A lot of well-meaning people tell you that you should develop your strengths and follow your passion. The unspoken corollary to that is that you should steer away from your weaknesses. If you were a school counselor, what would you tell a young boy who tried and repeatedly failed to make every team he tried out for? Would you suggest that he try to develop some other strengths?
A young boy from Kansas once faced that question. He yearned to be an athlete, but being weak and uncoordinated he failed at everything he tried. He couldn’t make the baseball or basketball team; he didn’t even try out for football. Turning resentful and rebellious, he began smoking, stealing, and skipping school. Finally, in 9th grade he tried the only sport he hadn’t yet tried: track. At the school tryouts, he burst from the starting line in the 400 meter time trial, briefly leading the field before falling back, exhausted. He didn’t make that team either.
Despite these failures, he desperately wanted to earn a varsity letter so he could fit into the school social scene, so when 10th grade came around, he tried out for the cross-country team, despite not being sure what cross-country really was. The only reason he tried out was that it was the last athletic door available to him. He barely finished the first day’s training run, thanks in part to the fact that the last section of it was downhill. When he got home, he was too tired to eat dinner, and went straight to bed. He could barely walk the next day, and as he left for school he said “Mom, I’ll be home early today. I’m done with that cross-country stuff.” Yet his friends talked him into going back to practice that day, and he barely made the C team—a step below junior varsity.
But somehow, once that door was open something began to click. Despite shin splints and all the other ailments that are likely when someone who has never run before begins intensive training, he improved so rapidly in the first three months that he moved up to the varsity that won the Kansas state championship, and he personally finished 6th in the state meet. When he began training again after the winter break, his rapid progress continued, and the boy who five months before was 14th on his team in the mile time trial, defeated the defending Kansas state champion with a 4:26 mile. He finished 10th grade with a 4:08 best time.
In his junior year young Jim Ryun became the first high school kid to break 4:00 in the mile, and in the summer before his senior year he ran in the 1964 Olympics. Within 3 years, he set a world record that stood for eight years. In 2007 ESPN named him the greatest American high school athlete of all time, ahead of Tiger Woods and Lebron James.
The problem with focusing only on your strengths is that sometimes you don’t know what you don’t know. You may make assumptions about your own strengths and weaknesses based on limited or no experience.
Potential is not always obvious. In developing talent, we tend to notice the kids who excel early, and then put them on a fast track to realizing their potential, supplying the coaches, teachers, facilities and opportunities to get better. Many times, that works. But some physical attributes like speed and size, and mental attributes like wit and a quick mind, can be seen instantly. Endurance, good judgment and other qualities take time to emerge. There are a lot of activities where success does not come quickly, and it’s so easy to give up too early before you see any results. The strengths-based movement sounds really positive, but does it run the risk of closing doors prematurely?
Along the same lines, we’re counseled to find out what we’re good at and follow our passion. But Jim Ryun did not have a passion for running. He didn’t even like it at first; he just saw it as a way to be somebody at school. Sometimes, instead of needing passion to be really good at something, maybe you have to get really good at something in order to develop a passion for it.
Note: Besides the hyperlinked video in this article, most of the facts in this post came from David Epstein’s excellent book, The Sports Gene.