Stop being average and start being extraordinary

  • Article by: JEN WEIGEL , Chicago Tribune
  • Updated: October 28, 2012 - 5:31 PM

This might be no secret in above-average Lake Wobegon country, but finding what you excel at involves some risk, listening skills and brutal honesty.

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Average? Not in Lake Wobegon country?

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Is it possible that there's one job you were meant to do? According to experts, many of us spend too much time doing several professions with modest results rather than excelling in our true calling.

"I tell people stop being average at a lot of things or pretty good at a lot of things and start being extraordinary at one thing," said Phil Cooke, author of the book "One Big Thing: Discovering What You Were Born to Do." "Look at the Olympics. You won't find a track guy also swimming and skiing. To get to a higher and higher level you need to let go of the peripheral things and cut through the clutter to get noticed."

Cooke said start by asking yourself, "What comes easy to me?" And "What do other people tell me that I do well?" Be sure to pose the questions to those who can give you an honest answer rather than people who only tell you what you want to hear, Cooke said.

"There's a huge denial factor in the country where people don't have a shred of talent in the things they think they're really, really good at," Cooke said. "I think we all need to have a moment of brutal honesty in our own lives."

Leadership coach Ginny Clarke, president and CEO of the consulting firm Talent Optimization Partners, said one of the keys to unlocking our optimal career path is to ask ourselves what we loved doing when we were 10 years old.

"This is an age when you are free and you allow yourselves to imagine," she said. "Whenever I pose this question to a client, I see a sense of discovery and joy in their face. If you allow yourself to explore this, then your search stays closer to what speaks to you. If more people could get back to that I think they would allow themselves to align their work with what they actually like doing."

But while thinking back to when you were 10 can be eye-opening, Clarke said you have to be realistic.

"If you're 40 you can't become a professional baseball player," Clarke said. "But say you have a background in commercial real estate -- baseball is played on real estate. It's a big business on this real estate asset. So find a way to take what you've done and apply it to a different industry."

Here are some tips to help you focus on that one true calling:

Stop focusing on your flaws.

"I'm not a numbers person and I spent months trying to get better at balancing my checkbook and I really worked hard on it," Cooke said. "I realized I wasn't wired to do this. If, on a scale of 1-10 you are a 3 or 4 for balancing your checkbook, nobody pays for a 3 or a 4. They pay for a 9 or 10. What are the areas of your life where you can be a 9 or a 10? Decide what they are and work on those."

Don't let others tell you what you should do.

"I had a woman come in and she said 'My passion has always been to be in the gourmet food business but I don't think I should be doing that,'" Clarke said. "Just because you took a certain direction or have a certain job history doesn't mean you have to limit yourself. Get rid of the 'shoulds.' This is your journey and nobody else's."

"Too many dreams are ended because someone listened to the wrong person," Cooke said. "Your voice is unique to who you are and it should be celebrated. A Picasso always looks like a Picasso. Hemingway is always going to be Hemingway. Your authentic style is your great gift and needs to come through in everything you do."

Embrace change.

"When I was 36 ... out of the blue I got fired and I thought it was the end of the world," Cooke said. "But looking back 20 years later I realize it was the best thing that ever happened to me. We get sucked in to that regular paycheck, sucked in to the health benefits and sucked in to this comfort zone. We need that push to think differently and explore our talents -- I certainly did and it made a huge difference for me."

Don't burn bridges.

"So many people discover their one big thing and then walk into their boss and say 'I'm quitting!'" Cooke said. "You have to be smart. I wrote my first two books by coming into work two hours early so I could have a couple of hours to work before anyone shows up. It's a small world out there and you want to make them want you to come back."

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