Square Peg Round Hole

In his wonderful book The Element, Sir Ken Robinson tells a story that I’m sure many people can relate to. In it, a young girl named Gillian is having trouble concentrating at school. The school – suspecting a learning disability – asks her mother to take 8-year-old Gillian to see a psychiatrist for evaluation. After hearing from the girl’s mother how the girl is always disturbing her classmates, her homework is sloppy and always late – the doctor asks to speak with Gillian alone. Before escorting the mother outside for a private conference, the doctor turns on the radio in the room to occupy Gillian.

As soon as the music began to play, the girl was on her feet. From outside the room, Gillian’s mother and the doctor observed for a few minutes as she moved beautifully to the music, dancing around the room, lost in a childlike trance. Then, with a sudden burst of insight, the doctor turned to the girl’s mother and said: “Mrs. Lynne, Gillian isn’t sick; she is a dancer. She likes to move. My advice? Take her to a dance school.”

Happily for Gillian, that is exactly what happened.

She eventually auditioned for the Royal Ballet School in London where she was surrounded by other people who also “liked to move”. She graduated, founded her own Dance Company – the Gillian Lynne Dance Company – and soon thereafter met Andrew Lloyd Webber. The rest is history. As a dancer and choreographer, Gillian has been responsible for some of the most successful musical theater productions in history (Cats, Phantom of the Opera, anyone?). She’s given pleasure to millions of people and become a multimillionaire in the process. Isn’t it fascinating – and terrifying- to think that somebody else might have put her on medication and told her to calm down?

How many of us know people like Gillian? People who are full of energy and wit and drive. People who fidget and can’t sit still. People for whom the world is an ill-fitting jacket. As a career coach, I meet these people all the time, though sometimes a lot further downstream than in the above story. Maybe they’re out of college a few years and searching for that next big thing. Some of them have been in industry for 20-30 years, doing work for which they seem to have little interest or aptitude. While the verses of individual circumstances are always different, the refrain is all too common.

I Just Don’t Seem To Fit

One of my clients, Beth, recently confessed to me, “I feel uncomfortable in my job and dread Sunday evenings as all I do is think about how much I loathe starting my work week. I am nervous to talk to my boss about it because I can’t be myself in this role.” Because Beth is not happy in her career, she went on to tell me that she takes this feeling outside of the office, which brings her down emotionally and often strains her relationships with others.

Another client of mine, Chris, is bored to tears in his job because he has never given thought to what he might actually like to contribute to the world. Deep down, he has an idea about what he’d rather be doing, but he can’t seem to get out of his role for one reason or another. Like a manatee, he bobs along from one post to the next, letting circumstances and the tide, carry him to whatever comes along.

For some people, this may work fine. But for a lot of people with that vague unsettling feeling of “Is this it?” – there are several options. Finding and uncovering your true talents requires a measure of self-scrutiny and courage that is not always easy to muster. But unless you are doing something that you find engaging, you are unlikely ever to excel in it. Sure, you may have the aptitude to complete the tasks at hand, but you will likely never shine in a position that does not align your individual gifts with your personal preferences.

What to do?

1. Take An Assessment

Part of the formula for having a great career is to be you. Truly you. Just as Gillian had to move in order to think, some of us have to talk to think. If you’re a talk-to-think learner, I suspect you talk continuously while learning. You probably sound out ideas and say what’s on your mind. Because you rely on other people’s responses, you may prefer to work in a group setting.

Knowing who you are helps to uncover what you love and what you’ll likely be great at. Taking an assessment is one of the best ways to hone in on my clients’ values and passions. I often hear a sigh of relief when the results come back. “So that is why I am so challenged in my career! I’m in a financial accounting function and my preference is to be the head of human resources.” Or, “Wow! I’ve been in operations for years, when I’m really more inclined to do sales.”

