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How to Turn a Weakness into Strength

Updated: Jul 31, 2020

By following mankind's most powerful message

Even now, weeks after I read it, there’s an idea I keep returning to from the last pages of The Great Pretender, the mind-altering history of schizophrenia and psychology’s most notorious study.  Author Susannah Cahalan writes about emerging research to treat people who hear what psychologists have heretofore labeled “troubling voices.” The new treatment approach isn’t to shut the voices out, silencing them with the white noise of heavy medication. Instead therapists encourage patients to listen to the voices, interact with them even, with the growing evidence that living alongside the auditory hallucinations helps patients live better, more expansive lives. 

There is a “maverick idea that all auditory hallucinations exist on what [scientists] call the psychotic continuum,” says one such scientist, the Stanford anthropologist T.M. Lurhmann, who’s led some of these studies. “The voices of madness can be softened, if only we can teach people to harness them.”

The implication for this peer-reviewed approach could revolutionize treatment and, frankly, influence disciplines and economic sectors far outside psychology. In fact when I finished Cahalan’s book I thought that the idea beneath this new treatment—to turn a weakness into a strength—could help all of us get through the summer and fall of 2020, a “troubling” year if ever there were one. 

Let me explain what I mean.


The first thing to understand is what an earlier psychologist wrote, the Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl, in another life-altering book, Man’s Search for Meaning: “The one thing you can’t take away from me is the way I choose to respond...The last of one’s freedom’s is to choose one’s attitudes in any given circumstance.” Even in a concentration camp, then, where despair was as prevalent as death, Frankl found a way to look at the horrors around him and choose to think about his wife, or his home, or how the camp itself could be the grounds for an education in perseverance. Frankl discovered something in Auschwitz that Epictetus, the Stoic philosopher, also knew: We cannot control outside events. We can only control how we respond to them.  

Embrace that idea and you can stop. Look around you. Assess and reassess how to respond to any situation. 

Often the best thing to do is to lean into your perceived weakness. 

Phil Hansen was an artist who specialized in pointillist drawings. Years of making tiny dots on the canvas left him with a shaking hand and when Hansen compressed his hand tighter, pressed harder on the stem of his brushes or pencils, the shake developed into a full-fledged tremor. He could no longer work. Frightened, despondent, he saw many medical specialists but no one offered a cure. At last Hansen visited with a neurologist who said he couldn’t fix Hansen either. The neurologist then posed a question: Do you need fixing?

What do you mean, Hansen asked.

Don’t look to overcome your tremor, the neurologist said. Make your tremor the feature of your art. 

So Hansen went home and with a trembling hand began doodling. They were “scribble pictures,” he said, but, “I realized I could still make art.”

So I began experimenting with other ways to fragment images where the shake wouldn't affect the work, like dipping my feet in paint and walking on a canvas, or, in a 3D structure consisting of two-by-fours, creating a 2D image by burning it with a blowtorch. I discovered that, if I worked on a larger scale and with bigger materials, my hand really wouldn't hurt, and after having gone from a single approach to art, I ended up having an approach to creativity that completely changed my artistic horizons. 

Today Hansen’s work has been seen by millions, and his story shared by people the world over. “Embracing a limitation,” Hansen says, “can actually drive creativity.” 

It is history’s hidden but perhaps greatest lesson: Any weakness has a corresponding strength. David used his small size and bullet-fast slingshot to take down the slow-moving Goliath. A desperate George Washington armed untrained farmers with muskets, a guerilla tactic that defeated the greatest army in the world. Michael Jordan held tight to the humiliation of getting cut from the basketball team until he was the greatest basketball player of all time.

Like Jordan, other iconic figures actually seek out weaknesses so they might turn them into strengths. Jack White formed the White Stripes as a creative experiment: What are the fewest number of musical instruments that can exist on any rock song for the song to succeed? For White the answer was three: Percussion, one vocal track, one guitar. That’s how the White Stripes, a two-person band that eschewed a bass guitar, a keyboard and even backing vocals, won five Grammys, toured the world, sold over five million albums, and created in Seven Nation Army an anthem that will outlast us all. 

“The idea of wearing just these colors, having just the two of us on stage,” White said, “these are just boxes that we’ve cooked up to put ourselves in so that we can create better.”

Today, we don’t have to seek out limitations or create weaknesses. They’re all around us. We’re in a raging pandemic. Nearly half of the U.S. population is without a job. We don’t know when there’ll be a vaccine. A Great Depression seems possible, even likely. How do you turn this fear, this weakness, into strength? 

The first step is to remember how people before us responded.

The list of entrepreneurs who opened shop during recessions and even depressions is shockingly long. Coors Brewing Company debuted in The Panic of 1873, General Motors in the economic collapse of 1908, Hewlett-Packard in the Great Depression of 1939, Burger King in an economic recession that followed the Korean War, Microsoft during the oil embargo of the 1970s, CNN during the recession in 1980 that was the lingering effect of that oil embargo, Mailchimp during the dot-com bust of 2001, Uber during the Great Recession of 2008.

“Aggravation is the mother of invention,” entrepreneurs like to say. Take away my job and I’ll just create a new one. 

But I think there is a greater truth here, one alluded to every time a therapist reassesses whether auditory hallucinations are damaging and dangerous if people from Joan of Arc to the Prophet Muhammad heard them; a truth that helped Phil Hansen reach millions more people with his art; a truth that I abide by, and one that Viktor Frankl captured after the war. It’s a truth that is the greatest mankind has ever known. 

“Between stimulus and response there is a space,” Viktor Frankl wrote. “In that space is our power to choose. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.” 


New to my blog? I'm an editor, journalist, and best-selling author. My first book, The Saboteur, was optioned by DreamWorks to be turned into a film. I'm now at work on a second book for Celadon about a pivotal 10-week period in the Civil Rights Movement that still defines our lives.


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