Find Your Element

Introduction to Natural Talents

Can’t seem to find your element?

How do you nail down what you’re best at and decide what career path to choose?

For a playful introduction to the concept of natural talent, I recommend this video animation by Ken Robinson and RSA. Robinson’s recent book, Finding Your Element, irreverently questions the current model of success, that “you can do anything you want, as long as it’s practical and pays well” and illustrates how this is causing a widespread phenomenon where the majority of people (well into mid-career) are clueless about what their real talents are.

I see eye to eye with Robinson, many of us (particularly highly creative people) are needlessly suffering long-term consequences of miseducating ourselves. Although some eventually find their way, unraveling and redirecting a career mismatch takes decades; the majority get discouraged and settle for an ill-suited fit. This is a very inefficient use of our human potential. We can do better than that. 

Once you begin to ask yourself: “Am I endowed with natural talents and abilities?” your radar will pick up interesting, important talent clues about you—stuff that you probably never noticed before. (The careerfinder aptitude test works more efficiently and will save you at least a decade of trial and error.)

If you view yourself as a blank slate that can be molded into anything, all your decisions will flow from this rule of thumb. You’ll think you can accomplish whatever you set your mind to; many do. However, your chances of being disconnected and uninspired by your work are quite high. The majority of smart forty-somethings are finding that they can no loner sustain their performance or fake motivation for an ill-suited career. Even if you are pretty good at what you do, if you don’t care, you’re going to burn out.

The bottom line message is to forget about “having a career” and start “being one.” You have a choice, either to force fit yourself by “working hard” to overcome your weaknesses and chase prestige or whatever your parents said you should have to be successful, or focus on developing what you already are—what comes most naturally to you. It’s very difficult to get really good at something, and adapt to the entrepreneurial tsunami wave coming, if you’re not naturally cut out for it.

As Einstein once pontificated: “Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.”

Every year millions of smart kids march off to college hoping to discover their talents. This doesn’t happen for most. We are recklessly churning out millions of newly minted, anxious graduates that enter the workforce without a talent compass or sense of life direction.

Even Ivy League universities don’t get the gravity of this problem. I routinely meet Harvard and Stanford graduates that are unsure of their career direction at the least, and at the worst, they have extensive and expensive educations in career fields they can’t sustain or excel in. Hard work won’t overcome a talent mismatch. You can’t fake “true” innate talent or trump it with credentials; fish with PhDs in tree climbing are pretty miserable critters.

I’ve worked with thousands of brilliant young professionals who feel hoodwinked by the system. Soon after college they discovered that they were encouraged to make a series of irrational, short shrift educational decisions—ultimately, career choices by default. Because their choices were socially approved, their path seemed like good ideas at the time. As the reflect on their choices after the fact, they realize they didn’t really chose, they defaulted. Nearly 80% of my esteemed clients say they “fell into” a career deemed by the herd as a sure bet for success.

With sunk costs this big, it takes the gumption of a Rosa Parks to attempt a do-over. Many do take the leap and go to grad school, but because they don’t have this new distinction “I have a unique mix of natural talents,” they’re flying blind and overconfidently making the same mistake twice. How many young lawyers do you know who either hate it, or never intend to use their JD?

Ken Robinson’s book and video illustrates some of the underlying reasons why this is happening. I’m also working on a book that will delve into the roots of this still largely unnamed career choice clusterf#ck. In some ways, I’m not at all upset to see that students have hit a wall with tuition debt. Not knowing what your inborn talents are is a much bigger problem to solve.

As history would predict, it’s a simple turn of the economic tide—not science or vision—that’s hijacked the current “value of college” conversation. Hey, if dollar signs are what it takes to get us to completely rethink our model of success, career decision-making process and concept of what makes people good at what they do—I’ll take it.

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