Breaking down the question 'what am I good at?'
As a career coach for the past 20 years, 'what am I good at?' is one of the most common questions I hear from executive clients, entrepreneurs and students. While the context may differ, the sentiment remains the same. Making a career transition is scary, whether you are just starting out in your professional life or putting everything on the line to launch a new venture.
So much of our success seemingly depends on being able to provide a compelling answer to this question, whether it’s listing your strengths in an interview, pitching your startup to potential investors, chasing the C-suite, or considering a career pivot into a completely different field.
While outlining your skills is important, focusing on what you are good at merely scratches the surface. I prefer to utilize a combination of the questions/exercises to help my executive clients and students dig deeper to articulate their value and gain insights into truly motivates them.
Here are my top 7 strategies to help you answer 'what am I good at?':
Instead of asking 'what am I good at', ask what piques your curiosity.
Instead of asking yourself 'what am I good at?' it's better to emphasize possibilities for what you could become, rather than focus on limitations around what you already are. The inherent problem with this question is that it only focuses on where you have been without taking into account where you are capable of going.
Let's break down why:
- There’s a world of things you could be good at, but you haven’t been exposed to them yet: If you think of what you're good at when you're 24 and then look at it 20 years later, some of your key accomplishments involve things that you weren't great at when you first started. I begin with this question for clients and my students because it shows what will motivate them to want to learn more.
- Reflecting on what you’re curious about can open new doors: Asking what someone is curious about may tap into a budding passion or the person could explore a field and find it’s not for them. Either way, they gain valuable knowledge about themselves that guides their next phase of exploration – career or personal. If someone is curious about something, it means that they might be willing to spend extra time and effort to learn more.
- You could decide to develop life-changing skills that aren’t related to your career: It could also lead them to develop new skills that seem unrelated to their current career path, yet will be a crucial component of their future success. Think of Steve Jobs taking the calligraphy class as a young man. At the time it seemed like a whim, yet the foundation he gained in that class formed the basis of the design aesthetic that set Apple apart from its rivals.
Here‘s a scenario that underscores the power of curiosity:
My client had launched a successful healthcare startup and raised series C funding, yet he found himself bored and restless. He had tied so much of his identity to this business and wasn’t ready to sell, but he did not feel the drive that once defined him. When I asked about what he was reading these days, he mentioned his new fascination with artificial intelligence and desire to learn more if he only had the time. We explored that further and discussed options to potentially incorporate it into his current business.
He took some AI classes and ultimately decided to exit and focus on a new venture with a co-founder he met during his exploration. Not only did he find a new passion, but he also learned he enjoys the invigoration of the early stage startup phase.
Think back to when have you accomplished something you did not think was possible.
I always ask my clients to give me 3-5 examples of when they accomplished something they initially thought would be impossible, and to walk me through how that felt.
This question is one of the main ways I inspire confidence in both my students and executive clients. Impostor syndrome knows no boundaries in age or experience, and some of the most accomplished and intelligent people I have ever met doubt themselves. This exercise encourages clients to think back to examples of times they now regard as successes and remember when a positive outcome was not such a given.
We explore the journey of how they felt as they built that skill or the steps they took to make that dream a reality. It can be too easy to look back at our past wins and gloss over how much work was involved. This list of successes is helpful to prepare for interview success stories as well. I have clients write these down and keep the list near their desk when they are starting to write their pitch for investors or next cover letter or networking email.
What do you value most in your work at this moment in time?
The ‘what am I good at’ question is often limiting because it doesn't take into account the various life factors that influence what's important to you in a job at this moment in your life, and that is constantly shifting. For some people helping others is a top priority, while prestige, money and influence may motivate another.
One of my favorite activities is this Work Values Exercises, which provides 30+ different attributes of a job.
When a client asks 'What am I good at?' this is the process I have them follow:
- I have them spend 5 minutes reviewing the list from the Work Values Exercise.
- I ask them to select their top 4 or 5 and then rank order the ones most important to them right now.
- Then, as they evaluate offers at the end of the process, I have them come back to this and look at which ones align with the values that they had mentioned.
I have my clients and students do this at the very beginning of a job search, as it directs where they will start to look and ensures that any potential jobs that they apply for align with their values.
It's interesting to see this shift over the years from when you're first starting your career to when you're vying for promotions or perhaps pivoting to a completely different field. In addition, personal aspects of your life can greatly influence your need for flexibility, for instance if you're taking care of a family member.
This type of quick exercise is a perfect supplement to the comprehensive, reporting on work motivations that Fingerprint for Success delivers based on research involving 20 years of quantifiable data of successful entrepreneurs. Understanding developmental aspects of yourself (identity and belief structures) is critical when starting a new job search or taking your startup to the next level of growth.
Rather than haphazardly applying to jobs or pitching to random investors, you are strategizing a game plan that ensures the time you devote to your search/pitch is spent on opportunities worth taking. With enough time and energy, most people can secure a job offer. Getting the right job offer for you that challenges you and sets you up for future success and growth takes insight and planning.
Keep in mind that we are not static creatures and constantly evolve in our work and professional lives. With each new role, you acquire new skills and competencies. It’s quite common for your results on the F4S to change slightly over time, reflecting your own transformation as your capabilities grow and your context shifts.
For example, the results of an entrepreneur in the pre-seed bootstrap phase may emphasize different work motivations than a co-founder leading a team of 100 and preparing for the next substantial round of funding.
What are the past highs and lows in your life?
While working at Vanderbilt, the Career Services staff participated in this life mapping exercise in a staff retreat and it’s one of my favorite exercises that provides a visual depiction of your journey to date. I find it’s especially helpful for clients in the midst of a career pivot and founders feeling fatigue on the entrepreneurial roller coaster.
