You are only as strong as your weakest link.
A different kind of chip scarcity
“The end of the world (as we know it) is here,” claimed a rather dramatic post in December 2021. The post wasn’t referring to the Covid-19 crisis, but instead was a response to McDonald’s announcement that they’d ration French fries in Japan.
While the world was already dealing with a chip shortage thanks to years of supply chain issues in the semiconductor industry, the McDonald’s food chain in Japan was confronting a different kind of chip scarcity—that of French fries. And the reason for the scarcity was hard to fathom—severe floods an ocean away in British Columbia, Canada.
Who would have guessed that flooding in British Columbia would mean subjecting fast-food diners in Tokyo to a forced portion control of one of their holiday favorites? But that’s exactly what happened.
A shipping bottleneck in the port of Vancouver turned out to be the weakest link for the McDonald’s restaurant chain in Japan, impacting over 3000 locations across the country and depriving many locals of a beloved holiday tradition.
The rivet is as important as the ship
When the Titanic, thought of by many as unsinkable, hit an iceberg on its maiden voyage in April 1912, it wasn’t because the state-of-the-art electrical control panel or its wireless communication system failed. A post-mortem analysis by scientists revealed that the ship’s rivets were made of substandard iron. Upon hitting the iceberg, the rivets split apart and opened gaps between the ship’s steel plates, causing the sea water to rush in and flood, and ultimately sink the ship.
The three million rivets used on the Titanic were effectively the ship’s weakest link.
You are only as strong as your weakest link
The weakest link is usually the most vulnerable component in a system or process, and often goes unnoticed until it’s too late.
The expression “a chain is only as strong as the weakest link” originates from a Basque proverb, which roughly translates to “a thread usually breaks at its thinnest part.” The expression rings true not just for big ships and uncomfortable game shows, but is one of life’s universal truisms.
Take, for instance, the Liebig’s Law of Minimum in agriculture.
According to German agricultural chemist Justus von Liebig, the Law of the Minimum governs the growth of agricultural crops. Liebig’s law states that
The availability of the most abundant nutrient in the soil is only as good as the availability of the least abundant nutrient in the soil.
Case in point: Without sufficient nitrogen, plant growth will suffer even if the soil were rich in other minerals such as phosphorus and potassium.
The Liebig Barrel
Dr. Dobenecks, through his famous illustration of the Liebig’s barrel, helped us understand the essence of Liebig’s Law of the Minimum.
A barrel, like the one pictured below, with staves (planks) of different lengths, is limited in capacity by its shortest stave. In other words, if you pour water into such a barrel, the minute the water capacity exceeds the shortest stave, it will overflow.
The beauty of Liebig’s law is the universality of its principle.
All systems are fragile and are only strong as their weakest link.
It only takes one stuck container ship, one substandard material, or a single broken stave to trigger large-scale consequences that are often out of proportion to the cause. The road to self-improvement is no exception.
Why it’s important to find your weakest link if you’re trying to improve
Our society, in general, is very gung-ho about strengths. “Play to your strengths,” we are often told with the subtext being “ignore your weaknesses.” But only focusing on our strengths can often mean plateauing in how much we can grow.
Take physical fitness, for example. A 2013 research study compared two different training regimens: an Isolated (ISO) program that involved progressive resistance training on a single plane focusing on the upper and lower extremities, and an Integrated (INT) program that included multiplanar exercises such as stability, plyometrics, and agility exercises in addition to resistance training.
The study concluded that the INT program, where weight-training programs also include some balance, cardio and core training, fared much better in the long run. Athletes’ overall fitness under the INT program did not just improve their performance but also reduced injury risk by distributing pressure to, what would otherwise have become weak links, across the body.
Find and work on your weaknesses
Acknowledging and doing something about our weaknesses isn’t about beating ourselves up. Instead, it is about learning to fix the parts that prevent us from fulfilling our potential. But the first task, however, is to find out what our weaknesses are. Here are a few ways to do that.
A little introspection and honesty can tell us a lot about areas where we struggle or face challenges. Any activity that makes us uncomfortable is a good starting point.
We like our comfort zones because we are typically good at tasks within that zone. And conversely, the reason for our discomfort with a task outside our comfort zone may be that we’re less than proficient, (or, if we’re being realllly honest, we plain suck) at that task. And pronto, there is our weakest link.
Since most of us are in denial about our own shortfalls, or are just not that self-aware, it helps to reach out to others, who, typically, are only too happy to let us know how we can improve.
I always pass on good advice. It is the only thing to do with it. It is never of any use to oneself. Oscar Wilde.
Ask people who know you well for areas they think you can improve upon. And be ready to receive the response without becoming defensive. Remember, this is solicited feedback and not criticism.
Perform a SWOT Analysis
Performing a SWOT (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats) analysis isn’t just useful for organizations. It can help us in our personal growth journey as well. Knowing how our weaknesses may hinder our progress and analyzing opportunities for improvement can be very helpful.
Finally, prioritize your weaknesses and vulnerabilities so you can focus on those with the highest impact or likelihood of failure. These are likely to be the weakest links in your quest for self-improvement.
The last step is the actual doing, and as we’re acutely aware, knowing isn’t the same as doing.
As Liebig’s barrel illustrated, any liquid you keep pouring into the barrel over and above its shortest stave will keep overflowing out, unless you work on increasing the length of that stave. It’s the same with self-improvement. Our personal growth will plateau unless we focus and work diligently to fix the weakest link in our self-improvement roadmap.
There’s a reason we avoid doing things that make us uncomfortable—it’s hard and makes us uneasy. But most of us don’t wake up to be mediocre. It is tempting to keep reaching for the low-hanging fruit or revel in quick wins, but true fulfillment only comes when we challenge ourselves and do the hard things. We can start by fixing our weakest link.
Doing the difficult things that you’ve never done awakens the talents you never knew you had. Robin Sharma.