2 min read

Our strengths, their struggles

Our strengths, their struggles
Photo by Markus Spiske / Unsplash

When I hang out with my software engineer friends, we often find ourselves complaining about work, particularly about the people who irritate us.

There are a few themes that I've noticed emerge over the years. For example, we often wonder why people can't be more reliable and followthrough on basic tasks. We get upset when people waste our time with long meetings, particularly ones without a clear agenda. We get annoyed when people interrupt us while speaking, freely taking up all the space in the room.

In these situations, the conventional advice is to give the other person direct feedback. However, this approach isn't always effective. I've been in several situations in my career when people tell me they appreciate my honesty and want to improve. Yet no matter how much effort I put into giving feedback or trying to help them change, they just don't.

A few years ago, a friend helped me understand a different implication of what it means for all of us to have different strengths. He pointed out that I am really good at juggling a lot of plates without letting anything drop, and putting together social cues to help other people feel motivated and move forward. In contrast, he recognized that he is very unreliable, but can read RFCs for hours and fix deeply complicated cryptography bugs like nobody else.

The next time I find myself asking:

Why can't they just do this basic thing and stop making my life miserable?

He suggested that I could practice empathy by imagining myself being asked:

Why can't you just fix this basic TLS certificate issue so that you stop making life miserable for every single Windows user?"

This conversation helped me internalize that not only does everyone have different strengths, we also have different preferences for our areas of personal growth.

For example, I'm not a very fast runner, but I am committed to improving my running speed. Every Friday morning, my trainer times me as I sprint up and down a hill, each time trying to be faster than the last. I don't share that same enthusiasm for other activities, for example, basketball. I'm not particularly good at shooting hoops, nor am I interested in improving. Even if my partner wanted me to join a basketball league with him, I would likely decline. This isn't a reflection of my love for him; I'm just not very committed to developing this skill.

I try to apply a similar perspective when other people do things that feel thoughtless or disrespectful to me. Rather that focus on their shortcomings, I try to see them for what they are exceptionally good at. I look out for the skills they have that I can learn from, so that we can collaborate effectively and go further together even faster. As corny as it sounds, teamwork really does make the dream work.