Tag Archives: talents

I Still Don’t Know What To Do

The last 3 posts have been part of a series aimed towards developing a modern vision quest: a way to figure out what your talents and mission are, so you can become an active, productive adult member of society.

I’ve told you why I think it’s necessary, how to start identifying your talents, and how to start establishing a mission. But odds are pretty good that you still feel lost and confused.

The problem is, we’re not describing something that is quantifiable. I can’t tell you how to measure your mathematical capability, or your spacial reckoning, or your athleticism. And even if each skill were measurable, I couldn’t tell you which skills to measure, for there are an infinite number of possible skills and talents. So even though I’ve asked you to write them down, they aren’t actually the kind of thing you can really write down.

So unlike the annual planning series, you won’t leave this one feeling like you really know what you’re doing. But at least you’ll be thinking about the right things, and moving in the right direction.

Let’s start a conversation about what else needs to be included. What have you found helpful in your search for a mission?

Resources For Further Reading
What Do You Want to Be When You Grow Up? A Stupid Question

Talents and Skills

Many times on this site, in discussions of how to decide on a business or what you want to do with your life, I talk about your talents and skills. Since most people use these terms interchangeably, I’d like to take this opportunity to discuss what I mean by them.


I use talents in the same sense as First, Break All The Rules, Now, Discover Your Strengths, and Strengths Finder 2.0. That is, a talent is an inborn ability or tendency to respond in a given way. (Actually, they say, your talents are set at a young age. But since I assume anyone reading this post is more than 5 years old, you can think of them as innate.) Some people, faced with someone else’s distress, will automatically try to calm them down; these people should go into medicine or counseling. Some people, faced with someone else’s distress, will automatically tell them to quit whining and get back to work; these people should go into coaching or the military. Getting these two groups of people mixed up will do no one any good: the “coach”‘s patients will feel terrible and the “therapist”‘s platoon will be ineffective.

In this sense of the word, we obviously all have talents — it’s not just restricted to artists and athletes. And since talents are not trainable, it’s important to make sure that your talents are matched up with the job you’re doing. You may have dozens of talents to a greater or lesser degree, but you probably have 3-5 that really stand out, things that you do or handle or learn much better than most people.

My talents, for example, are

  • understanding relationships between things
  • memorizing data (especially what I’ve heard, as opposed to what I’ve seen or read)
  • communication


Skills, in contrast, are things that you have learned. Although they will often complement your talents, they aren’t things that you were born knowing how to do. You had to learn them, and you could probably figure out how to teach them to others.

Almost any talent can be learned as a skill, although some are more difficult than others. My cousin is enthusiastic as a talent: given a situation, she will automatically start looking for reasons it’s good, and for ways she can jump in and participate. I’m learning it as a skill, by practicing every day, in every situation, to ask myself “Why is this a good thing? What can I do to be part of this?” My boyfriend has adaptability as a talent; he just isn’t bothered by even dramatic changes. I’m slowly learning it as a skill, building contingency plans into my strategies and reminding myself that nothing is set in stone.

And some skills aren’t talents for anyone. Nobody’s born knowing how to ride a bike or balance a checkbook. A talent for athleticism or precision may help you learn them faster, but you still have to be taught.

For example, I have skills in using Microsoft Excel (greatly assisted by my talent for understanding relationships), test taking (aided by my talent for memorization, public speaking (aided by my talent for communication) and building a business (not particularly related to any of my talents).

Knowledge Skills

Knowledge skills are a special category of skills, things that you “know” rather than things that you “know how to do”. The primary difference is that knowledge skills are easily transferable. For example:

If you know how many free throws Michael Jordan has successfully made in his career, you can easily put that knowledge in my head: you tell me the number, and now I know it. That’s a knowledge skill.

If you know how to successfully shoot a free throw, it’s much harder to put that knowledge in my head. Actually, you can’t do it directly at all. You can help me discover it on my own, by making recommendations on my technique and advice as you watch me try, but you can’t put “how to shoot a free throw” in my head. That’s a skill.

Knowledge skills are things that you know that you could write down or easily communicate to other people. They’re encompassed more in data or information than in how-tos or understanding.

