe the perfect software trainer. No wonder training always felt so easy…it draws on nearly all of my innate strengths!
The abilities people came up with in that session were amazing. There was tons of talent in that room. And you know what made me sad? The majority of it was not being used in the workplace, where everyone spent at least 50% of their waking hours. So many of those really cool and rewarding abilities were being relegated to the "someday I'll devote time to this hobby" side of the fence.
I did that hobby thing with my writing for years. Put it on the back burner...didn't make it a priority...downplayed my talent because words came easily to me. And I did that dumb thing I talked about up at the top of the post...I spent the majority of my time working on my weaknesses, both at work and on the page.
And then I went to that conference and those speakers turned my thoughts around enough for my personal epiphany to sneak in:
In fact, I’m going to take this further and issue you a challenge: Pay attention to the things that are easy for you and try to do them more often. I personally think the easiest way to bring your “A” Game to your writing life is to play to your strengths.
I'm going to use a baseball analogy for this next bit.
A quick primer for the the non-baseball peeps: US baseball has two different leagues - National League and American League. The two have slightly different rules, which we'll discuss below.
In American League Baseball, the rules allow for some weak spots. For example, pitchers are not expected to also be great hitters and they get a pinch hitter. Other players who can't hit the ball for whatever reason are also allowed to use a pinch hitter. They then have to leave for the rest of that game, but for a player who is tiring, this isn't a bad deal. Ditto for a slow poke or hurting player who uses a pinch runner.
Why can’t we do a little of that in our own writing groups? It's a smart strategy to mix up the talent so we have help when we get tired or slow. I've shared some examples of my friends who rock various talents below:
When you get a crew like that together, it doesn't matter so much if you have weak points. As I mentioned above, a strategic writer might build their critique groups or editing groups around a mix of strengths like the ones above. Most writers trade time or pages with each other. Other writers pay an editor. (I'll be interested to hear what our WITS readers do.)
Just because you know your own weaknesses doesn't mean you have to dwell on them, even though a lot of us do. Mine drove me bonkers for years, until I went to that conference and got some perspective on my ridiculous need to be good at everything.
Laura Drake finally got through to me with her profound observation on writers: "No one gets it all."
Here's my list, just to make you smile.
Do these weak spots make me a crappy writer? No. It just means that my strengths lie elsewhere. Sometimes I have to go to my A-Team to get my “A” Game. And that’s OK.
The older I get, the more that notion seems full of the hooey to me.
Do we need to keep learning and pushing ourselves to be better? Sure. But perhaps some of us perfection seekers can get an early start on next year's New Year's resolutions and stop beating ourselves up over not being stellar at every-darn-thing. Who's with me??
What are your innate strengths? I’m not talking about the things you’ve learned to be good at. What were you always good at? Share your uniqueness in the comments section below – we want to hear about it!
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By day, Jenny Hansen provides LinkedIn coaching and copywriting for accountants and financial services firms. By night she writes humor, memoir, women’s fiction, and short stories. After 20 years as a corporate trainer, she’s delighted to sit down while she works.
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