Chapter 5: What’s in My Toolbox? Talents, Skills, and Interests
To do easily what is difficult for others is the mark of talent. (Henri Frederic Amiel)
There are always things to repair around home. A tap leaks, a door jams, a leg falls off a chair, the motor mower breaks down…
Both my father and father-in-law are handymen and can fix most things around the house. So I grew up assuming that all men just naturally became expert at those household fix-it and build-it tasks. It was, I assumed, simply a matter of applying myself to the job at hand.
But somehow it wasn’t like that. Not for me! Those day-to-day handyman jobs that are part of family life – it took me a while to realise how good I had become at avoiding them. Eventually guilt would get the better of me and finally I would attempt them – often weeks or months later. They always seemed to take ages, and I invariably found them so difficult that they left me in a bad mood.
Sometimes I would visit a friend and notice a newly built fence or a well restored cabinet. I’d ask him how he managed it. Or I would request some advice on how to repair leaking windows. The answer would often frustrate me intensely – “Oh, that’s easy. All you have to do is…” Well it may have been easy for them, but my attempts to do similar feats were nothing short of pathetic.
Eventually I figured it out. I was technically inept. The few skills I did have in the fix-it and build-it arena have been developed through dogged perseverance, certainly not through any natural aptitude. Fixing the rattle in back of the car may be “easy” for some of my friends, but it’s just plain hard work for me. Of course, everything is easy if you have the know-how or skills or abilities. But when you don’t … they’re all dauntingly difficult.
It’s only natural then that as Arthur Miller notes: “your agenda will be driven by your design. Furthermore, not only will you focus on what you value most, you’ll avoid things that hold little motivational value for you, or the things you don’t do well.”
That’s me. Now I know why I felt so frustrated. The fact that I kept avoiding fix-it jobs should have told me what I wasn’t gifted or skilled in.
A key element in each of our fingerprints is the unique mix of talents, skills and gifts that we possess. They’re like a toolbox that we carry with us through life. Some of the tools are ones we seem to have possessed right from the beginning. As we progress through life, those innate skills often get sharper and more versatile. But something else happens too. Along the way other, new tools get added to our box.
The Autobiographical exercise in chapter 3 will have set you thinking about your own toolbox of talents, skills and interests. You will have used a varied mix of capabilities to do whatever tasks you listed there. Now we invite you to create a more extensive inventory. One way to do this would be for you to take a blank page and begin listing what you know to be your abilities. However, starting cold like that is difficult, so we suggest here some exercises that might help you.
But first let’s look at what we mean by the various items in your toolbox. The differences between abilities, talents, gifts, skills, competencies, and aptitudes are quite subtle. These words are often used as synonyms and there is a blurring when it comes to making absolute distinctions between them.
For our purposes we do want to suggest some differences, while still recognising that there is overlap. So the arbitrary distinctions we are about to adopt are only for the sake of convenience and clarity. Remember that, in general use, these words are often not sharply defined.
Here, then, is how we will use three terms:
Talents – those natural, God-given abilities we have been born with. To be fully used, talents need to be developed and grown, but their existence is already built into our fingerprint.
Skills – the know-how and competencies we have gained through the course of our lives, as a result of both formal training experiences and informal learning. Skills are not necessarily intrinsic to our make-up, though the ones we most quickly gain and most effectively use are often closely associated with our natural talents.
Interests – those activities and subjects that grab our attention and excite us. They are the things we become absorbed in and enthusiastic about, and which engage our passion.
Note: in the next chapter we’ll consider more particularly Spirit gifts. For the moment note that the distinction between talents and gifts is very hazy. If we accept that all abilities/talents/gifts are given by God, then there is no sharp line between “natural” giftings and “spiritual” gifts. (More about this in Chapter 6.)
One way of exploring the talents that you have been given is through the work of John Holland and his description of six different preferences. Holland’s work is familiar to career counsellors and has been influential for many years (see the end of this chapter).