Most skills have a host of related knowledge skills that come along with them. So most people who know how to create a trial statement of cash flows can also tell you what a cash flow statement is. But someone who knows what a cash flow statement is doesn’t necessarily know how to make one.

So what?

There are several ways that knowing your skills and talents can help you. The first and most boring is in applying for jobs. Although most HR departments want a traditional resume rather than a list of talents and skills, knowing your talents and skills can help you to communicate them more clearly to the hiring manager. And knowing what your talents are (and are not) can help you avoid jobs that you’ll hate.

Knowing your talents is also helpful in starting your own job, or starting a business. In order to succeed, you’ll need to offer something of value, preferably in a way that your competitors can’t duplicate. And your talents are a great source of non-duplicable value; by definition, they are something that you do better than most other people, and so they point towards things that others cannot or will not do for themselves.

Having a current list of your talents and skills is also helpful in planning for the future or deciding what course to take. What do you want to do with your life? Your talents point towards things that you’re likely to enjoy and be good at. Once you’ve selected something you might like to do, determine what skills would be needed. Any skills that you need but don’t have, start work on acquiring them.

What Next?

Unfortunately, life doesn’t have a source code where you can go to get a list of your talents and skills. There are lots of sources for coming up with ideas, but ultimately you’ll have to decide what terms and definitions fit you best.

The Talents and Skills Worksheet can help you get started. Sit down and brainstorm areas where you have natural talent, and related skills that go with them. Go through past resumes and professional certifications for ideas on your skills; look for repeating themes in your skills and your work history to get an idea of your talents. Sit down with trusted friends, family members, or coworkers and ask their opinions.

Keep this sheet handy, and jot down ideas as they occur to you. Over weeks, months, and years, you’ll start to get a feel for what you have to offer.

Resources for Further Reading
Multiple Intelligence Theory
Disc Communication Styles
Is Your Genius at Work

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A Modern Vision Quest

I had a conversation with a friend last year about the life stages of a human being. Although every person is obviously different, most people, we observed, will go through these stages at approximately these ages:

  • Childhood (0 – 7 or 8 ) In this stage, a person is new to this whole gig, and is just trying to learn about everything that’s going on. They’re overwhelmed by the amount of information out there, and don’t have the time, experience, or spare processing power to do much analysis of what is happening.

    My friend says that in jungle cultures, children are first allowed to wield a machete at age 7 or 8. In the Catholic church, children are considered mature enough to understand and take communion around 7 or 8. In US culture, although we have no formal rituals, 7 or 8 is about the time most kids are assigned chores of their own, and the earliest most parents would consider letting their kids have a pet.

  • Adolescence (7 or 8 – 30 or 33) In this stage, people continue to learn about the world, but their focus is now more on figuring out how they fit into it. Exploration of skills and talents, pushing your limits to see where they are, and trying out new things are the primary activities. Towards the later years, skills and talents should hopefully be clear, and focus is on how best to use those skills and talents to do something useful in the community.

    I realize that my age range here is controversial, because most places define “adult” now at age 18 or 21. But if you look at people who have changed the world, from Jesus & Buddha to Ghandi and Martin Luther King Jr, the turning point in their lives, when they began to affect others and to devote themselves to their lives’ work, came closer to age 30 than age 20.

  • Adult (30 or 33 – ?60 or 65?) This is the period when most of your life’s work will be done, whether it’s ending racial injustice or raising great kids.

    Please note that this is unrelated to success in other areas; it is obviously possible for an adolescent to release a hit album, become a basketball start, or start a multi-million-dollar business in their dorm room. And all of those successes are awesome, and worthwhile. But they’re usually not the sort of thing that a person would count as their “life’s work”; most people who achieve all that will start looking for something more.

    What it means to you

    Here’s the main problem with our culture (and if you live in a place that hasn’t fully imported US culture, watch out for this pitfall): we don’t teach people how to be adults.

    The mechanisms of our culture do a very poor job of helping us figure out what our strengths are and how to use them, what our weaknesses are and how to compensate for them, and what unique value we can offer to the world.

    In the industrial age, this wasn’t such a big deal. The world had pre-defined slots, and you were going to be hammered into one whether you liked it or not. So if you never found your unique set of talents, it didn’t matter much.

