There’s few things that mystify me more than hearing someone sigh defeatedly and tell me that they’re just not good at anything, except for when it’s followed by I just don’t like to do anything. Every healthy person has interests and participates to some extent in activities they find meaningful. We get better at the things that we regularly do, and as we grow in any direction we continually adapt to new contexts and respond to challenges. Whether the career relevance is immediately apparent to you or not, the trick is to find a starting place and just begin asking exploratory questions. Here are some easy tips for identifying and describing your unique skills.
1. Look for patterns in your own behavior.
Many people enjoy doing the things they are automatically good at; it allows them to improve on natural talents, receives feel-good recognition from others, and helps build self-esteem. If you normally like to spend your free time engaging in logical challenges, you may have a penchant for problem-solving, applying knowledge, or learning new things. If you want to always be around people, or design things with your hands, or discuss current events, or even go shopping and think about the appeal of new products…these say something about you, and are all good places to start.
2. Notice where you are when you lose track of time.
We lose track of time when we are deeply engaged in activities that are simultaneously challenging and rewarding. It is so enjoyable and enthralling that we feel a sense of effortlessness and serenity, while also being aware of experiencing a high learning curve. In fact we get so sucked in that we forget to think about anything else, like time. This is called being in flow. Advertising Executive and blogger Simon has written some great posts about the psychology of flow. Being aware of what we are doing when we are in flow can clue us in to our highest skills and interests.
3. Ask questions like What, How, and Why.
At a recent family get-together I heard some relatives bemoaning that my fifteen-year-old cousin doesn’t like to do anything. All he does is play those gosh-darned videogames on his computer…and when they pressed him to consider computer programming (most likely just because it had “computer” in the title), he would become frustrated and walk away. By taking his interest too literally and not asking exploratory questions, they were boxing him in and making career choices seem intimidating. Instead they can take an interest in learning more about the games he likes to play. Are they games in which you fight for a cause? Solve puzzles? Ride around on ponies? Whether they involve building weapons, working on a team with others, controlling characters’ behavior, designing an amusement park, or racing the clock to decorate cakes, those all point to different skills and interests. What, How, and Why questions help us to more accurately identify and describe our preferences.
4. Be as specific as possible.
Often we can identify categories of skills that we are good at…technical skills, people skills, organizational skills, and so on. But these are only vague suggestions at what makes you unique: an employer may receive hundreds of cover letters from people claiming to have “excellent communication skills”. You need to show them what makes you different. Practice using What, How, and Why to ask yourself exactly how you go about achieving a result. Be as specific as possible. For example, if you can diffuse a situation with an angry customer you may possess “people skills”: but isn’t it more impressive to say you are skilled at: listening, empathizing, relating; persuading, motivating, negotiating; leading, managing, resolving conflict; or following instructions closely, serving, caring, and following through? Refer to The OWL at Purdue’s Job Skills Inventory for a comprehensive list of job skills.
Follow these four concrete steps to identify and describe your unique skills and talents. Once you know what you’re good at, you can start investigating where you’re in highest demand and what jobs you will enjoy applying yourself to. Because when it comes to career development, knowing yourself is always the first step.