Play to your strengths. It’s common advice, and it makes sense. People go farther by figuring out what naturally comes easy and organizing their activities accordingly, instead of working overtime to compensate for weaknesses. The problem is that when people think about making career moves they often interpret “strengths” in a narrow industry context.
For example, say you’ve spent a decade in finance. You’ve developed serious experience, expertise, and industry connections. If you’re trying to build on your strengths, the right next career move would be to leverage these abilities into some other job in finance.
Yet, you might not like finance. You may not be thriving. Perhaps your calling is elsewhere. But because you want to leverage the soft assets you’ve built up over time, you stick with it. This is how many people end up working the same industry for years on end. In part, they were “building on their strengths.”
In the book, we talk about why evaluating your existing assets–of which strengths are one part–cannot be done in isolation. You should think about them in the context of your aspirations, and in the context of what people will pay for. All these things change over time.
If your aspirations or values are shifting, and you want to pivot to Plan B, better to think about your underlying strengths and focus on the transferable qualities of your most recent experiences. Project management is project management. Relationship building is relationship building. Some expertise is context specific. But not all of it is. Zoom out and think about the more universal characteristics of what you’re good at. Then match that to the market realities.
We feature James Gaines in the book, who pivoted from head honcho at Time Magazine (where he interviewed dozens of heads of state) to running a digital media startup. He saw his strength as “telling good stories”–not being editor of a print magazine. Storytelling was the underlying strength that enabled the pivot out of print journalism.
Bottom Line: You can still build on your strengths even if you are adapting your career into new industries, geographies, networks.
12 comments on “Build On Your *Underlying* Strengths When Adapting”
Great article Ben
People often do put their “strengths”, that one thing that is unique to all of us aside…In working with individuals on developing their strengths, I found that most of time, in the past, they were constantly told to work on their weaknesses…what is worst, is that, if their strength or passion was of the least bit what others thought to be risky or nothing to build a future on, they were discouraged. So, now, they are faced with not knowing what they have to offer.
I love sharing the following example:
A young boy had a passion, a desire to skate and play hockey. He started playing at the age of three. His dream? To play in the National Hockey League (NHL). The experts told him that he would never make it as a professional hockey player in the NHL because he was too skinny and weak, and he was not a fast enough skater. So, what did he do? He used his unique strength, the value that no one else had. He had what they call field sense or “vision,” the ability to calculate the movement of every player on the ice and know exactly where the puck was going. He not only got to play in the NHL, he went on to become the best hockey player who ever played.
That young boy was Wayne Gretzky, better known as “The Great One.” It’s a really good thing that Wayne did not listen to the experts.
Having moved from the accounting industry to real estate to culinary and, now, to writing, I am glad to hear that someone believes there is more to building a career than stacking skills within an industry or field that may or may not be the ultimate calling for an individual. As many times that as I have been told to just get a job in something I know because your good at it, some people just do not see the vision that an entrepreneur or businessperson has. People that are risk averse will understand your advice though. Hopefully, they will take heed and follow it.
A corollary to this is not focusing *too much* on your weaknesses. This is not to say that you shouldn’t try to “improve yourself” — it is to say, however, that you should focus on deepening and enriching those skills and areas of expertise that make you truly distinctive. No one, really, is going to be THE VERY BEST at EVERYTHING. Far better, on the other hand, to be (truly) THE BEST at something. I believe that you touched on this in your book as well…
He started playing at the age of three..
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