If you were to ask a class of five year olds which of them is good at running (or singing or dancing or maths or whatever), most if not all hands would shoot up in an instant. As young children, no one has yet taught us to be humble in public and we haven’t been exposed to people who are better than us to the point that we lose confidence in our own abilities. Each child feels like a superhero with a wide array of superpowers and infinite possibilities. Ask the same question in a group of adults, though, and even the people who truly are good at whatever it is are likely to raise their hand only timidly, with a shrug and an apologetic smile.
I’m a firm believer in the idea that we can reach our fullest potential, and make our biggest contribution to the world, when we find work that matches our values, our interests and our individual strengths. But how can we ever hope to do that if we’re not confident enough to declare what those strengths are and, even worse, we’re not even sure what they are?
Navigating the job market
When you’re faced with the application process for jobs today, you’re put through an interview procedure that requires you to somehow convey that you’re better than all the other candidates while remaining honest, authentic, and exceptionally likeable. (In fact, more than strengths, you’re now supposed to talk about your weaknesses and failures – ideally, of course, turning these into a positive after all…)
When I started at Procter & Gamble, I was incredibly uncomfortable with the annual process of self-identifying my strengths (but of course inherently at ease with pinpointing my weaknesses). I would find it impossible to determine how I was better than my peers, especially in my first months, and I would inevitably undersell myself.
The whole process can be particularly difficult for those of us who are ‘multipotentialites’, Renaissance men and women, or whatever you want to call people who have many areas of interest and ability. At school, I was good at both the maths and science subjects and the humanities – which meant that any careers quiz I did would resort to giving me an answer that reflected my particular interest at the time (actress, journalist, astronaut, doctor… – see a pattern? Nope, neither did I!).
It’s not just a question of your inherent strengths, though, as by the time you’re integrated in the workforce you’ve (hopefully) had some degree of training and gained experience in particular areas. Even if you were naturally good at something when you were younger, if you didn’t nurture it and practise regularly then you will have fallen behind; mere talent is not enough and my current inability to do any mental arithmetic is testament to that fact! (Have a read of Mastery by Robert Greene, a fascinating look at the geniuses of the past and how they achieved that genius through a curious nature and sheer grit. Or So Good They Can’t Ignore You by Cal Newport, based on the quote by comedian Steve Martin and the premise that skills and abilities trump passion.)
So how can you find out what your superpowers are?
- I believe the best way to identify your strengths is to start from your own experience. Ask yourself: What are your biggest achievements? What was it that made these a success? In which situations did you feel the most proud, most fulfilled?
- Think beyond your professional endeavours to your personal hobbies and interests. What do you do in your spare time and what do you most enjoy doing? What jobs do you find yourself taking on and running with?
- If you want a bit of extra help in identifying your strengths, you can try a free online test like this Myers Briggs one (and there are many other paid tests if you’re really interested in digging deeper).
- Once you have an idea of what you think yourself, you can extend your research to ask your peers, your colleagues, your boss – either via a formal survey or just in a confidential chat.
Some further tips while you’re doing this:
- Go beyond your job title! If you’re a social media manager, don’t just write down “social media management” – what were the responsibilities you had and what did you as an individual bring to the role?
- Observe what you do differently to other people. You may think certain ways of thinking and acting are obvious but it’s often those behaviours that are the most natural that are the ones that indicate particular strengths.
- Avoid the obvious and the bland! We’re all “a passionate, results-driven team player with strong communication skills” so really try to identify the traits that are unique to you and find ways to express these in a distinctive way.
And how can you own those superpowers?
Now once you have your core strengths identified, you’ll want to really ‘own’ them. You need to be able to state them with confidence in an interview, relay them to a potential client, or communicate them to senior management.
One way to feel more comfortable with pronouncing your strengths to the world is to substantiate them with concrete examples from your career and personal life. This is anyway what’s expected in an interview but whatever the situation the evidence will help you to support your case and give context to an otherwise quite meaningless noun or adjective. So make sure that you think of one or two specific situations in which you demonstrated those strengths.
- For example, if ‘leadership’ is a key strength, what situation can you think of when you engaged and enabled a team that had been struggling without direction, to ultimately achieve outstanding results together?
- If ‘persistence’ is one of your strengths, when did you show an impressive level of perseverance and grit so that you reached a successful outcome that otherwise wouldn’t have been possible?
- If you have an innate curiosity and love of learning, how do you exhibit this in your everyday life? What courses have you taken that weren’t mandatory in any way to your studies or your job, what books are you reading, what do you do to make sure that you’re continuously learning and developing yourself?
See also Michael’s recent guest post on the importance of owning your value.
We all have superpowers – we just need to find them… and believe!