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How to Find the Work You Were Meant to Do

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Alex is a published novelist. He was 21 before someone whose opinion he trusted pointed out to him that he could write. He hadn't a clue. He had started a rudimentary journal when he was 8, and a neighborhood newsletter when he was 10. He thought writing was something everyone could do and no big deal.

This happens all too often with talents. Talents are innate; something so easy for you to do you can't remember when you couldn't do it; something you 'can't help doing' so you don't feel it when you do it, and you also think everyone can, they just aren't. Talents are also things that are fun for you to do, almost in the sense of flow 'you'd do them even if you weren't getting paid, and in fact they are the hobbies and avocations of many of us. If you cease doing it for a while and start up again, you're immediately back up to speed.

Knowledge and skills can be acquired, but talents are innate.

Why is this important? In their book, "Now, Discover Your Strengths," Buckingham and Clifton propose the theory that if you work in your strength areas, you can perform consistently and effortlessly at a near perfect level and find great satisfaction. Sounds like heaven on earth, doesn't it? Well, there are ways to get there. Listen up! 'Most of us have little sense of our talents and strengths," the authors say. "Guided by our parents, by our teachers, by our managers, and by psychology's fascination with pathology, we become experts in our weaknesses and spend our lives trying to repair these flaws, while our strengths lie dormant and neglected."

Can 2,000,000+ people be wrong? That's how many people were interviewed for the data in this book. From their research, Buckingham and Clifton Buckingham do not support the extreme and extremely misleading contention that "you can play any role you set your mind to," but it did lead to this truth: "Whatever you set your mind to, you will be most successful when you craft your role to play to your signature talents most of the time.'

From their research, they came up with the StrengthsFinder profile (you can take it if you buy the book) which will return to you your 5 top "themes." There are 34 themes, and they have such names as -- Empathy, Communicator, WOO (winning people over), Deliberative, Intellection, Significance, Achiever, Activator, and Maximizer.

In my work with clients and their profiles -- I'm a coach -- I've found Peter Drucker to be right on when he said most Americans don't know what their strengths are. "When you ask them," he said, "they look at you with a blank stare, or they respond in terms of subject knowledge, which is the wrong answer.'

Here's an example (used with permission) of a client's profile. He was very unhappy selling insurance, and his profile came back, in this order: Positivity (optimism), WOO (winning others over), Empathy, Communication, Activator. From my experience this man had the most seamless interface with people I've ever experienced. He didn't know the meaning of "cold call." He thought they were "fun." Even without knowing the long definitions of those terms, wouldn't you say this man could talk a bird down out of a tree, and sell ice to an Eskimo? And the Empathy made him sincere and authentic about it. Like everyone else I've worked with, he didn't "believe" his profile, as Drucker said. He said, "You mean my boss was right all the time. I really am good at this?" "Yes," said I; I was giving him e-courses for free, and it had happened so smoothly, I haven't even noticed it.

The solution in his case was to move him to a much bigger playing field. Such talents, after all. He's now in sales, selling a huge ticket item that benefits humanity (the Empathy) and the price tag makes it worthwhile to him, i.e., he can feel it.

Other patterns? I've found that people with Maximizer in their profiles are the most sure their profiles aren't theirs. Maximizers are adamant about treating people as unique individuals, and any sort of categorization (such as an assessment) grates on them. See how it works? Even though with 33,000,000 possible combinations, it is highly unlikely you'd ever see two profiles that were the same. How unique is that?

Maximizer also has shown up in the profiles of the 3 coaches I've done; Maximizer means loving to put polish on the pearl, to make something great into something really superb. It's what they do! Nice trait for a coach, eh?

In the work world, it's one thing to be able to work in your areas of strength, and another to be managed properly or to manage properly. For instance if your top theme is Deliberative, as is Sue's, you can be the one who comes up with all the worst-case-scenarios, butyou should not be asked to make quick decisions. You'd also be an effective 'voice of reason' if put on a project team of fast-moving Activators.

Every report I read says that managers need to realize the uniqueness of their reports, and treat them as individuals. If you're managing someone with Strategic, for instance, realize what a treasure you have. This person can sort through all the clutter and find the best route, and see patterns where others see chaos. It's a very special way of thinking that can't be learned or taught.

Talents + skill + knowledge = strengths. So how can you figure out your innate talents if you don't want to buy the book and take the profile? Here are some things to explore:

1. Think about what you liked to do as a child. Talents are innate; they appear early.
2. Ask your parents what you liked to do as a child. I suggest to clients that they ask their parents "What about me drove you nuts? What drove me nuts about my eldest son was that he was always tinkering 'taking apart bikes, watches, putting together models, legos, little pieces everywhere. And what does he do quite happily as an adult? Calibrates $100,000 machines in his job as owner of a custom CD manufacturing plant.
3. Keep in mind that your parents were human, and they had their own "issues." For instance, D. A.'s father considered it effeminate for a man to be a minister, and so he disregarded the traits in his son that made him (eventually) a happy and successful minister.
4. Parents can't recognize what they don't know. A mathematical genius born to two English majors may never get reinforcement for his talents. If you have a child like that, and see it, please find them someone who can affirm and value their talents so they don't feel alone.
5. Think about what you like to do when you have a choice. What would you volunteer to do? What do you do in your spare time? Paula always sneaks off and reads. Two of her themes are Intellection and Learner. She surfs the Internet for information, and is happy at work doing market research and writing reports.
6. "Work like you don't need the money..." -- what would you do even if you weren't paid to do it? You may already be doing it "for free," as I am in writing this article.
7. Flow. What activity do you 'get lost in'. You start doing it -- like working on your car, or empathizing with someone -- and you 'come to' 4 hours later having missed your lunch and your 2 o'clock appointment. What absorbs you fully?
8. What gives you deep satisfaction? If you haven't ever felt "deep satisfaction," (the zone) as many of us haven't, having been forced into certain jobs for various reasons, you'll have to do a little work on yourself to learn to hear that small, still, voice within.

I have another client whose profile is this: Achiever, Focus, Arranger, Command and Self-assurance. This is the profile of someone who likes to be the one in charge, and, yes, when I queried him, he remembered that he was always the pitcher in baseball and always the one to organize the games and get everyone out there. This man had never worked on his own, and is now about halfway to starting his own restaurant. Is he happier? Oh, gosh, yes. Just at the thought of it he's happier, and no, he doesn't want a partner.]

So that's how it works. Buckingham and Clifton are adamant that we need to focus on our strengths and ignore our weaknesses; become "sharp," not "well-rounded." This goes against the grain, goes against SOP, goes against the work world as it is today. But wouldn't you say it's time for a change?

You can get quite good at something that isn't a talent, even very good at something that's not a talent. Tom became a good fundraiser, but at what cost with this profile: Deliberative, Intellection, Strategic, Input, and Achiever. Ther isn't a "people-skill" in there, and boy was he stressed out.

Take some time to explore what your strengths are. Keep in mind that strengths are not a direct line to a specific career. In the book there are nurses with Achiever, nurses with Empathy, nurses with Focus. And, conversely, everyone who has Relator for a strength is not a nurse.

Susan Dunn is a personal and professional coach specializing in strengths and emotional intelligence. You can visit her on the web at http://www.susandunn.cc.


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