Posted by bob on March 8, 2020

It should not surprise you to learn that everybody has weaknesses. It might surprise you that some of us are willing to admit our weaknesses. It is also true that admitting your weaknesses can make you the target of ignorant jerks. Let’s put aside the trolls, idiots, and pretenders for now.

Admitting your weaknesses can also make you a much better problem solver.

The most important person to whom you need to admit weakness is to yourself. When you understand and admit your weakness, it will make you more open to seek out knowledge or encouragement from someone who does not share the same weakness. Simply asking for advice often makes it clear that this is an area where you are not very strong. Most experts realize and appreciate that by selecting them for your questions, they are assumed to be stronger in that area.

In Chapter 8 of An Engineer’s Guide to Solving Problems, I spend some time discussing the benefits and limitations of relying on an expert. It certainly can save a lot of time if that person can reel off an instant answer from memory. But you can quickly wear out a friendship or colleague’s patience if you depend on constantly asking them questions.

As suggested in Chapter 8, you can create a list of the questions and suggestions you think the expert will offer, before you talk to them. As you gain experience, you should see better and better agreement between your advance list and their suggestions. At some point, maybe you become the expert.

This is not true if we are talking about getting advice from an expert far outside of your specialty. They are committing their full career to their specialty. You would not expect some part time dabbler to exceed your knowledge in your own specialty, would you? If you do expect everybody to be smarter or more knowledgeable than you in every way, then you might want to consider what that implies: including some apparent weakness in your confidence or self-esteem.

When you are attacking a problem or a project you can use your personal, secret map of your weaknesses to help plan for success instead of failure. For example, maybe you are better at design and relatively weaker at debugging in the lab. Make sure you put a little extra time in your project schedule to allow you to be more careful and detailed in the lab when it comes time to do that part of the design cycle. Be sure to write stuff down. Also, allow yourself more time to check your lab work and notes after those sessions. You can ask a buddy to look over your reports for obvious mistakes.

If you are great at electrical design and debug, but weak on mechanical factors, be sure to consult with the mechanical experts before you design the whole team into an impossible corner. It is much easier to fix a mistake when it only exists on paper. Once you are prototyping (and worse: once you start tooling) it becomes increasingly difficult to undo a bad starting point.

“Well begun is half done.”

One of my personal weaknesses has always been procrastination. I struggle to start a new project, especially when I feel I am on unfamiliar ground. Even something as mundane as writing this blog causes me anxiety when I am just beginning a new post. I have tried a lot of tricks to help, and even have taken classes specifically dealing with this weakness. Some of it has helped, but I go into every new project knowing that my weakness will require me to plan a little better in advance, and that sometimes I just need to start doing one thing, something, or anything to get the process started.

So what are your biggest weaknesses? No silly, don’t tell me, tell yourself. And then find a way to climb over, dig under, walk around, or knock down that barrier to your success. Don’t be afraid: you can accomplish amazing things when you admit and confront your weaknesses.