Why Traditional Career Advice No Longer Works and What To Do Instead
Let’s go back to that scene where I’m crying in my boss’ office. What happened next?
I finally made myself get serious: I knew I couldn’t put it off any longer. I had to find better work.
So I began asking myself some tough questions:
What did I really want for my life and career?
Why was I so miserable at a job that I once enjoyed?
And what did I need to do differently so that I never got stuck again?
As I worked through these questions, I realized I had gotten my event planning job because I had focused heavily on skills. But after a while, skills alone were not enough to sustain me.
I started to feel burned out, stuck, and completely unsure about what I wanted.
If you’re here, you’re probably in the same place. And if that’s the case, I’m so glad you’re here.
This lesson will address the advice you got that isn’t working, the difference between a skill and a strength, and how to operate in your zone of genius. Let’s jump in.
Let’s start with why traditional career advice doesn’t work. There are three main reasons.
First, you were probably told over and over again that you could do anything.
I certainly heard this. And I took this to mean that I should be good at everything.
But really, that’s ridiculous. Of course you can’t do everything.
There are some things you are naturally good at and...let’s be honest, there are some things you shouldn’t touch with a ten-foot pole.
Second, the advice you received over-emphasized education.
So many people said you had to go to college to be successful. But in reality, college isn’t the best fit for everyone.
For some, going to college was a good choice, but getting a college degree is not the same thing as knowing what kind of work you’ll actually be good at.
Or maybe you’re worried because you didn’t go to college and now you feel that you aren’t qualified for anything.
The truth is, your college education or lack thereof, is not the main determinant for your success.
Finally, there’s a developmental reason why the original career advice you received doesn’t hold up.
If you’re like most people, you were probably trying to figure out an entire career path for yourself when you were just 18 years old.
Honestly, that’s just too young to know what you really want. At that age, you should have been exploring different options to see what fits. But you were under so much pressure to pick a college and figure out a career. You didn’t really have the time or space to explore, to figure out what kind of work you would actually be good at and interested in.
But here’s the main reason traditional career advice didn’t work: It told you to focus on getting a job to make a good living but it didn’t really help you figure out what kinds of jobs would fit you as a person.
No one taught you how to discover your strengths or how to develop a career path based on them.
Let’s pause for a minute and answer an important question: What is the difference between a skill and a strength?
Your skills are extrinsic. They are things you’ve learned. That’s actually the best thing about skills: As long as you are open and teachable, you can always learn new ones.
Your strengths, on the other hand, are intrinsic. They are a fundamental part of who you are. While they can deepen as you grow, they are relatively stable. Here’s the catch though: While it’s great to have many skills, not every skill is a strength.
That’s why I got stuck. I was in a job that felt like a good fit at the start but after a little while, I was bored out of my mind. I was really confused because I thought I had done everything right,
So what had gone wrong?
That summer, I went back to the drawing board and began to ask myself what I would need to do differently to get a better job.
With the help of a supportive mentor, I began to see that most of my job searching revolved around my skills. My mentor challenged me to think bigger than that: What else I could discover about who I was as a person?
As I did this, I began to notice other things about myself that I hadn’t seen before. Intangible things, capacities that went beyond just skill sets. Things like leadership, creativity, and visionary thinking.
My mentor helped me see that my skills weren’t everything. What mattered more were these intrinsic abilities. In other words, what really mattered were my strengths.
This is one of the most important distinctions to make. You must know the difference between your skills and your strengths.
Remember: Skills are extrinsic. They are things you can learn. Strengths are intrinsic. They are part of who you are. They are natural talents. They are gifts.
At this point, you might be wondering: How are my skills and strengths connected?
While your skills can sometimes point to your strengths, your strengths help you make sense of your skills. Your strengths help you understand why you’re good at certain things and not so great at others.
You know a skill points to a strength when you are good at it and it presents an enjoyable challenge.
That brings us to some additional questions:
Which skills reflect strengths and not just competencies?
Which skills point to weaknesses and why are they weaknesses?
Are you weak at a certain skill because you don’t have experience or because you don’t like it?
And then how do you know which skills are worth developing?
To answer these questions, it’s helpful to use the four zones framework from Gay Hendricks.
Hendricks is a psychologist who wrote a book called The Big Leap, which is all about conquering fear and taking creative risks.
He says our skills fall into four zones: incompetence, competence, excellence, and genius. The zones are a great way of organizing your skills, so you can see which ones truly reflect your strengths.
Let’s jump in with zone number one: The zone of incompetence.
This zone involves things you are really not good at and you don’t enjoy them. According to Hendricks, you should delegate them to someone else or find creative ways of not doing them.
The zone of competence involves doing things you are all right at but there are people who are much better at them than you.
The zone of competence is comfortable but not challenging. You can waste a lot of time in this zone. That’s why you don’t want to stay here.
The third zone is the zone of excellence.
This zone includes skills you are really good at, or areas of natural talent. You’re better than most at these skills, but doing them doesn’t make you come alive.
For me, I am better than most at writing but when I get super honest about my strengths, I can recognize that even though I’m good at writing, I come alive when I’m speaking.
And finally, there’s the zone of genius. This involves work that makes you come alive,
You know you’re in your zone of genius when you lose track of time.
When you feel capable, yet challenged.
When you don’t have to muster up energy to do the work.
The work itself generates the energy you need to stay focused.
Your goal is to be operating in your zone of genius as much as possible.
This is how I found a better job. Instead of looking for work that fit the skill set I had at the time, I first took some time to discover my strengths. Then I figured out which skills connected to those strengths. And when I looked for work, I looked for opportunities that matched this unique combination of strengths and skills.
That’s how I eventually left event planning and got a job in marketing even though I didn’t have any experience in the industry... or even a business degree!
I knew I had the strengths for it. I knew I was resourceful and creative, that I had leadership potential. And, that I could communicate the big picture to other people on the team.
You might wonder if I was worried about not having all the skills for the job.
Yes, of course I was worried, but my mentor reminded me that I had reliable skills in managing projects. The other skills I needed? I knew I could learn them with time.
It’s the same for you: When it comes to building a career, the goal is to find work that aligns with your strengths, that allows you to operate in your zone of genius as much as possible.
So what’s the main takeaway here?
First, you can’t do everything! Second, just because you’re good at something doesn’t mean it aligns with your strengths, or that it’s in your zone of genius. Third, the key to finding work you’re excited about is to find work that lets you use your strengths, that allows you operate in your zone of genius as much as possible.
It might take a while. You might have to work in other zones until you can find that right job, but you keep reaching for it.
So what does this look like practically?
There are three exercises in the workbook for you with this lesson.
The first worksheet is really simple, you’re just going to take an inventory of all of your work-related skills. Write down everything from making sandwiches to designing websites.
Then you’re going to assign every skill to a zone.
Finally, you’re going to do a strengths assessment and spend some time reflecting on how your skills, strengths and zone of genius connect.
There are more detailed instructions in the workbook.
For now, I want to congratulate you on taking this step and I want to leave you with one of my favorite quotes from The Gifts of Imperfection, a book by Brené Brown. She writes,
“Squandering our gifts brings distress to our lives. As it turns out, it’s not merely benign or ‘too bad’ if we don’t use the gifts that we’ve been given; we pay for it with our emotional and physical well-being.
When we don’t use our talents to cultivate meaningful work, we struggle. We feel disconnected and weighed down by feelings of emptiness, frustration, resentment, shame, disappointment, fear, and even grief.”
Brown also writes, “We all have gifts and talents. When we cultivate those gifts and share them with the world, we create a sense of meaning and purpose in our lives.”