Take control of your career by not doing the things you already aren’t doing

Published by Peter on

I learned quite by accident that to be happier and more successful in my career, I needed to stop trying to do things I wasn’t actually doing. That is, 10 years before I ever heard of StrengthsFinder, I stumbled into a strengths-based approach to work.

As I pointed out a couple of weeks ago, there are tons of assessments you can do to find out what your strengths are.

When you’re in a position to lean on your strengths instead of struggle with your weaknesses, you have an easier time achieving goals, completing tasks, and working with others.

According to Gallup’s research, people who know and use their strengths are
– more engaged at work
– more productive in their roles
– happier and healthier

The CliftonStrengths website

Forget about getting better at things you suck at

The flip side of a strengths-based approach is the willingness to allow yourself to be bad at some things.

We seem to have an obsession with filling in all our perceived gaps. “I need to get better at X” is far too common a phrase. While a diversity of competencies is beneficial, and knowing more skills is better than knowing fewer, being too focused on improving weaknesses is a sure way to make a daily practice of struggle and frustration.

Imagine a two-lane highway leading to your destination. One lane is mostly clear with the occasional slowdown, but the other is littered with debris and pocked with potholes the entire way.

A tree fell outside my house in 2006. The city brought in professionals to clear the debris, which is not one of my strengths.

If you’re constantly in a mode of “I need to get better at clearing debris and fixing potholes,” you will take the cruddy lane and struggle through the rough ride, ultimately getting to your destination late, exhausted, and frustrated, and possibly with a beat-up car. And ahead of you will be more potholes and debris.

If you just let yourself drive the car in the clear lane, you can get to your destination happy, energized, and ready to move on to whatever’s next, with another clear lane in front of you.

A simple way to understand which is your clear lane

At one job, around the time I turned 30, I was head of marketing for a small startup. I and my team of two rebranded the company, designed brochures, published articles, built the website, ran seminars, and supported the sales team, among other things.

This video is roughly the same story you’re reading now. It was recorded in my home office.

But every day I went home feeling guilty. Each day I had 15 things to do and time to do only 10 of them. It’s not unusual to have more work than you can do—if you don’t, you may not have a big enough vision. But something nagged at me that was more than just “not enough time.”

One day, I decided to keep all my to-do lists.

Every morning I’d write a new to-do list, and cross things off as I went through the day. I had been doing this for a while. I still do it. It works for me. Your mileage may vary.

But this time, I kept all those lists instead of throwing them out. After three months, I pulled them out and looked them over.

This taught me two things:

First, that I had accomplished a hell of a lot more than I was giving myself credit for.

Second, that there was a very clear pattern in the items that were left undone at the end of each day. Day after day, the same types of tasks were the ones that fell to the bottom of the list. It wasn’t because they weren’t urgent or important; everything on my list was urgent and important. It was because of the type of work they required.

That day, I decided I should never take a job where tasks like those were critical to my success.

I essentially decided to stop doing the things I already wasn’t doing.

So how’d that work out for me?

Great! Seriously. That simple lesson allowed me to take over my career and guided me for the next 25 years. I knew what to avoid—how to stay out of the pothole-pitted lane littered with debris—and where I should focus.

This is how it feels when you’re living a strengths-based life.

You can do it, too

I do think there’s great value in using the research-backed strengths assessments. A lot of very smart people have put in a lot of hard work to create usable frameworks that can help you align your life to a strengths-based approach.

But you don’t need to use those assessments. You can do it on your own. Ask people who know you well to tell you what they think you’re good at. Track the things you have a hard time doing. Look for the patterns that match with what brings you joy, and what brings you dread.

I’d love to hear about any techniques you’ve discovered that work for you, whether you developed them yourself or you got them from a coach or a book or a boss or a friend. Drop a comment or contact me.


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