It's the most reviled interview question of all time:
What is your greatest weakness?
But whether you're a job seeker sitting in an interview for your dream job, or an entrepreneur running your own business, there's a lot you can learn from this question.
Let's take the interview scenario. How would you answer the question above?
a. Denial: I can't really think of any weaknesses.
b. Disguise your strength as a weakness: I'm a perfectionist.
c. Name a trait that will have no real impact on your work: I get really nervous speaking in front of large groups.
d. Confess a real weakness that you feel might lose you the job.
The correct answer is d. Let me explain why.
Answers a--c are garbage. Think about it: Interviewers are asking the same question to dozens, sometimes hundreds of candidates. They've heard everything imaginable, and answers a--c make up about 95% of what gets thrown at them.
But what's the goal of this question?
The interviewer wants to see what unique qualities you bring to the company. How do you face challenges? Can you correctly identify problems? Can you be self-critical?
To honestly confess a real weakness takes self-reflection, insight, and courage. And those are qualities that everyone needs, not just job seekers.
The key is to actually ponder this question. There are no microwave answers. You might think about what troubles you've had in the past, and how you've learned from them. How have you made yourself better? It can help to ask others to give you honest feedback. All of this takes time and consideration.
Most importantly, make sure to identify how you're fighting your weakness(es). If it's a personality flaw, what measures are you taking to combat it? How do you plan on overcoming it?
Take a look at this type of answer in action--let's say you're the interviewer. You ask the question, and you're met with the following response:
I've discovered a major weakness of mine is my desire to be a peace maker--to a fault. I have the tendency to be 'too nice'...which can be a major problem for a leader of a team. Often I have to tell people what they need to hear, not just what they want to hear. This doesn't come naturally to me.
I've known for years that this is a special challenge of mine, so I give a lot of attention to my feedback style. I prepare thoroughly before delivering constructive criticism; I make sure it's backed up with examples or research if needed. Sometimes I even practice out loud how I want to say it, so I can speak with more confidence.
To be clear, the answer above is not 'what you're supposed to say' to answer this question. There is no 'what you're supposed to say'. This is an example of what one person might come up with, based on self-reflection and feedback from others. Truth be told, it's an honest assessment of one of my greatest weaknesses.
Your answer will (and should) look totally different; it should fit your personality and experiences. Most of all, it should be honest.
Most people hate this question because they're not in the habit of trying to make themselves better--which is exactly why this question can be helpful. If you're afraid of putting yourself out there in front of a total stranger, just remember: The person who will benefit most from this answer is you.
And that's why, whether you're looking for a new job or you're already your own boss, the answer to this question is invaluable.
So even if you never answer it for anyone else, make sure you can answer it for yourself.