Words of advice for new graduates—and anyone else, for that matter.
Confucius once said, “Choose a job you love, and you will never have to work a day in your life.” Some millennia later Amy Wrzesniewski from Yale developed a framework for understanding how people approach their work lives that underscores this ancient proverb.
According to her model, people fall roughly into one of three categories: job people, who focus on the material benefits of their work, and little else; career people, for whom satisfaction is derived from advancement and the attendant leaps in pay and status; and calling people who work not primarily for the financial rewards, but for the fulfillment that the work brings them. What both Wrzesniewski and the ancient Chinese philosopher intuited is that following a calling is the gold standard in career strategy. If you find the work you’re meant for you’ll be better at it, your accomplishments will expand, you’ll be happier, and you’ll find personal satisfaction.
This week and in the weeks to come, hundreds of thousands of young adults across the country graduate, many of them entering into the work force for the first time. While the prospect of new possibilities may be daunting, one of the first steps toward discovering a calling begins with uncovering your signature strengths. Only by knowing your own personal competencies will you be able to match yourself with work that feels worthwhile.
Before compiling this list I spoke to several search firm consultants as part of my research. One of them emphasized the importance of knowing strengths and shortcomings. Here’s the way he put it: “A small percentage of the population has an authentic understanding of themselves. But of those placed into meaningful jobs, I’d say that more than half do… The ones we present to our client are usually the people who understand themselves fairly well.”
At the Temple of Apollo at Delphi is inscribed the advice “Know thyself.” I assume that was good advice for the ancient Greeks. It’s certainly good advice for twenty-first century graduates, so below are 6 tips for uncovering your signature strengths:
Your strengths are what you bring to work. Reflect on your earlier jobs and your time at school. What did you enjoy most? What were you best at? Maybe you have talents that were tangential in the past, but that could become significant if recognized and nurtured.
Although generic strengths are simple to state, they’re seldom much help. Seek distinctive strengths that closely tie to what’s required for success in a particular line of work. Narrow and deep characteristics that make you truly stand out will naturally aim you toward some fields and roles and not others. They’re what a prospective employer is most likely to notice and remember.
2. Performance Reviews
Look back at past performance evaluations—both the formal documents and what you heard informally—for ideas about skills.
Although you can gain invaluable insights from feedback, view it as input rather than as the exact answer to your inquiry. You may or may not fully agree with them. Your past positions may or may not be highly relevant to the career you’re planning.
3. Strength Surveys
Take one or more of the publicly available strength surveys. Surveys can make you confident in a characteristic you already recognized. Or you may notice new talents or features of your personality.
4. Input from Others
Ask current or former colleagues, search consultants, or career counselors for honest feedback without pulling punches. They may mention strengths you don’t recognize, raise questions about the strengths you do mention, or ask questions that help you visualize new strengths.
5. "Hire" Yourself
Consider a position that interests you in the long term and think about whether you would hire yourself. Ask yourself, “Why would I be hired for this job?” Ask, “What would I fail to get this offer?” By putting your strengths assessment in the context of a situation like this, you may become aware of strengths and shortcomings that you’d otherwise miss.
6. List Signature Strengths
Let each of these exercises be a test of the others. If the same strengths appear from multiple sources, you’re probably finding something that’s well established. If a strength appears only once, it may not be that important, or it may be that you’ve never been in a position where it shows.
Be sure to capture important talents, even if you’ve never used them. List any area where you believe you’re unusually capable, whether or not it’s obvious how it would affect career strategy. Your strengths may suggest appealing new opportunities, personal growth priorities, and how to direct a job search.
This article was adapted from The Strategic Career: Let Business Principles Guide You.