Turn your weaknesses into strengths

General Motors, Ford, and Chrysler—three of the most powerful companies in the world when I was a kid—are nearly bankrupted. We should learn a lesson from this experience.

Challengers may have weaknesses, but they can work around them:

  • If you are inexperienced, work on new topics, where nobody has experience.
  • If you have few resources, work in a niche.

Some of the most interesting research results come from challengers. Einstein is the absolute example: without a research job, without a scholarship or a grant, he was able to take the world by storm. Had we parked Einstein in a nice academic job with job security and many assistants, would the world be the same? Maybe. Maybe not. Your limitations colour your work. They give you personality.

That is not to say that you should throw away all of your edges. However, too often, we exaggerate our limitations. I believe that this is partly by design. If I am in power, and you challenge my power, I will do my best to make you feel inadequate. I am too big for you! Hence, if you are an underdog, you should think like an anarchist. Question every preconceived idea. Because some of these ideas are hidden barriers.

Daniel Lemire, "Turn your weaknesses into strengths," in Daniel Lemire's blog, January 19, 2009.

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Daniel Lemire

A computer science professor at the University of Quebec (TELUQ).

6 thoughts on “Turn your weaknesses into strengths”

  1. Nice post.

    We often talk about “pushing the boundaries” of knowledge, but your post suggests a young researcher should not do that. Instead of trying to work from the mainstream outward, they should jump outside the mainstream as far as possible, then maybe try to work backward to connect their new area to what was known.

  2. I guess I am saying that, if you are a young researcher, staying on the beaten paths is not safe. It is mostly safe for those ahead of you. They don’t want you pass them. “Stay in rank.”

    But your one weakness (that you have little under your belt) should be turned into a strength!!!

  3. John, your “stream” metaphor doesn’t feel right to me. Here’s another metaphor: our knowledge is a pool of light in a sea of dark ignorance. The center of the pool is well lit; this is what gets taught in schools and universities. The edges are dimly lit. There are popular edges, where things are slowly brightening, and there are less popular edges, where things are still rather dark. Daniel’s advice is for young researchers is to go to the darker edges. (Maybe you’ll see me there, although I’m not all that young. I just like working in the dimmer light.) If you shine some new light at some dark point on the edge, you don’t necessarily need to work all that hard to connect your new work to the pool of light. Just turn around and you’ll see the light behind you.

  4. I read an article this time last year in the AMS Notices about the passing of a great mathematician…who never had a PhD.

    I think my personal application of this blog post to my life is that one can study, research, master the material at the level of a doctor of philosophy, yet not require the degree to effect change.

    The change I want to see is the evolution of data science applications and processes in flight test.

    We, the flight test community, are merely children playing with dice when it comes to our understanding of probability, statistics, and other data sciences.

    Thanks the for the inspiration.

  5. Its a really useful advice for researchers like me who have just put their first foot in the field of research. I think Peter also further elaborated the idea in a very clear way with an excellent example.

    Again, I would like to express my thanks for the advice.

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