Friday, December 6, 2013

Strength into Weakness

I wrote this article, and it focused on a theme that many have touched on before.  That theme is somehow turning your weaknesses into strengths, and finding the positive in the negative.  It’s very inspirational (the idea, maybe even the article).

But I think if a weakness can become a strength, the opposite can be true.  There isn’t any gain, progress, or journey that doesn't have its dangers.

You may be familiar with the phrase “I don’t know my own strength.”  You may be familiar with the popular image of a brute who is tremendously strong but can’t control it and breaks things. The idea is pretty common; having an ability but not understanding it can lead to its misuse.  You may over-rely on something that’s not as good as you think, or that can be shut-down with planning.  What happens if your team has a genuinely amazing superstar, which leads to him getting double or triple-teamed, and you find yourself centering all your strategy around that player?  Your strength becomes a target and a liability.

In the context of a strategic game, it may happen in the form of counterpicking.  When you consider the MOBA genre with its picks and bans, even when a character is considered “overpowered” they may still have a strong counter.  During the League of Legends final brackets, one specific champion was either banned out or picked instantly during each game--one team used this to their advantage by letting the champion through the ban-phase, and when the other team selected it, they locked in a non-obvious character that would counter him.  The strong character, who was such an obvious choice, got exploited with a counter strategy, and the strength of the champion turned into a weakness.

Ironically, the player who jumped directly on the counterpick didn’t do that well, which proves that the point can become depressingly recursive.  They still won the match though.

Whether strategically or tactically, over-dependence on a strength in-game can become a point of predictability and manipulation.  It means people can predict what you will focus on, and can attempt to prepare in advance specifically to counter your strengths.  Now, if you’re strong enough, sometimes the only thing your opponent will predict is “I’m going to lose.”  In that case, great. But if you assume that the match is less one-sided than that, depending purely on your strongest ability, strategy, attribute, etc., it can bottleneck your efforts.  It can create a singular point of failure upon which other parts depend. If you are renowned for that attribute in some way, then the risk of this happening is greater.

The point stands outside the game as well.  One of the biggest hurdles with strengths and positive attributes is how easily they become parts of our identities, and how we can respond negatively when those are challenged.  A variety of studies have explored the notion that complimenting a child on their intelligence has a negative impact on future performance; they are more likely to associate their successes with innate characteristics, rather than their efforts.  They become less likely to try new and difficult things, because they’re afraid they won’t look smart anymore.  When they try something and fail, they develop self-esteem issues because they think “oh, clearly I’m not smart, and I can’t succeed.”

“Being smart” (whatever that means, or whatever you think it means) can have so many advantages.  It’s a strength, no doubt about it!  So why does suddenly becoming aware of the fact “I am smart” turn into a giant problem?  Because once “smart” is part of your identity, challenges to that identity can easily stress you out, make you miserable, or lead to neurotic behaviors to try and preserve the identity.  You might not try new things from fear, and just stagnate.  You might obsessively pursue improvement while being insecure and miserable the whole time.  You may achieve things, but never be satisfied because you know there’s more you could do.  You might just sit inside a fragile bubble, endlessly pleased with yourself, and when something pops it, you’re left exposed and unhappy. As somebody who had a "smart kid" identity for most of his life, I ran through all of those.

Maybe you believe that you’re good at something, but set tons of restrictions on what it means to be “good” so that only you have the title.  It’s the classic scrub mentality, to invent things that separate people with “real” skill from those who don’t.  Why do this?  Because surely, as a skilled player of the game, you are a winner.  And if you lose, something is wrong. Certainly not that you might be worse than you thought you were.  Something you consider a strength, your skill, turns into a reason not to improve or learn, because that improvement challenges a part of you. The challenge can be hurtful and stressful, so what might you do? Avoid it. Easy.

In short, when your identity hinges on things you consider strengths, it leads to some strange behaviors.  You’ve probably seen the trope in fiction, where one character challenges another to a bet or wager, then uses pride as a way to hook them into a crooked game.  “What, do you think you’re going to lose?”  “Are you a coward?”  “Guess you’re not that good after all.”  And then the hero (or villain, why not) stops and turns and accepts the bet or the challenge, causing them to lose when they should have won.  Skill, bravery and strength are all considered strong points, especially when talking about fictional heroes.  But they can be manipulated or exploited when they become too integral to one’s identity and reputation.

In short, building an identity around your strengths can hinder you in strange ways.  It invites stress and pressure to protect the strength, to obsess on it.  Then again, you might respect your own ability, knowing that it has its limits, and not get too carried away with things while simultaneously striving to improve.  That’s one of the ways that you keep a strength a strength, through a mixture of honesty, humility, and dedication.  You try and improve the strength, you don’t let it dominate your identity, you don’t become over-dependent.  You analyze the flaws and downsides of it, and treat it as an asset you possess rather than a characteristic that defines you.

Stay strong.  Thanks for reading.

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