4 Ways to Figure Out What You're Good At (Not Just What You're Passionate About)
It’s a universal dream to do what we’re passionate about. The only problem with this aspiration is that sometimes the thing we most care about isn’t what we do best. As Gloria Steinem famously said, “We teach what we need to learn, and write what we need to know.”
Don’t worry! This doesn’t mean your dream is dead. It just means that you need to figure out how to bring that dream to fruition—using the skills you currently possess. Sure, your dream will be tweaked and altered. But, at the end of the day, you’ll still be able to do what you’re passionate about.
Here are four questions you should ask yourself to help make that happen:
1. What Skills Have Helped You Thrive?
During your childhood and college years, you’ve no doubt developed certain skills out of necessity. For example, Scott Edinger, a highly successful consultant and CEO advisor, grew up broke, in a trailer park, and at age nine, he was adopted into less than ideal circumstances. Edinger learned to survive his challenging childhood by becoming an expert in communication, conflict resolution, attunement to others, and raw persuasion.
In college, he put the paint and polish on his communication skills, placing in the top five in over a hundred debate tournaments, while earning a degree in communication and rhetoric. Fast forward—he has been globally ranked number two in sales in a division of a Fortune 500 company and has repeatedly helped organizations turn around underperforming divisions by focusing on a critical survival skill in business—how to sell.
Now, many people aren’t as unfortunate as Edinger. But that doesn’t mean that you haven’t come across obstacles throughout your life—and figured out a way to go over them. Think about situations that’ve challenged you: Is there a common thread among all of them? If so, that’s something that you’re good at. All you have to do now is figure out which field or position that skill is best suited for.
2. What Makes You Feel Strong?
Marcus Buckingham, the author of Now, Discover Your Strengths, explains: “Our strengths…clamor for attention in the most basic way: using them makes you feel strong. Take note of the times when you feel invigorated, inquisitive, and successful. These moments are clues to what your strengths are.”
Consider also your go-to task when you feel overloaded. When you are overwhelmed, you want to feel in control. To be in control, you do what makes you feel strong. As you identify and focus on what makes you feel strong, you can also expect to be happier, which makes you a better problem-solver in a wide range of circumstances.
3. What Made You Stand Out as a Child?
As children we do what we love to do—even if it makes us an oddity. When you look back on your childhood pastimes, you are likely to discover an innate talent. In elementary school, Candice Brown Elliott’s classmates teasingly called her “Encyclopedia Brown” after the character in the children’s books. She recounts, “All the kids thought I was the smartest kid in school, but most of my teachers were deeply frustrated because I got only average grades. I was labeled an underachiever.” Instead, she says, “I daydreamed of having animated conversations with famous people like Madame Curie. I daydreamed of building the first true Artificial Intelligence (AI) that would reside in my bedroom closet. I daydreamed about how to build floating cities, great inventions, and new forms of art.”
Four decades later, Elliott holds 90 U.S.-issued patents. Her most famous invention, PenTile, color flat-panel display architecture, is shipping in hundreds of millions of smartphones, tablets, notebook PCs, and high-resolution televisions. She founded a venture-backed company to develop this technology, and later sold it to Samsung. As a child, Elliott’s daydreaming was considered odd by her classmates and tremendously frustrating by her teachers. As an adult, her daydreaming, autodidactic approach is her superpower.
Is there something that made you peculiar when you were young? Could it actually be your superpower?
4. What Compliments Do You Tend to Ignore?
All too often, we’re oblivious to our strengths. When you do something reflexively well, it’s easy to overlook it. Keep your ears open for compliments that you habitually dismiss, not to be coy, but because this thing feels as natural as breathing. It may even be you’ve heard a compliment so many times, you are sick of it! Why can’t people praise you for the thing you’ve worked really, really hard to do well?
The tendency to deflect compliments around what you do well is understandable, but over the course of your career, it will leave you trading at a discount to what you are really worth. Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, “In every work of genius we recognize our own rejected thoughts; they come back to us with a certain alienated majesty.” Don’t assume that just because something comes easily or seems obvious to you, it’s not rare and valuable to someone else.
Are there compliments you repeatedly dismiss? Any of your superpowers not on your resume?
There is no shortage of jobs that need to be done and problems to be solved, but there’s only one of you. Once you’ve homed in on your underlying assets or your core strengths, you can more easily identify your distinctive strengths—what you do well that others in your workplace do not. If you’re looking to be successful, look for problems you feel especially passionate about, then get to work, by playing to your distinctive strengths.
Photo of hiker courtesy of Shutterstock.
About The Author
Whitney Johnson is a former Institutional Investor-ranked equity analyst on Wall Street, who is hoping you will identify your strengths sooner in life than she did. She is the author of Disrupt Yourself: Putting the Power of Disruptive Innovation to Work and Dare, Dream, Do: Remarkable Things Happen When You Dare to Dream (2012). Follow her on twitter at @johnsonwhitney.