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Can your strengths turn against you?

While growing up, Rakesh was told that he was a gifted footballer and his sister Rukmini was commended for her singing skills. Both siblings grew up practicing football and music, but adulthood had a rude shock in store for them. They found it extremely difficult to make a career out of their passion, and because they didn’t have a Plan B, they struggled to make ends meet.

For Rakesh, football is the worst thing now as it has ruined his life. For Rukmini, listening to another female singer can trigger a panic attack.

In common life too, we sometimes try too hard to exploit our strengths to their fullest. When that happens, confidence can turn into arrogance, bravery can turn into brazenness, honesty can turn into rudeness and curiosity can turn into nosiness. It’s important to make sure that we don’t cross the line with our strengths.

In their book Practical Wisdom: The Right Way To Do The Right Thing, psychologists Barry Schwartz and Kenneth Sharpe wrote about the importance of regulating our emotions. “Emotions properly trained and modulated, Aristotle told his readers, are essential to being practically wise: We can experience fear, confidence, desire, anger, pity, and generally any kind of pleasure and pain either too much or too little, and in either case not properly. But to experience all this at the right time, toward the right objects, toward the right people, for the right reason, and in the right manner—that is the median and the best course, the course that is a mark of virtue,” they wrote.

A great example of strengths backfiring can be found in our article on the Phoebus Cartel. In the early 1920s, the average lifespan of a bulb had gone up to 2000-2500 hours. Thanks to which, people started buying lesser bulbs leading to diminishing returns for the corporations making them. To figure out a solution, top executives from major electric corporations met and formed the Phoebus Cartel. Collectively, they decided to decrease the quality of bulbs to increase sales.

Similarly, in our life, we should harness our gifts but we cannot let those gifts give rise to a superiority complex. Andre Agassi, a former World No. 1 tennis player, was facing a bad patch when his coach Brad Gilbert told him to stop trying to hit a winner on every ball. Once Agassi took that advice, his career got back on track.

It might seem unbelievable but there is actually a legitimate condition that affects people who are obsessed with eating healthy. Called Othorexia Nervosa, it can lead to people fearing a vegetable because it might contain pesticides. Explaining how othorexia is different from healthy eating, renowned chef Nigella Lawson once said, “Clean eating necessarily implies that any other form of eating – and consequently the eater of it – is dirty or impure and thus bad, and it's not simply a way of shaming and persecuting others, but leads to that self-shaming and self-persecution that is forcibly detrimental to true healthy eating.”

Athletes may seem to be the healthiest people on the planet with their ripped physiques and planned meals. That’s not the case however as athletes are more prone to injuries because of the extraneous stress they subject their body to by overtraining. Most athletes play with some level of pain and niggles which isn’t advisable.

“I remember in the US Open 2009 that I started the US Open with a strain, I think, here in the abdominal. I started with 6 millimeters or so of strain and I finished the tournament, I lost in that semis against Del Potro and I finished the tournament with 26 mm," Rafael Nadal said in a press conference. In this case, Nadal’s strengths like resilience and ‘never say die’ attitude worked against him.

For students, the lesson here is to look at everything from a holistic perspective. You may be getting great marks, but those sleepless nights can spell doom in the long run. You may be having the time of your chilling with your friends, but is that affecting your performance? As a young person, there are several lessons you’ll learn along the way but inculcating the art of balance is surely one of the most important ones.


1. When strengths can backfire (The Hindu)

2. The Phoebus Cartel: The great lightbulb (Urruda)

3. "When you really have an injury, it's impossible to win a tournament like this" - Rafael Nadal (Sportskeeda)

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