Leverage Your Strengths

A frustrating part of college is having to take classes in subjects that are difficult for you. In fact, you may have defined your student-self in one of these ways:

“I’m not a math person.”

“I’m bad at writing.”

I teach composition and literature, and I’ve heard the second comment way more times than I care to remember. What’s interesting about this attitude is the response I get when I ask students to tell me why they’re “bad at writing.” Here’s how this conversation usually goes. . .

Me: “So why do you think that?”

Student: “Because it takes me a long time to write an essay.”

Me: “Guess what? (dramatic pause) It’s supposed to.”

And then I go on to explain why: writing is a process and processes take time. . .

So here’s what I tell my writing students to do:

  1. Think of a subject/activity/skill at which you excel.
  2. List the reasons you’re so good at it.
  3. Think about how you approach this subject/activity/skill: attitude, process, habits, etc.
  4. Now determine the things from #2 and #3 that you could use/do to approach what you aren’t so good at (yet!).
  5. Start implementing these things in your approach to the difficult subject/skill.

“Success is achieved by developing our strengths, not by eliminating our weaknesses.” -Marilyn vos Savant

Using Student from the above example, if he/she were good at math or a sport, I would tell him/her to approach writing like a formula–just to get the basics down. This would mean determining what information needs to be added and in what logical order to = a well-developed and organized essay.

Maybe Student is good at a particular sport and thus spends a lot of time practicing/playing it. This student should do the same with writing. Write as often as possible–simple as that. Regular practice of anything leads to improvement.

No matter where your strengths lie, you feel confident and happy when you’re engaged in this activity or work, right? So you need to approach difficult classwork in the same state of mind. You can do this by:

  • Engaging in the activity/work that brings you a sense of confidence and fulfillment before beginning the difficult activity/work.


  • Thinking about the activity/work that brings you a sense of confidence and fulfillment before beginning the difficult activity/work–and then thinking about the difficult activity/work to get your focus where it should be and to connect the two through confidence and fulfillment.

So where do your strengths lie? Whatever they are, focus on them to help you improve, rather than trying to eliminate your weaknesses. The latter puts your focus on the wrong thing and will lead to a negative state of mind, which inhibits learning.

EMOTIONS AFFECT LEARNING  “When learners feel unconfident or anxious, certain chemicals flow into the synapses to shut them down: ‘Danger! No time to think! Just run away!’ This is the flight reaction. Students mistakenly think they have a poor memory, but it is their emotions that are sabotaging them. When learners feel confident, different chemicals flow into the synapses that make them work quickly and well: “I can handle this.” This is the fight reaction.”  Rita Smilkstein, PhD

                                                          Copyright Rita Smilkstein 2007


Do you need help with this? Feel free to contact me.

Please share your experience with this process!

One response

  1. […] If your lack of confidence and anxiety does originate with you, please do this. […]

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