    But now we’re in the information age, and you’re going to be self-employed one way or another. You need to offer something unique if you’re going to get ahead, and knowing your individual talents, skills, knowledges, and capability is critical for success.

    I don’t have an easy answer for you. But I have struggled with this for the last 10 years, and I have come across some things that can help. So the next few posts will cover ideas on how to find your niche in the world.

Selecting Your First Business

Have we talked you into it? Starting a business? Congratulations! It’s scary as all get out, let me acknowledge that upfront. But it’s also super-awesome.

Now… what business do you start?

Things to Consider

1) Your talents and skills
Yes, I know I said (and I still stand by it) that you can start a business doing something you don’t even like to do. If the only business idea you have is doing something you hate, please start that one… it’s better than not starting a business at all (and you’ll have a strong incentive to turn it into a business rather than a job ASAP). But if you have multiple ideas, why not go with the option that best suits you?

You also need to consider your talents and skills to determine what you can actually do. I’m not saying that a 60-year-old technophobe can’t start a computer-repair business, but they must have a way to compensate for the fact that they’re a technophobe, whether that’s through their employees, partners, or planned future education.

2) The needs of the world
My dad has many things that he enjoys doing and is good at: making musical instruments, playing musical instruments, telling stories, driving buses, and teaching school kids. He would be happy to make money by doing any of these (and in point of fact, he does).

But there’s more demand for some of these things than others. He taught 2nd grade for years, because the US needs a lot more 2nd grade teachers than it does hammered dulcimers. Now that he’s “retired”, he spends more of his time driving buses than telling stories, because more people need the transportation.

If one of your talents/passions is much easier to monetize than others, why not start with that one?

3) How much capital do you have? How comfortable are you with loans?
I hope, as you read this, that you have a $1,000 savings bond that’s about to mature, and you have no concerns about where your start-up funding is going to come from.

But if that’s not the case, don’t despair. You still have two options.

  1. Take out a loan. Many businesses start with loans — it’s part of why they don’t “make money” in the first couple of years. Having a loan from the bank can actually increase your chances, because the bank won’t give you money until you can convince them that you have a good shot at success… which means a business with a bank loan probably has a good shot at success. Loans from friends and family can also help you out (to be fair to your friends and family, make sure you can convince them you have a good shot at success before you take their money).
  2. Reduce your needs. There are a lot of resources out there that can make starting a business much cheaper than it was 10 years ago. You can get free business cards from vistaprint.com (upgrade to a paid version after your first set to get the vistaprint logo off the back). A website costs around $10/year, and there are tools that will make you a pretty decent one without the expense of a web designer (although a web designer is worth springing for if people finding you on Google is an important part of your business. An iPhone or Droid can substitute for an entire Point of Sale system, or you can skip the physical location entirely and sell on ebay, Shopify, or Etsy. The first small business I ever observed from start-up was begun with a $300 laptop and a $5 book of carbon-paper invoices.

    You can upgrade your business as you go, but if you start small, then your “risk” can be less than you’d spend on a weekend in Vegas.

4) Do you want a business or a job?
We call them small businesses, but most people don’t own a business… they own their own job. There’s nothing wrong with that (no matter what Michael Gerber says), but you should be aware of what you’re getting into. Owning your own job probably means working 40 hours a week at the part of the business that you’re currently aware of, and working 10+ hours per week at the parts of the business that you haven’t even thought of yet. Click here for more information on owning a business vs owning a job.

If you have some small business experience, either in a business you’ve owned previously, or as a manager in someone else’s business, you may be able to start an actual business, in which you won’t be doing the actual preparation of food/sales of books/repairing of plumbing/whatever. If you’ve never hired employees before, or if you don’t have experience with running a business, and especially if you need income to start right away, you’d probably better plan on owning your own job.

Once you’ve given all of that some consideration, put together a list of ideas for your business. Look at your monetization options. Talk to some people (people you can trust not to try to scare you out of the business idea, and preferably some people who are self-employed themselves) about your ideas and which they think would be best, and how to get started.

And then… go for it!

Resources for Further Reading
Strengths Finder
The E-Myth

The above product links are affiliate links. If you enjoyed and appreciated this information, you can give me monetary reward by buying products through those links. Learn More.