How to map your highs and lows to help you find your ideal career:
- Take a blank piece of letter size paper, turn it sideways (landscape orientation), and draw a line from left to right in the very middle. Start with around the time you were 18 and draw a line to show the ups and downs by how happy you were various ages (these differ for everyone based on your personal life events; college students usually include high school years).
- Write a few keywords by significant peaks, valleys and places in between. While I focus on professional ups and downs, we do not live in a vacuum and it’s important to recognize the impact of personal life events and take a holistic view.
- After you finish, go back and reflect on the circumstances surrounding the highs - where were you professionally? What were the qualities of that job you liked? Are there any patterns across those high points in your career? This exercise can provide insights into why you were happy. Then, trace your lows. What was it about that particular position or situation that felt so detrimental to you?
When seeing this in a visual way it allows you to understand more about the things that make you happy and the things that you want to avoid. Challenges are not always a bad thing, but it's when you feel you're equipped to handle that challenge that makes the difference. Tracking your journey can demonstrate your resilience.
Try this exercise with your F4S results in mind. Consider which experiences reflected your Top 5 motivations.
What would you do if money were not an object for you?
Asking 'what am I good at?' is very different from asking ‘what would I like to do?’. Sometimes we are great at things that we don't enjoy, but do them as a sense of duty or inertia because we started on a path and it seems too hard to shift course.
When my clients and students are first starting out on a transition or job search journey, there’s often a great deal of anxiety. Many want to tackle this search as they would anything else in life – headfirst! They want to jump in and start sending applications right away. While I applaud the initiative and drive, it’s super important to take a moment and strategize. Time is limited for everybody and we need to make sure that the effort that they put in will most likely reap the best benefits.
Brainstorming is a key component of this strategy session. I want to give my clients the opportunity to visualize the possibilities of what could be. The sky’s the limit and they don’t have to limit themselves to reality.
I ask these questions to help resolve self-limiting patterns:
- Which aspects of the daydream bring them joy?
- With research and teaming up with potential partners who complement them, is it such a stretch?
- If it’s not realistic at this time, can we incorporate any aspect of their desires into the next step for their career?
Once they paint a picture of their perfect world, we explore their vision. Our mini vacation from reality can offer clarity to things they want to avoid in their next role and must haves. It may also launch an entrepreneurial journey for some.
What do you want to avoid in your next role?
Being honest about what you don't want to do in your next role is just as important as asking yourself 'what am I good at'. This is all about figuring out what motivates you, even if it's on the flip side. Think of your lowest 5 motivations in your F4S results. When exploring future opportunities, it’s important to understand what motivates you and try to position yourself in environments that set you up for success.
Keep in mind that this does not mean avoiding challenges, it's just ensuring that the conditions are right for you to thrive. For example, if you are a staunch environmentalist, you will not want to work at a company with careless environmental practices. If you feel energized when working in groups, you may find solitary work in a lab too confining. Of course, keep in mind that these motivations may change over time and are on a continuum (see the benchmark section of your report).
When I first started working, I dreaded making presentations and any type of public speaking. Within that first year, I delivered admissions presentations to 400 people during open houses. While initially daunting, it forced me to stretch myself in a way that I hadn't before and when I opened myself up to building new skills that weren’t second nature, I learned that some of my favorite jobs involve public speaking. As long as I thoroughly prepared and understood my material, I could do something I did not think was possible for me. I had been limiting myself before that with my own lack of confidence in what I could be.
You want to find the balance between being aware of job qualities you truly need to avoid, versus those that intimidate you.
What scares you in a good way?
'What am I good at' limits people to think about what is, rather than what could be.
What scares you in a good way? is an important stretch question to help people get out of their comfort zone and focus on chasing dreams (coming up with a realistic step-by-step plan to make those a reality).
I had a client a few years ago who had worked for her family’s real estate business for 10 years and helped them grow to new levels, but she kept pushing them to incorporate data into their decision making. She completed a data analytics bootcamp and spent nights and weekends sharpening her skills in SQL and Python. While her family appreciated her efforts to modernize their systems, she felt like she hit the ceiling in terms of growth.
Eventually, she decided to make the leap and apply to a large company for a data analyst role. To prepare, we focused on telling her story in a way that highlighted her transferrable skills and the ones she had acquired through her new immersion in data. When reflecting on her journey, she talked about feeling unnerved when stepping foot into that bootcamp and wondering if she could master these new skills. It took some time and a lot of hard work, but she grew in ways she never expected, which gave her the courage to talk to her family and accept the new data role aligned with her passion.
When it comes to fear, a little can be healthy because it makes you perform due diligence, but shouldn’t keep you from trying. Calculated risks are a huge part of reaching the next level in our professional and personal lives. Of course, remember to remain adaptable throughout the process, since the path is often filled with unexpected challenges, as well as opportunities.
Final thoughts on asking 'what am I good at':
There are many paths to fulfillment in your work, but the journey needs to be purposeful with ample amounts of self-knowledge and flexibility. If you focus only on answering 'what am I good at', rather than what you would like to be good at, or what energizes you, you risk taking a career path that won't be entirely fulfilling in a few years.
My best advice is to gain as many insights about yourself as possible and to always stay open to new possibilities. When you feel a firey motivation start burning inside of you, allow yourself to explore it — there's a good chance it will lead you to the answers you're looking for!
Looking for a 'what am I good at' quiz? Take your F4S assessment for free to uncover your natural talents in minutes.
This article was written by Tiffany Franklin, who has been a career coach since 1998, guiding over 6,000 job seekers of all levels and industries through the finer points of a job search. She currently works as Associate Director for Career Services at an Ivy League university where she helps freshmen through Ph.Ds. and alumni with all aspects of their career search.