Positive Psychology has taken the business world by storm. The idea of working within your strengths rather than working on your weaknesses is more than just an appealing notion; it is a formula for real success and satisfaction in life. Understanding and developing your natural abilities is a worthy life-long pursuit. However, I think that sometimes we take this idea too far and limit our own development and potential.

It happens when we learn that working within our own strengths takes less effort and feels comfortable. It could easily be extrapolated that anything that takes significant effort and feels uncomfortable might go against the idea of working within one’s strengths. Yet there is great value to learning to function outside of your own comfort zone.

I am not a natural sales person. Most personality assessments I take point this out. I don’t have the killer extinct that makes sales people hunger for the win. I don’t have the constant drive to close and get the next deal. When someone does say “no”, I do get discouraged and become less effective for a short time. I tend to enjoy too much the idea of potential sales over actual sales.

Yet, I’ve had to learn how to sell in my life.

It started when I was in college and was asked to help with rush in my fraternity. My job was to call incoming freshmen and try to schedule appointments with our rush chairs. I was terrible. I called 100 freshman and got two appointments. I would call and try to explain all of the amazing benefits of joining a fraternity and why our fraternity was the one they should join. Some candidates listened to my pitch patiently and gave me a polite “no thanks”. Others interrupted me and told me that they weren’t interested. A few even hung up on me.

It was a very unpleasant experience. Each call took me a few minutes to get myself energized and ready. The calls took me several days to complete and I dreaded it more and more each time I did it. It was uncomfortable and frustrating. It was made worse when I talked to one of our rush chairs, who was much better at it than I was, and found that he was extremely disappointed in my performance. I decided that I wasn’t a salesperson and vowed never to sell again.

A few years later, I was talked into the unthinkable by a friend. I became a rush chair. Remembering the horrible experience I had before, I knew I had to take a different approach. The other rush chair was a natural salesman. I spoke to him about my past failures and asked for tips. He coached me and helped me modify my approach. The best part was that he helped me to identify how to utilize my natural strengths to overcome my shortcomings. My first calls were still uncomfortable, but I had a higher success rate, which encouraged me. I kept learning, occasionally walking through situations with the other chair. By the end of the summer, I could make 5 calls and get 1-2 appointments or more. More over, I continued to improve my close rate when I did get appointments. I made mistakes, learned from the mistakes, and became more and more successful. By the end of the summer, the 2 of us had recruited the largest pledge class in the history of our fraternity.

Then I became an engineer and expected to never use those skills again. However, I quickly discovered that the lessons I had learned came in very useful. I used my selling skills to pitch projects and negotiate with contractors. Later as I left my engineering career to start my consulting career, I found myself back in sales. It was like starting over and I failed much more than I succeeded at first. However, I kept learning and got better and better.

I’m still not a natural salesman, but I am a successful one. Working outside of my comfort zone and a little outside of my strengths didn’t limit my potential, it expanded it. It taught me new ways to utilize my natural strengths and I even discovered some new strengths that hadn’t been developed before. I am more effective today because I pushed myself.

Another example of this occurred in my life this year. As a New Year’s resolution, I decided I wanted to get healthier, so I decided to set a goal of running a 5K. In high school, I was on the tennis team and was very in shape. Running wasn’t a big deal at all. After college, I had to give up tennis as my shoulder gave out. There was no longer a reason for me to run much. My consulting job didn’t help. It has been years since I’ve really had to run for any length of time.

A couple of years ago when I decided to become healthier, I took up power walking and proudly told people that I was not a runner. Furthermore, I occasionally laughed at the idea of being a runner because of how miserable it looked. Now I was trying to run again and it felt even worse than it looked. My first run was done in short 60 second increments and I felt awful when I did it. I didn’t even run fast and I became immediately exhausted. A friend asked me if I was struggling more with my legs getting tired or with my breathing. I replied that it was all going terribly. I even kept telling people that I wasn’t a runner, but that I had set a goal and wanted to accomplish it.

As I trained, I started seeing results, although every milestone was painful. I started running 1 minute at a time. Then two. Then three. The first time I ran five minutes I thought I was going to die. Then I started running one mile. Then I did a mile and a half. Then I did two. Finally when it came time to do the 5K, I felt truly ready. I wanted my first running 5K to be at the race itself, so it was truly the longest run of my life. I finished the race and felt great doing it. I actually enjoyed it! However, when I learned that I finished 36th of 42 in my age group, I felt challenged. Could I do better?

I told friends that I was happy to finish, but unhappy with my time. Some encouraged me to keep at it and try to do better. Others said that it was a great time considering that I wasn’t a runner. Then it hit me. What if I decide to be a runner? What could I accomplish if I did continue to push myself and train?

So I’ve kept at it. I’ve run farther and faster and continue to improve. During one period I took a week off from running recovering from a chest cold. Normally that time off requires a couple of weeks of training to get back, so I went on an “easy” run to get back in the saddle. I ran 3 miles easily and in a pace that was still better than my first race.

The point of this story is that sometimes it is easy to use our “strengths” as an excuse not to push ourselves or to step outside of our comfort zone. We tell ourselves that we aren’t good at doing something and that therefore we shouldn’t do it. I’m not a salesman, so I should sell. I’m not a runner, so I shouldn’t run.

Yet I’ve learned that there is a great value in pushing myself and expanding my own definition of who I am. I am a salesman. I am a runner. I can do better. I can turn some weaknesses into strengths by building on my existing strengths.

Don’t use your strengths as an excuse. Use your strengths