Holland suggests that people who have similar interests also tend to enjoy similar work, similar co-workers and similar working environments. Expanding on this Holland describes six different clusters of interests, portraying them in a hexagon. People with interests adjacent to each other on the hexagon have more in common than those further removed or opposite each other.
Note: Holland’s hexagon looks like this:
This diagram has been used in a variety of ways. Richard Bolles invites his readers to imagine it as a party setting and asks them to choose which groups they would enjoy spending the most time with.
Another way of viewing it is as a church congregation where people are asked to divide up into groups according to their interests and hobbies. Alternatively, it can be viewed as people gathered in the different sections of the local library, where they are chatting about the types of books they’ve been browsing.
All these approaches invite you to choose the group you would feel most relaxed with and enjoy spending most time with. Which one is it?
Then imagine this group has left. Which of the remaining groups would you be most attracted to? This is your second preference.
Finally, imagine the second group has also left. Repeat the process to choose your third preference.
NOTE: In considering these categories try not to base it on who you think you should be, or who you wish you were, but look for the best description of who you really are. Often we have developed Christian or cultural biases towards certain interests and away from others. However, it’s important not to let these influence you.
Usually our natural talents and interests are evident from very early on in life. Often other people close to you may see them even more clearly than you do. So also invite feedback from family and friends to confirm the categories you choose. (To learn a lot more about the areas that may fit you best the Strong Interest Inventory™ is also a very useful tool. )
Holland has also developed an elaborate classification of occupations built around these six groups, also taking into account people’s second and third preferences. His work is based on the belief that people will be most satisfied in work environments related to their interests.
It’s also critical to differentiate between those people and activities we’re attracted to and those that not only interest us but also motivate us to action. For example, many people say they love music, but only some are drawn into seriously making music and loving the practice as well as the performance.
Our interests (in the sense Holland uses them) are about us doing naturally what others struggle to do. It’s as though we just can’t help ourselves from doing it because it is so much a part of who we are.
The Realistic tend to be honest, straightforward, practical workers. In interactions with others they don’t like drawn out negotiations, but prefer to get to the point quickly. They want to know what needs to be done and to be left alone to get on with the job and do it right the first time.
The Investigative tend to be logical, precise, reserved and independent. They prefer to work alone and assemble a lot of information before reaching conclusions. They want to know the reasons behind decisions and prefer information to be presented in a logical manner.
The Artistic are expressive, imaginative, independent, idealistic, open, unconventional and tolerant. They prefer a creative approach to problem solving and planning, relying heavily on intuition and imagination. They enjoy being given a free reign to discover possible solutions to problems.
The Social are helpful, friendly, co-operative, understanding and kind. They prefer to network in order to gather information before creating a plan of action. They are good networkers and like a team approach to creating solutions.
The Conventional are practical, careful, efficient, orderly, conscientious, persistent, reserved and structured. They are happy to accept instructions and prefer to have a clear and structured plan and to follow it. They pay attention to detail and take pleasure in putting the pieces of the plan together.
The Enterprising are adventurous, energetic, optimistic, extroverted, sociable, self-confident and ambitious. They prefer to lead a team to achieve a goal. They like to focus on the big picture while delegating work by getting others to commit to pieces of the plan.
A lot more suggestions, based on Holland’s work, about specific careers which may suit specific interest groups can be found in Richard Bolles’ books, What Color is Your Parachute? and The Three Boxes of Life.
Like the Myers-Briggs personality types we outlined in the last chapter, these categories of Holland’s need to be used carefully. Some people will find them more helpful than others. Be careful not to “box in” either yourself or others.
A second important qualification is to note that while Holland uses his categories in a relatively narrow way – i.e. to help people identify occupations or employment – we suggest that, like all the exercises in this book, they can be helpful for clarifying the bigger picture; that is, all of the roles and tasks we play during our week. So feel free to apply this activity to yourself as widely as you can.
Of course there are many other ways to explore what interests you most like. For example, consider the following questions:
(No need to spend long on these. Just note what answers first come to mind for you and then see if any recurring themes emerge. Don’t get stuck where nothing comes quickly to mind.)
