The early stages of a person’s career have a lot in common with the early stages of education. It takes a few years to build a foundation of useful skills and knowledge and to gain enough experience to judge how to deploy them. Along the way we come to recognise the gaps in our skillset and mitigate them with training, by working around them and by having the integrity to speak up when we foresee trouble. For a lot of people that is where the story ends.
One big flaw in this system is that it focuses attention only on weaknesses, while natural abilities are left to develop on their own, or sometimes even taken for granted. But with some thought and attention a person’s innate strengths can be amplified to the point that they begin to elevate and direct their entire career. Maximising your strengths can be a route to a reputation as the best person around, or even bridging to a role where you will really thrive instead of merely survive.
How to identify strengths
Job seekers are used to diplomatically answering the classic interview question, “What would you say are your weaknesses”. Most of us are not as ready to answer, “What are your key strengths?” even though they are what got us through the door. Here are some ways to identify latent superpowers.
Can you flip a weakness?
As well as what people might want you to do, things that they actually ask you to stop doing can be the sign of a natural ability. In other words, some things that are seen as weaknesses are actually manifestations of a deeper natural ability that would be beneficial in another context. For example, if you ‘talk too much’ it could be because you’re very attuned to personal relationships, which is a quality that could be valuable in communication, stakeholder relations, or sales. If you ‘daydream’ perhaps you’re a natural lateral thinker, good at identifying problems or able to visualise alternative futures. Are you good at proposing solutions as well? If so, perhaps you would be useful in business development.
Marianne Cantwell wrote about this counterintuitive technique in her book, Be a Free Range Human: Escape the 9-to-5 Cage, Create a Life You Love, and Still Pay the Bills. Her advice is to take ownership of these personality traits: Don’t say, “I do X too much.” Instead say, “I’m really good at X.”
How to develop your superpower
Once you have identified a strength there are three main ways to levelling it up to be a superpower.
Combine these with success in the opportunities you take and you will quickly become recognised as a leader in that area, perhaps even the best around. Developing a reputation for excellence through a superpower might be your ticket to transition from mid-career moderate success to long term recognition as a leading light in your sector.