How to Discover Your Strengths, Talents and Passions
Passion keeps your edge razor sharp
The people who have an edge in their careers are those who have tapped into their strengths, talents and passions. There’s a lot to say about this notion. Larry Smith takes a rather blunt but humourous approach in this TED talk, but I think his point is spot on. Unless you are truly passionate about what you’re doing, will you really have a great career?
So do you really know what your strengths, talents and passions are? It’s hard to imagine someone choosing a career in a field where they don’t have the strengths, talents or passions to make it a success, or to really enjoy it. It is even harder to imagine a student choosing a graduate role in a field, organisation or industry they’re actually not passionate about. However I see it almost every time I meet a group of graduates in an organisation.
I must have personally and directly worked with over 50 different graduate employers across more than 12 different industries over the past four or five years. Some of those are organisations my team and I work with every single year. We were doing this before the Global Financial Crisis (GFC) in 2008, during the GFC and now after the GFC. I can assure you it doesn’t differ between organisations, industries, sectors, academic backgrounds or economic cycles. There are nearly always graduates in any given graduate program who don’t know exactly why they’re there or aren’t very passionate about the journey they’ve just embarked upon. I feel like slapping some of them across the head and saying, “Wake up!” (I don’t do that by the way, just for the record; that would be bad.) That’s not to say all graduates feel this way of course. I stress that there are nearly always some graduates in every group who fit that bill.
Regardless of whether or not this is you, regularly reconsidering your strengths, talents and passions is vital to maintain a healthy level of self-awareness. Why? Because these things change, and that’s OK. As they change you can adapt, adjust course and stay inspired and enjoying your career.
But it does beg the question ... why do some graduates feel this way during their graduate program? And if not, why do so many people feel this way at some point in the first few years of their professional career? Maybe it’s because so many people don’t take time to reflect on their strengths, talents and passions regularly enough.
I have found in my own experience, both as a graduate in a large firm and also since becoming a business owner, it is so easy to get caught up in the day-to-day and lose sight of why you are doing what you’re doing. It’s easy to not feel passionate, to feel uninspired about your work when you have lost sight of the link between your job and your strengths, talents and passions.
Could it be because some graduates just don’t know what their strengths, talents and passions are? Do you know for yourself? Or could it be that some graduates have chosen a path based on someone else’s dream? Maybe they are simply wandering through life without a plan, or walking through life trying to keep someone else happy?
Or maybe they are trying to keep up with their peers and friends who are all heading in a certain direction (some of whom may be doing the same thing, by the way!)? Sometimes social expectations create situations where the blind lead the blind.
As a bonus, tapping into your strengths, talents and passions helps you to manage your day- to-day working life and longer-term career decisions in order to do the things you really want to do in life. It sharpens your edge in all areas.
Strengths, talents and passions are often associated with what we enjoy. Making a list of the things you most enjoy is a good starting point because we often like most what we are best at doing. Identify what you enjoy most and there is a good chance you’ll discover a strength or talent as well.
We’ll be exploring the idea of career values and career strengths later in the book. These will help you to make career-oriented decisions when opportunities arise at the end of your graduate program and, better still, throughout your whole career.
Obtain outside feedback
Every now and again, ask different people who you respect for their feedback. Choose people who know you well enough to have an informed opinion, and who will be honest enough with you to discuss strengths, and weaknesses.
In your first year of working, these could be people you have worked with in previous jobs or in sporting teams, for example. As you finish your graduate program these could be managers you have worked with on different projects, other grads you have gotten to know well and mentors you might have developed.
When you do seek other people’s feedback remember that people’s opinions are imperfect, so don’t take any one opinion as gospel. Remember also that people’s well-intentioned feedback can also be disingenuous if they just want to make you feel good, or are not comfortable telling you the truth.
Of course, people’s opinions can also be really helpful. Sometimes getting feedback can make all the difference and will help you discover a talent you didn’t realise you had.
At the age of 17 at high school, I couldn’t stand in front of a group of classmates and give a presentation without feeling violently ill. I would do anything to avoid doing a presentation during an English class. There was one passion I had. I hated oral exams with a passion.
Then it changed. I found something I was passionate to speak about and let go of what other people thought of me. I let go of the fear, although I didn’t actually realise that it was happening. I was at university at the time and heavily involved in a student leadership development organisation on campus. Through this I discovered a passion for youth leadership development and I found myself talking about it, reading about it, training other students on it and generally becoming immersed in the concept that we can all become leaders in our own unique, authentic way. It still excites me today, more than 12 years on.
It was after that point I remember the first time someone gave me some feedback on my presentation skills. They said to me, “Josh, you’re a really great presenter, you’re a natural. I had no idea you were that good. You should do a lot more of it”. Truth be known, I didn’t know either; in fact, I had no idea. I was about 18 or 19 at the time ... and the rest is history. The point is to seek – and listen to – outside feedback from different people and consider it together with your own judgment. Later in the book we’ll be looking at how to receive feedback constructively.
Participate in assessment
Another way you will be given an opportunity to reflect and get feedback relating to strengths, talents and passions is through psychometric assessment tools.
There are hundreds available and in today’s world it is almost inevitable that you will use one at some point in your professional career. When you do, you’ll be asked to answer a series of questions about yourself (often online) and your answers will be processed to produce results. The vast majority of assessment tools are not designed on ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ answers. They are instead designed as a mirror for you to reflect upon. The results sometimes come in the form of a personalised report. Different tools aim to assess different things such as behavioural preferences, personality types, motives, beliefs and values. They are nearly always designed to help you build self-awareness and/or to help your employer place you in the right type of role.
If there is one thing you really need to know about psychometric assessment tools, it is this: the feedback you receive will only ever be as useful as your attitude towards the exercise.
Sometimes graduates discount the feedback they receive from such tools because they don’t like what they read and therefore don’t take it seriously. Other graduates, using the exact same tool, might really like the feedback they get but actually take it too seriously! A balanced view is the most important thing. No set of results should be taken as gospel.
Balance it with your own perspective, but also be open and strong enough to be wrong. Be willing to learn something about yourself that maybe you didn’t realise. There is always something you can learn from these sorts of exercises, so make the most it. Remember that no matter what feedback you are given, it’s just feedback. Use it as input to your self- reflection and not as the ultimate guide to ‘who you are’. More importantly, don’t just read the output and save it in a folder on your computer never to be read again. Take at least one thing from the information and turn it into action. Remember, knowledge is not power by itself. Action is power.
A great book, ‘Strengths Finder 2.0’ by Tom Rath and Jim Harder, is another option for considering your strengths. It’s an easy read and comes with an online assessment for identifying your areas of strength. It won’t say, “You are an engineer” or “You are a school teacher”. You don’t want that. Instead, it will describe your strengths in a broad sense so you can imagine the full range of possibilities for your life and career based on those things.
By reflecting upon what your strengths, talents and passions are, either by asking yourself, getting other people’s feedback or using different psychometric tools, you are on your way to maintaining a healthy level of self-awareness.
The above is an extract from “The Graduate Edge” by Josh Mackenzie. Check back regularly for further tips and suggestions on sharpening your edge, or purchase your own copy of the book itself from our online store.