What topics of conversation are guaranteed to keep you talking?
What do you love to do? (hobbies, activities, etc.)
What books do you browse through in bookstores or your local library?
What courses of study have you enjoyed most?
What issues do you feel most strongly about?
What issues would your friends say you feel most strongly about?
If you won or inherited a fortune, which causes/issues would you give money to?
If you were a reporter, what kind of stories would you like to write?
What are your favourite objects?
If you knew you couldn’t fail what would you most like to do?
What sorts of information do you find most fascinating?
Who do you greatly admire?
When you were ten years old, what did you dream of one day becoming?
As we have already mentioned, skills are related, but somewhat different to talents. We define them as: the know-how and abilities we have gained through the course of our lives, as a result of both formal training experiences and informal learning. Skills are not necessarily intrinsic to our make-up, though the ones we gain most quickly and use most effectively are often closely associated with our natural talents.
As Richard Bolles (author of the bestseller What Color is Your Parachute?) notes, some important things about our skills are:
Everyone has skills.
Most people have far more skills than they have ever realised.
We acquired most of our skills at an early age through informal life experience, rather than through formal training programmes or classroom teaching.
Many skills developed and used in one setting, can also be very usefully employed in other settings, although we may not previously have seen how readily transferable they are.
Many of our skills are not only transferable but also marketable, if we begin to view them from a creative point of view.
Many people have skills that they severely underestimate the significance of, or that they are not aware they possess.
Sometimes we need the assistance of others to help us appreciate and understand the skills that we have acquired.
Bolles follows the Dictionary of Occupational Titles, in which skills are broken down into three major groups – skills applying to Data (Information), to People, or to Things.
The skills are then arranged under each heading in a hierarchy – from less complex at the top to most complex at the bottom.
Skills with People
Skills with Information or Data
Skills with Things
Sensing / Feeling
Performing / Amusing
Managing / Supervising
Negotiating / Deciding
Founding / Leading
Advising / Consulting
Copying / Storing and Retrieving
Improving / adapting
Creating / Synthesizing
Planning / Developing
Working with the Earth or Nature
Feeding / Emptying
Look at the three lists and note the following:
(a) What do you most enjoy working with: people, data or things? (Some people might like to include animals. If that’s you, feel free to add them as a fourth category, along with some appropriate skills.)
(b) What levels of skills have you developed? Identify your skills at the highest level you have realistically accomplished, because this is likely to include attainment at the less complex level.
(c) Ask a couple of people who know you well to sit down with you and talk about which skills they see you demonstrating most competently. Which ones do they see in you that are valued most by others? Which ones do they detect you enjoy most?
(d) Now look at the more comprehensive list of skills listed below and consider:
Which words describe skills that you believe you have already developed?
1. TICK the skills that you have already developed.
2. UNDERLINE any skills that you think you would like to develop more in the future.
3. CIRCLE your top ten skills (those you think you have developed best).
Note: skills may be marked in more than one category. Also these are in no way exhaustive lists, so feel free to add your own additions as you think of them.
Using Analysis, Logic, or Research Skills
Using Communication Skills
Presenting (with audio-visuals)
Using Leadership Skills
Performing before a group
Using People Helping Skills
Helping someone in need
Drawing people out
Being an advocate
Using Physical and Manual Skills
Operating tools or machinery
Operating equipment or vehicles
Using Artistic Skills
Playing an instrument
Using Management/Administration Skills
Using Financial and Number Skills
Using Originality and Creativity
Using Sensory Skills
Take another look through the lists of interests and talents and skills that you have come up with, and then compile your results in the following tables.
My primary interests include:
Now circle the two that are of greatest interest to you.
Talents and Skills
List below your most well-developed skills and talents:
List the skills that you are keen to develop and want to use more:
How do your existing interests and skills correspond with the talents and skills that you enjoy using most and want to continue developing in the future?
Do the personal analysis (above) as preparation for your group session. