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One of the greatest challenges that each of us will ever face is to figure out what strengths and weaknesses we have. Unfortunately, this task is made more difficult by the lack of objective feedback we receive during our early years. In large part, this is because most of the objective evaluative feedback we receive is academically based. Specifically, it is based on how we do on examinations and standardized testing. While this testing has value, it doesn’t really evaluate our natural abilities. All it really measures is our ability to study and then recall information. It does not measure creativity, work habits, people skills, motivation, and many other things.

Non-test-based feedback that we get when we are young – and often later in life – tends to be biased in one of two ways. Supportive parents, teachers and others – with the goal of enhancing our self-esteem – consistently compliment us in every way possible. Their efforts are well-meaning, but they are based on flawed modern child-rearing concepts. This ideology suggests that no child should receive any objective criticism that is even mildly negative because it will destroy the child’s self-esteem and therefore make him or her unable to live a successful life. However, receiving feedback that is always positive is damaging in the long term because it gives us an inaccurate picture of who we are.

On the other hand, some parents, teachers, and others, err strongly in the other direction. Their focus is constantly on the negative. The message they deliver to the young people they are supposed to be teaching and coaching is based on destructively delivered criticism. The wording of their criticism often devalues the person rather than objectively addressing a performance or skill deficiency.

The result of years of receiving feedback flawed in these ways is that most people grow up either with a totally unrealistic positive self-perception or a tragically negative self-concept that has been pummeled into them by the words of people who have been in a position of authority in their lives.

Tragically, one of the results of both overly-positive and overly-negative feedback in the early years of our lives is that we arrive in our early adult years with an incredibly inaccurate understanding of who we are. Specifically, we reach our twenties – at the moment we embark on our adult lives – with a very skewed idea of our strengths and weaknesses.

The lack of an objective understanding of who we are – especially an accurate understanding of our weaknesses – presents a major barrier to personal success. The result is that we tend to take jobs or enter into relationships that are doomed from the start because we are unaware that our skills are not a match to the opportunity.

If we want to be able to lead a successful life, one of the most essential elements that each of us must conquer is to gain an accurate understanding of our strengths and weaknesses. Having this understanding will greatly improve the odds – both in the marketplace and in our personal lives – that we will be successful.

The reality is that it is hard to grow if we do not know our strengths and weaknesses. Without this knowledge, we do not know where to focus our efforts for personal development. We also do not know what career and job opportunities are a good fit for us.

The key question then is, “How do we gain an understanding of our strengths and weaknesses?”

Here are several things that you can do to determine your strengths and weaknesses:

  1. If you have access to behavioral, skill, and/or values testing, take advantage of it and complete the available assessments. Go through the resulting reports carefully, noting which items you agree with and which you are not sure of. Share these results with a close friend or someone who knows you well. Ask them to confirm items from the testing that they feel are accurate.
  2. Talk to parents, supervisors, teachers, etc., who have been involved in your life. Only talk to those who have a constructive view and who are really interested in you becoming the best person you can be. Ask them to identify 3-5 strengths and weaknesses that they see in you.
  3. Similarly, talk to a few close friends that you trust and who care about you. Ask them to identify your strengths and weaknesses.
  4. Accumulate all of this information and make a list of the strengths and weaknesses that were identified. Rank the items and pick out the top five strengths and the top three weaknesses.

Once you have identified these strengths and weaknesses, make a plan to utilize and further develop your strengths. Ultimately, your success will be based on your ability to use your strengths. Begin to make specific plans to take advantage of opportunities and career choices that play to your strengths.

It is a common fallacy that the key to success is improving on your weaknesses. This is not true. Your success and happiness primarily will be based on your ability to take advantage of the gifts and strengths that you have.

Of course, this doesn’t mean you should ignore your weaknesses. Some weaknesses can hinder you from fully achieving success. If, for example, you have a bad temper, at some point it could cost you your job – or worse – if you aren’t able to control it. If one of your weaknesses is a penchant toward being less than honest, your success could be compromised by that.

Still, though, nearly all successful people achieve success because they are able to put themselves in a position where their strengths prevail and their weaknesses are minimized. So, for example, if you are not good at detail, it would be best to put someone in place who can handle details for you.

Knowing yourself is critical to success. Gaining an accurate knowledge of our strengths and weaknesses is a hard thing to do because we live in a culture that avoids truthful discussion and accurate feedback. Invest time and effort to objectively learning what your strengths and weaknesses are. This knowledge can be the foundation to establishing an extremely successful professional and personal life.