Society holds up many ideals of what is good and acceptable, and we all want to be good and accepted. We tend to set goals based on these ideals and set out to attain them, whether overnight or bit by bit. We often honor these social ideals for their own sake and become frustrated if we can't learn, or adapt, social interaction styles. However, to focus on our weaknesses, particularly as defined by social norms, is a crude, coarse view of career.
Engineers are always on the lookout for problems to solve, finding them and then countering them with solutions. It’s what we’re trained to do. So when we think of our career progress we often think of the obstacles and impediments, usually euphemized as “challenges” or “opportunities.”
And as engineers, we want a complete solution. To be lacking in any area is to leave a problem unsolved, and that leaves us unsettled in our soul. If we are poor communicators, we are told — by ourselves, our professors, and our bosses — that we must improve that.
Well, guess what. I’ve known lots of lousy communicators who were great engineers. Engineering is not just a communication discipline. That’s part of it, but it takes a cornucopia of talents to be a perfect engineer. Some of us are better at some of these things than others. We are all different.
Because we are all different, no one of us alone is likely to master every talent in the book. Most engineers still try, striving to become good at things that don’t come naturally. For many, this is the prime outlet of their career development energy.
However, it makes sense to focus on improving your weaknesses only if you believe one of two things: that you are bad at everything you do, or that you view yourself always as working alone. Let me explain.
Few engineering jobs call for a solo virtuoso. Sadly, a classic university education focuses on individual talents and accomplishments. Engineering curricula tend to be better than most in promoting teamwork, but the larger shadow of academic culture still looms large. Most Western corporations reward individuals.
One powerful way to compensate for your handicaps is to partner with others; it’s sometimes called teamwork. Most of the time, pairing up with just one other person who is different from you is enough to cover the bases. The detail-oriented, precise Dennis Ritchie and people/programmer-focused Brian Kernighan paired up to pen the original C programming language book, which still stands as one of the best programming texts ever. I myself have been involved in writing several texts, and in retrospect over the past 20 years, there is a strong correlation between the quality of the book and the fact that it was written by two authors, not one.
But there is an even more basic career strategy here. In laying out your career, build on things you are good at rather than improving things you're not good at. To do otherwise is to waste your energy needlessly. People succeed when they build on their strengths. Perhaps by focusing on our weaknesses we attain a balanced existence of mediocrity. Those who keep improving their strengths stand out and excel. And, remember: a great many social conventions have been proven wrong after surviving as a fad for years or decades.
So, yes: work on getting better, but focus on the impediments that keep you from doing your best at what you’re best at. That’s likely the real you, anyhow — would you want to be anyone else?