The Ultimate Answer to the Eternal Debate: Should I Work On My Strengths or Weaknesses?

I recently read an article from the Farnham Street Blog that shifted the way I think about the weaknesses vs strengths debate. The article talked about two types of systems:

Additive systems and multiplicative systems.

Additive systems are like Thanksgiving dinner. Your mom cooks the stuffing, your cousin bakes the turkey, etc. The food is great. But your aunt massacres the mashed potatoes. They’re soupy, bland and basically inedible. But just because the mashed potatoes are bad doesn’t bring down the rest of the meal. The green beans and gravy are just as tasty as they were before. Yes, the meal could’ve been better if the mashed potatoes didn’t taste like sand, but it doesn’t have a huge impact on the meal as a whole. 

If we assign numbers to each Thanksgiving dish, it might look something like this. 8 +13 + 7 + 10 = 38. If the mashed potatoes become a zero (instead of a 10). The meal is now 8 + 13 + 7 + 0 = 28. Yes, 28 is less than 38 but it’s not a huge difference.

In multiplicative systems, the result is much more dependent on each factor. 

Let’s take the same numbers we used before but multiply them instead of add them: 8 x 13 x 7 x 10 = 7,280. But if we switch the 10 out for a zero (like we did for the mashed potatoes), the equation equals zero. 8 x 13 x 7 x 0 = 0. One simple number change has a massive impact.

In both the additive and multiplicative system, all we did was switch out the 10 for a zero. But the difference between 7,280 and 0 is much greater than 38 and 28.

You’re probably thinking what the hell is this guy talking about? I thought this was a basketball blog. Why is he throwing math problems in my face?

Well, basketball players are multiplicative systems. All the skills that make up a basketball player are intertwined. That means that if one facet of your game is really bad, it can drag down the rest of your game.

Let’s use an example. Let’s say Jordan is an elite driver, good ball handler and good finisher at the rim. But he can’t shoot. Teams begin to sag off Jordan once they read the scouting report. Defenders start guarding Jordan with 2 feet in the paint when he has the ball. There’s no longer space to drive and as a result Jordan's ability to attack and finish at the rim is neutralized. 

Jordan's inability to shoot acts as a zero in this situation—or at least close to zero. (Quick note: no basketball skill is actually a zero in a multiplicative system. A zero would mean that a single skill would eliminate your ability to even play the game. But in a multiplicative system, numbers less than 1 reduce the outcome and limit the power of all the other numbers. So any number less than 1 can hugely impact the result. But from here on out, I’ll continue to refer to zeroes for the sake of clarity.)

The better Jordan's shooting becomes, the more that zero starts to creep up: from 0 to .2 to .5 to .7 and once it reaches 1, it no longer affects the rest of his game. He's a capable shooter at this point and defenders must play him straight up.

Which skills are multiplicative and which are additive?

Some skills are more multiplicative than others. I like to imagine that each skill exists on a spectrum from extremely additive to extremely multiplicative (see figure below). Shooting--like the example I used above--is highly multiplicative. The ability to to shoot impacts the rest of your offensive skills dramatically. 

I would argue that ball handling also falls in that category for most guards (pure shooters like J.J. Redick and Kyle Korver being the exception). If you can’t handle the ball, it’s hard to get to the spots where you can leverage other skills like strength, passing, finishing ability, etc.

Here are a few other skills that are highly multiplicative:

Up to this point, I’ve glossed over an important distinction. But in order to move forward with my argument, I now have to address it. The distinction is that skills fall into 2 categories: "surface skills" and "foundational skills."

"Surface skills" are what we normally think of we go to train. These skills are your typical ball handling, shooting, passing, rebounding etc. However, there’s another category of skills that you can think of as “foundational skills.” Foundational skills appear if we dig one layer beneath the surface skills.

For example, hand-eye coordination is a foundational skill. It serves as the foundation for a bunch of other skills like shooting, passing, and ball handling. You can’t be a good shooter, passer or ball handler with bad hand-eye coordination. As a result, hand-eye coordination is extremely multiplicative. A zero in the hand-eye coordination will crater the outcome of the equation.

Here’s a few other examples of foundational skills:

Foundational Skills > Surface Skills

Earlier when I said that shooting and ball handling were multiplicative skills, I wasn't telling the whole truth. They are, but only on the offensive end. 

Being a great ball handler is multiplicative in the sense that it impacts all your other offensive skills. But it's additive in the sense that you can be a terrible ball handler and still be an elite defender and rebounder. In that way, the multiplicativeness (is that a word? oh well, I’m using it anyway.) of surface level skills tends to be siloed in their own part of the game. 

On the other hand, the foundational skills I mentioned before usually apply to multiple facets of the game. For example, a player's timing impacts offense, defense and rebounding. A player with great timing will be more a more effective cutter on offense, be more successful when taking risks on defense, and be able to grab rebounds at the peak of his jump. As a result, foundational skills are super multiplicative. 

Here's how I visualize basketball skills on the "multiplicativeness spectrum" (copyright Tyler Gaffaney).

How does this apply to the Weakness vs Strengths debate?

Since basketball players are multiplicative systems, it's crucial to remove the zeroes. If you have a weakness that is detracting from your overall game, it needs to be fixed.

That begs the question: How do you figure out if a weakness is detracting from your strengths? 

This is a bit trickier. The shooting example is obvious, but others may be more subtle. For example, if you lack strength, you might still be able to score pretty well. But it’s hard to project how much more effective you could be if you were stronger.

It gets even trickier if the skill you lack is a layer deeper. If your timing is off, it’s not always easy to diagnose timing as the problem. Poor timing can manifest itself in many different ways. You may end up in the wrong place at the wrong time on offense, which could be misinterpreted as lack of concentration. 

Moreover, there are some foundational skills that are very difficult to improve. How do you train spatial awareness and anticipation? There’s no easy answer to that question and could be the subject of an entire book. 

But you can train foundational skills like hand-eye coordination, concentration, confidence, strength, and conditioning. And those skills will have a wide-ranging impact on the rest of your game. 

If one of your foundational skills is acting as a zero, you should focus on that immediately. 

Let’s turn back to surface skills for a moment. Where do I fall on the weaknesses vs strengths debate when it comes to surface skills? 

If your weaknesses are bad enough that they detract from the rest of your game, you have to improve them. 

In the case of Jordan the non-shooter, he needs to work on his shooting before he does anything else. Becoming an even better ball handler won’t help Jordan when his shooting is a zero. It’s like trying to swim with a cannon ball tied to your leg. 

Once Jordan removes the zero by improving his shooting, then he should focus on his strengths.

Elite players typically have one or two strengths that make them special. In our example, it’s Jordan's slashing and finishing ability. So that should be the skill that Jordan focuses the majority of his time on after he improves his shooting. 

Once your weaknesses are at 1 or above, focus heavily on your strengths. Players stand out because of the things they do exceptionally well. So if you have dreams of being an elite player, your strengths will be what take you there. As a result, you should focus most of your time on reaching the top 1% in your strengths. 

If I had to sum up my advice in the Strengths vs Weaknesses debate, in one sentence it would be this: Your strengths will make you special, but only if your weaknesses aren’t holding you back.