This isn’t about being rigid and labeling yourself as a specific “type”. Rather, it is a way to uncover how you might play to your innate strengths. There are a number of systems out there: Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI)™, DiSC 2.0, the Kolbe Index, Clifton Strengths Finder. I prefer the HBDI tool which is based on a metaphoric representation of the brain, distinguished by four quadrants of thinking preferences. Once you understand your profile, it will illustrate the way you prefer to learn, communicate, and make decisions.

2. Find A Mentor

I’ve had positions in the past that I was acknowledged in, but that I knew deep down didn’t truly speak to me. I was successful at the work but didn’t feel fulfilled. I felt stuck, afraid to leave the safety of a paycheck and jump into the abyss of the unknown. What I needed was a mentor – someone outside of my environment, who was doing something that interested me.

Speaking with people who are working in fields that you’re inspired by, will give you a chance to look under the hood and try the business on for size. Asking people for guidance also helps you to see what is between you and your dream job. How much will it cost and what resources will you need to make the transition? Can you do it alone? What would it look like? What steps do I need to take to move forward? What is at risk if I take this leap? What is at risk if I don’t? As simple as it sounds, we all need good mentors. I’m lucky in my life to have several of them. Find one, and do all you can to cultivate that relationship.

3. Ask For Feedback

Have you ever noticed at times that what you’ve been looking for is often right in front of you? Years ago when I worked in recruitment, I had peers telling me that I was extremely helpful when I provided counsel to them. I had a natural ability to be resourceful and inspire. Combine that with a penchant for self-help and I had the recipe for my own personal success. But because those “skills” came easy to me, I was suspect. Now in hindsight, it seems obvious that I’ve always been wired for coaching.

One of the exercises I conduct with clients involves a Personal Evaluation form that they send to their friends and family. Some of these questions include: What do you think are Joe’s best abilities, talents and qualities? How would you describe Joe’s personality? If this person had his own business, what do you think that would be? What strategic ideas, thoughts, or inventions has this person spoken with you about, if any?

How we see ourselves is often very different from how others may see us. This is why it is useful to ask for feedback from those who know us well. Often the answers can be revealing.

4. Partner Up

Finding others that complement your blind spot is a smart way to excel. Once you understand the dynamics of your own particular style, locate an ally who can bolster up your weaknesses. Research shows that humans tend to do difficult things much better in teams than on their own. Yet, so often my clients blame their weak will when I think they should be blaming isolation. By pooling ideas, you can build momentum in ways that none of your group could achieve alone. Lennon and McCartney. Ben and Jerry. Rolls and Royce. Would we even remember their individual names?

Caterina Fake, Co-Founder of Hunch and Flickr, recently mentioned that she and her other partners shared the Myers Briggs “ENTP” result. As such, they are careful when bringing on a new hire, to recruit individuals with a solid tendency of “J”. As entrepreneurs, they naturally have a lot of ideas and a vision for their business, but in order to figure out what to do first, they realized that it was beneficial to have a “J” in the room to take notes, make a structured plan and follow through. Risk-takers are often very good at solving complex problems, but may not relish execution of the details.

I am really good at helping people to analyze their behavior, but I’m not so good at analyzing their financial portfolios. Knowing what you do (and don’t do) well will help you match your skills with a suitable peer who may just be the missing link.

Know Thyself

All great discoveries are a process of trial and error. So we mustn’t be afraid to try different things on for size, and sometimes fail. As Ken Robinson says: “If you’re not prepared to be wrong, you’ll never come up with anything original.” The key to it all is self-knowledge. Just by knowing that you have an inclination to do things in your own unique way, your relationship to – and confidence in – yourself will begin to improve.

Sound impossible? Not at all. For those who are true to themselves in spite of the naysayers, parental expectations, and societal pressures — the world is a vast and beautiful playground. Building an authentic life’s work will always be a challenging assignment. But it’s worth taking the time to actually figure out what you’re naturally good at so that you can simply do more of it.

As George Eliot said, “It’s never too late to be what you might have been.”