Since I was a kid, people told me that I was a good writer.
In college, as my friends struggled to choose their majors, a few told me wistfully: “At least you know you’re good at writing. You have that.”
I was grateful for this special skill. Knowing that I was good at writing did give me a sense of security at times.
Yet, looking back over my life, I also see how it held me back for a long time.
Because I got typecast.
Like Steve Buscemi, the creepy weirdo. Or Christopher Walken, the neurotic psycho.
I was The Writer.
It wasn’t just that others pigeonholed me. I did it to myself too.
During most of my 20s, I thought it was the only thing of note on my résumé.
Perhaps it wouldn’t have been a problem if I loved the idea of being a full-time writer.
Except that, increasingly, I didn’t.
As I continued writing -- fiction, essays, book reviews, and articles in my free time, and in magazine and marketing jobs – I began to discover that there was a lot that I didn’t like about being a writer.
I didn’t like being stuck at my desk all day. It was so static. And lonely.
I didn’t like being frequently asked to write about stuff that frankly didn’t inspire me.
I didn’t like always being on the sidelines, observing action, rather than being hands-on and of real, tangible service to others.
As my dislikes grew, I began to feel stifled and hopeless about my career options. The one thing of value that I had to offer didn’t make me happy.
My turnaround came when I got a job at a humanitarian aid organization that I really admired. My actual job was nothing special, an entry-level position with a mix of administrative and marketing work.
What was special was this organization’s culture, which was fast and fluid and offered new challenging opportunities all the time. The people were special too. There I found several mentor figures who took a real interest in me.
After a few years there, my career suddenly took off.
I leapt from my O.K. job to one that was undoubtedly my dream. I was going to Port-au-Prince, Haiti, as the communications officer for the organization’s emergency response for the 2010 earthquake there.
Many of my colleagues probably wondered how I'd landed such an awesome new job. What had happened behind the scenes?
Something important had happened. I’d finally begun to understand that I had much more to offer than writing.
Three things got me there:
- My informal mentors had continued to share their candid observations of what I did well and where I could grow more. I felt their support and trusted them.
- My work environment provided me with lots of opportunities to push myself and develop my strengths.
- I hired a life coach who helped me identify my strengths and all the possible job opportunities where I could use them.
Through all these experiences, I’d learned that I was a strong communicator. I had the emotional intelligence to build relationships and trust even in tough situations. I was resourceful, responsible and level-headed under pressure. I was a strategic thinker.
I began to see that these other strengths were of real value in my workplace.
My career took off when I finally for – and got – a role that finally used all my strengths.
It was so immensely liberating to know that I was good at more than just one thing.
I started loving my work more than I ever had before – and seeing even more possibilities for where I could go.
In the end, for example, I saw I could totally switch careers and become a life coach and entrepreneur. A role that suits me even better (and where I love the writing I get to do).
I offer you this story today because I know it’s not an uncommon one.
Many of us are held back by too narrow a view of our talents and strengths.
As a coach, many people confess to me that they’re not exactly sure at what they’re good at. That they’re not sure of the value they bring. That they’re not sure they have what it will take to do their dream jobs.
If this sounds like you, I want to offer a new perspective:
- You are good at a lot of different things.
- You have much of value to offer others.
- You have what it takes to do your dream job.
- A lack of self-confidence is likely holding you back much more than any lack of talent or skills.
So could you improve your self-confidence?
- Make a list of the things you know for certain you’re good at.
- Make a list of the things other people say you are good at.
- Find a mentor or coach who will review these lists with you and reflect back to you the ways that they see you demonstrating these strengths at work and in life. We often have trouble seeing “proof” of our own strengths and need a trusted outsider to help us recognize it.
- Learn to communicate your strengths in a way that feels comfortable so that when you talk others (especially a boss or hiring manager) you can express how you add value.
- Find safe opportunities to grow your skills. Say, for example, that people tell you that you’re an excellent presenter but you still get high anxiety from public speaking. You might consider joining Toastmasters for a safe, supportive environment for you to gain more experience being in front of groups.
The more that you grow in your awareness of everything you are good at, the closer you’re going to get to your breakout role.
And then your next.
I’ve seen it happen before!