How to identify the skills that energize you

Career News

BY KAYVAN KIAN,

Author Kayvan Kian explains why it’s important to not let fear keep you stuck doing only what you’re already good at, especially if it doesn’t give you energy.

Is there something you’re not particularly good at, but that gives you energy when you do it?\

We call these skills “hidden treasures” and the answers we’ve received from young leaders relate to things outside of work like playing soccer, writing poetry, or playing guitar. There’s nothing wrong with these answers, but what’s consistent is that they tend to overlook skills that relate to their job. It’s understandable—if you’re not good at something, you’re probably not going to do it at work because you don’t want to look incompetent or be embarrassed.

Or, their job doesn’t require them to use a particular skill that gives them energy. Someone might use strategic thinking often as an accomplished chess player, but they’re not asked to think strategically at work. As a result, they don’t get to apply that skill in a new context.

When we ignore these hidden treasures, we deny ourselves the energy that can help us deal with challenging times in our lives. Unlike strenuous gifts—those skills we excel at but that drain us—you want to identify these skills so you can practice them more often.

WHAT HIDDEN TREASURES LOOK LIKE

While there’s nothing wrong with drawing energy from soccer, poetry, or playing the guitar, I want to focus our attention on skills that relate to the workplace. To do this, I need you to broaden the scope of your thinking beyond your current job description. As we’ve seen, you might be interested in skills that you’re scared to practice at work or don’t “fit” into your job.

Creativity is a great example. Coming up with new ways to complete a task or solve a problem is a valuable skill, but if you simply check boxes at work, you won’t get to practice it.

Entrepreneurship is a skill that appeals to many young leaders. They have ideas for their own business, but the thought of building a company as big as the one where they currently work feels totally overwhelming. The small step of seizing an opportunity to build something new in their current job doesn’t even register with them, so this treasure remains hidden.

Humor is a skill one young leader used to think didn’t belong in the workplace. As she started negotiating, she realized that humor can, at the right moment, break the ice during tense negotiations, even if she wasn’t as funny as her favorite stand-up comedian.

Resourcefulness means mobilizing resources in an unconventional or creative way. If you don’t get the budget or team you want, can you somehow try to pull things together to still do the job? If the thought of doing this thrills you, resourcefulness might be one of your hidden treasures.

Organizing, strategizing, and writing are other examples of skills that can give you energy, even if you’re not good at them right now. If a skill is bubbling up in your mind right now and you feel resistant to it, keep in mind that skills require two things: feedback and practice.

Yes, you might not be good at a skill now, but it’s not entirely due to your innate ability. Unless you’re a violin prodigy, you’re going to be bad at playing the violin the first time you try it. But the more you practice that skill (especially if it energizes you), the better violin player you’ll become. This sounds obvious, but given the hesitation that exists around finding and cultivating hidden treasures in a work context, it’s important to remind professionals that it takes time to develop these new, energizing skills.

WHY HIDDEN TREASURES ARE WORTH PURSUING

Sure, it would be nice to do things that provide you with energy, but what else will you get out of pursuing new skills?

For starters, you’ll find out your aptitude for learning something new. When you go from being below average or average at something to being exceptional at it, it gives you a huge confidence boost. You don’t have to continue to rely on your current skills because you now know that you’re capable of becoming adept at something challenging.

When that happens, you’ve discovered a new talent, and talents are valuable in the workplace. Not every hidden treasure will be a talent—because receiving energy is not 100% tied to our performance of that skill, but the possibility of uncovering a new talent is very real.

Developing skills that reveal talents can help advance your career. If you begin teaching workshops, writing content that improves your marketing efforts or internal communication, or take an entrepreneurial risk to develop projects that benefit the entire company, you’ll gain more visibility and become a more valuable part of your organization.

When you make the pursuit of hidden treasures a group effort, it can be inspiring for your whole team. One of the main impediments I’ve seen in developing new skills at work is fear. People are afraid they’ll look incompetent or be embarrassed. But if you asked each member of your department which hidden treasure they’d like to cultivate to feel more energized, suddenly that fear fades away.

Finally, hidden treasures help balance out your strenuous gifts and your weaknesses. For example, if you know crunching numbers for two straight days at work is going to zap your energy, doing something energizing after you get done is a great way to compensate for that draining (but necessary) activity. In fact, merely anticipating that reward is enough to give you energy while you’re working. Here’s how to uncover your hidden treasures.

FOLLOW YOUR CURIOSITY

If you perk up watching a colleague teach, you might be drawn to teaching. If you love reading stories about Elon Musk and the lives of startup founders, that might hint at unexplored entrepreneurial skills. You just might have never had the experience, coaching, and feedback to develop these skills. Your first reaction might be, “That’s not for me.” If that’s the case, but that same activity stills sparks your curiosity, it’s a good sign that you’ve found a hidden treasure.

DRAW FROM YOUR HOBBIES

If you enjoy organizing family gatherings and thinking through the logistics of those events, perhaps you could apply that skill in a work context. You might not have done that because your family doesn’t have the same level of standards as your employer. Nevertheless, you could organize something small at work and see how it goes. Did the experience turn out okay and actually give you energy? If the answer is yes to both of those questions, you just uncovered a hidden treasure.

LOOK AT YOUR PREVIOUS INTERESTS

Think all the way back to when you were in school. Was there a skill you were discouraged from pursuing as a career, or something you actually pursued but didn’t see much value in at the time? Writing is a great example. Many talented writers were told by their parents that there’s no money in writing, so they decided to give up that interest and not pursue it further.

Or perhaps you received unfair feedback that discouraged a skill. When a young, aspiring public speaker is told by classmates, “You’re just not cut out to speak onstage,” those words can be a powerful disincentive, especially at a more impressionable time early in their life.

Let go of the harsh feedback or discouraging words for a moment and focus on the present. Does that skill give you energy? Does it excite you? If so, it doesn’t mean you should quit your job to begin honing that skill. It means you can add some positive excitement into your work by applying that skill—be it teaching, entrepreneurship, writing, etc.—in a new way.

ASK OTHERS FOR INPUT

Find a colleague you trust and ask them, “What do you think energizes me and which skills would you encourage me to do more of?” Most times, those close to us can see us more clearly than we see ourselves. They might tell you, “I sense that you enjoy taking our customer’s perspective when we make decisions, but you’re holding yourself back there. Could you do more of that?”

Getting feedback from others can result in a light bulb moment for you. You might not have seen yourself that way, or you held back because a skill like coaching others is not part of your official job description. If that’s the case, I’d invite you to think about how your hidden treasures could not only give you more energy but also help you reach your goals.

BE INTENTIONAL WITH YOUR HIDDEN TREASURES

If you wait for the “perfect” opportunity to come along at work, or someone else to invite you to do so, you might be waiting forever. Instead, think of small steps you can take today to cultivate a hidden treasure once you discover it.

Don’t let fear keep you stuck doing only what you’re already good at, especially if it doesn’t give you energy. That’s how you deplete yourself with strenuous gifts. Discover and develop your hidden treasures. At a minimum, you’ll feel more energized. They might even turn into new strengths that can benefit you, your teams, customers, and society in surprising ways.

This article was adapted from the book What is Water? How Young Leaders Can Thrive in an Uncertain World by Kayvan Kian, who is also a management consultant in McKinsey’s Amsterdam office.

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