I have had the privilege of mentoring hundreds of people over the years. I always ask them two questions: What do you like to do? What are your strengths? Most have a good idea of what they like to do, but you wouldn't believe how many people don't understand their own strengths.
One of the secrets of success is making the most of your strengths. First, though, you have to determine what they are -- and that may not be obvious, especially if you're just starting out or looking to change careers.
Your strengths develop from a variety of sources: natural ability and aptitude, formal education, job experience, internships, research, hobbies, volunteer involvement and so on. You may not realize the depth of your knowledge or expertise, and that can seriously limit your job search or career path.
If you are in college, by all means take advantage of aptitude and career-placement tests to determine your strengths, weaknesses and hidden talents. If you are not in school, you can find tests online or at your local library. Industrial psychologists are also most helpful in identifying areas that you should consider pursuing -- or avoiding.
A recent article in Classroom to Cubicle, an online magazine for college students and recent graduates, cites a list of the 10 most-sought workplace skills, assembled by Quintessential Careers:
• Communication skills (listening, verbal and written).
• Analytical/research skills.
• Computer/technical literacy.
• Flexibility/adaptability/managing multiple priorities.
• Interpersonal abilities.
• Leadership/management skills.
• Problem solving.
• Multicultural awareness.
And you thought all that mattered was your college major or your last job!
While it's tough to possess all those skills, especially for someone just entering the job market or switching careers, chances are that past experiences will lend themselves to developing specific areas of strength. Zero in on the skills that make you special by looking for these clues:
• What tasks attract you? Think of the types of jobs that you look forward to, that you'd find some way to do even if you weren't paid. Research companies that employ people in those jobs and start your search there. If you are passionate about a specific cause, that's a good springboard as well.
• In which tasks do you lose yourself? When you're involved in certain tasks, do you forget what time it is and how long you've been working? These will usually be the jobs that use your skills best. As crazy as it sounds, I recently spoke with a new grad who got his job in part because he was able to reach a specific level in a video game. The employer interpreted that as a sign of creative problem solving. By the way, he also demonstrated strong communication skills.
• What do you learn quickly? You probably struggle with mastering some skills, but others you pick up effortlessly. That's because you have some natural talent and a deep desire to learn more. My readers have heard it a million times: You don't stop learning when you finish school. Be a lifelong learner.
• What do other people ask for your help with? Pay attention to the jobs you're assigned and the favors people ask of you. They wouldn't come to you if you weren't good in those areas. An insurance company customer service rep recently shared with me that she had been promoted to a key IT position, working as a customer liaison to help the computer jockeys develop consumer-friendly programs (which often generated a lot of customer service calls).
• Where do you succeed? This may seem obvious, but some people miss the forest for the trees. Take a look at the tasks you've done best; they'll use your most important skills. Don't confuse activity with accomplishment. What you are best at is not necessarily what you spend the most time doing.
• What brings you satisfaction? No matter how tired you are, some tasks make you feel good at the end of the day. You'll do better in life and on the job by concentrating on work that you find fulfilling.
Mackay's Moral: It bears repeating: Do what you love, love what you do and you'll never work a day in your life.