Imagine that life consisted of one long construction project of a house. And imagine that you were born with one tool attached to your hand. Let’s say you were born with a hammer.
Your primary skill is to slam nails into wood. But that’s not all you can do with a hammer. According to Wikipedia, a hammer is a versatile tool: “Hammers are used for a wide range of driving, shaping, and breaking applications.”
We need all those things if we’re building a house. It’s essential work. But let’s say you dislike those things. You prefer to draw like your neighbor, Jimbo, who was born with a pencil. He draws, designs, writes, and makes doodles. Since you can’t do any of that stuff with a hammer, you walk around frustrated and angry all the time.
Everybody tells you, “Look, buddy, you have this gift; use it!” And you say, “Screw that. This is a curse! I can only destroy things.” So you ignore people’s advice, and you try to draw…With a HAMMER.
There’s Nothing Wrong With Your Tool
In life, we often look at the strengths of others and try to do what they do. We ignore our own strengths and pursue things that are not the right fit.
I firmly believe that every person is born with a key skill or gift that you can put to work in life. But the problem is that we use our tool for the wrong purpose. We try to become designers or architects with a hammer. We try to plaster a wall with a soft brush.
Often, people say “I don’t know what my key skill is.” But the answer is always right in front of you.
Just like the example I shared at the beginning, you must stop looking at what Jimbo does, and start looking at what’s in your own hands. Look at yourself. Too often, we try to change ourselves so we can do something we “want” to do. And where do our wants come from? Not from within us. It comes from looking at others.
Look, I want to sing like the artist, The Weeknd. The guy has an amazing voice. He didn’t obtain that by training. He was born with those vocal cords. I wasn’t. So what? I’m not going to cry about it. Everyone is born with a unique strength.
Change Your Purpose
The legendary business thinker, Peter Drucker, always taught individuals and organizations to focus on their strengths. In Managing Oneself, you can learn more about that strategy. It’s a quick read that I recommend to every person who wants to improve their self-knowledge.
But one thing we need to keep in mind is that self-knowledge alone is not enough. If you understand your skills, you’re only halfway there. In the world of startups and venture capitalists, there’s a similar analogy.
On the “This Week in Startups” podcast, I heard Jason Calacanis and his guest, Mike Jones, talk about how some founders are trying to cut a wall with a butterknife.
You’ll make some progress, but you’ll never destroy the wall. Does that mean your butter knife is bad? Of course not. You might destroy a wall with a sledgehammer, but you can’t make a peanut butter sandwich with it.
In life, it’s all about figuring out what your tool is and where you can put it to work effectively.
A Self-Examination Exercise
But how do you figure out what your tool is? It can be frustrating going through life without having that self-knowledge. If you don’t know what your tool is, try the following exercise. Sit down with someone you’ve worked with—not your drinking buddy or book club friend. You want input from someone who has experienced your strengths and weaknesses firsthand.
Ask your friend to play a game with you. The objective is to figure out what you’re good at.
The idea behind this game is that you can bounce ideas off each other. Your friend can serve like a sounding board—someone who gives you a view from the outside. Play the game like this:
- First, ask: ”What am I good at?”
- Then, ask: “Do I enjoy it?”
If you answer “no” on the second question, you have to restart the game. Keep going until you find something you’re good at and enjoy doing.
You can also do this in your journal. But if you play it with someone else, you can feed off each other’s input. Sometimes we have a different idea about our own capabilities.
It takes time, introspection, and humility to figure out what you’re good at. The humility part is often overlooked. When we have an ego, we’re not open to other people’s views. If the guy from my example listened to the people who told him to use his hammer, he could have saved himself a lot of time and frustration.
Ultimately, this is the nature of life. If we keep on looking at all the Jimbo’s in the world, we waste our time on what we don’t have. Instead, look at what you do have, and think about how you can use that in a big way.