How much free time do you have? Yeah, me neither.
But ask yourself, how much of it do you waste trying to get better at things you're no good at?
When you were in school, where did your teachers' or parents' attention go – on the subjects you excelled in or those where you were lacking?
My 15-year old daughter told me about a lecture at her school where the teacher posed this very question. When he suggested that a performance deficiency should always receive more attention than a particular talent or interest, most of the students nodded in agreement. My daughter recoiled.
Yes, with commitment and dedication you can be proficient at almost anything. After all, we tell our kids they can be anything, right? But can you be awesome? Great, even? Not likely. In fact, ignoring your strengths (aside from a cursory pat on the back) is a huge mistake.
It's one of the worst acts of misdirection there is and it pours ice-cold water on a rich vein of possibilities only your strengths can offer. I'll go so far as to say it's one of the single biggest causes of misery, dissatisfaction and mediocrity in our lives because it denies us one of the most fundamental of all needs – to become who we actually are.
Since day one, I've instilled in my kids a simple set of objectives for their schooling.
- Learn how to communicate effectively.
- Learn how you learn best.
- Learn how to work well with others.
- Learn to identify and recognise where your natural strengths and talents lie.
The last one is the most important. Given our brief time on this planet and how much of it is devoted to work, you'll do a whole lot better (and be much happier, too) if you dedicate your energy to something that truly resonates with you; something that comes naturally and just feels, you. You only get one life so why not do something you care about – something you simply can't NOT do?
I believe that if ever there was a secret to happiness, this must surely be it.
There's been plenty of research on this subject and the results are no less startling that they are believable.
Possibly the largest study ever conducted on the value of finding your strengths commenced in the mid 20th century by Donald O. Clifton from Gallup. It was later augmented my best-selling author, Tom Rath, culminating in the world-famous assessment called StrenghtsFinder 2.0. After surveying more than 10 million people from around the world, they distilled their findings into 34 core talents, the most dominant of which people could uncover for themselves by undergoing their assessment.
One of the most compelling findings of their research is the response to a simple statement. The statement goes something like this: “I get to do what I'm best at every day.” Two-thirds of respondents disagreed with this declaration and of those, 100% of them said they felt emotionally disengaged from their job. Moreover, the one-third who did agree with this statement were six times more likely to be engaged in their work and more than three times more likely to be enjoying an excellent quality of life.
As the famous business guru, Peter Drucker said, “Most people think they know what they are good at. They are usually wrong. And yet, a person can perform only from strength.”
The key mantra for Gallup's decades of research is quite simple, the key to human development is building on who you already are. In other words, despite what you've believed since you were a kid, you can't be anything you want to be, but you can be a great deal more of who you already are.
Knowledge and Skills Aren't Enough
Most of us focus on our skills and our knowledge, but this has little value unless it relates directly to a particular talent we possess naturally. When you apply them to a talent, they act as an amplifier or really, a multiplier. Much like winning a million dollars doesn't really change people, it just amplifies who they already are. So your job then is to uncover your true talents, devote the necessary time to acquiring skills and knowledge around those talents and from this, your strengths emerge. Then you have some real firepower!
OK, so you might ask, how does this apply to a stressed-out disillusioned guy like you? Well, ask yourself, “Am I doing the work I'm doing because I love it? Does it energise me? Am I itching for next Monday so I can go and do more of it?” If your answer is a resounding yes then bully for you, you're in the minority and I tip my hat to you.
But if it's no, you have some work to do. This is the part where you have to do some things you probably can't be bothered doing. Because to become the person you truly are and to live your life authentically, you're going to need to figure out who that person really is.
Think you know already? As Drucker said, you're probably wrong. Years of conditioning and environmental influences (and influencers) have messed with your compass. Chances are it hasn't shown your true north for decades. To do this properly, you'll have to invest some time and a little money but the rewards over time will come back 1000-fold.
If this already sounds too complicated, I suggest you turn away from the screen and return to your TV.
Seriously, if you're like most men in their middle years, you have a shit-load of bad programming to overcome. But I promise you, like all great journeys, that first glimpse at the peak – your mountaintop, will give you all the energy and excitement you need to start blazing your own trail.
Things to Do
- Decide once and for all you're no longer satisfied with the status quo.
- Make a commitment to learning what you need to climb out of the cage you've built.
- Invest the time and money to figure out where your talents lie. I would recommend two resources for this:
- Tom Rath's StrengthsFinder 2.0 (affiliate link)
- Sir Ken Robinson's The Element: How Finding Your Passion Changes Everything (affiliate link)
- After uncovering your unique talents, write a detailed description of some things you should be doing with your life that uphold these talents.
- Switch off all your life-distractions (phone, social media, Google and your TV) and dedicate 3-5 hours a week to pursuing something that resonates with you. Don't worry about making a buck out of it just yet; that can wait.
- Focussing on your unique talents, commit to one of them (or a combination of them) really well. In our world of armchair experts, minuscule attention spans and time-wasting ‘busy-ness', this act alone will be something of a revelation.
In future posts, I'll share more ideas about doing something you care about then using it to support yourself independently. But right now, it's time to let go of your weaknesses. Recognise they are simply there to remind you to turn your gaze elsewhere.
Your talents and your strengths are who you are. Nurture them, embrace them and your second act will be victorious.
Also published on Medium.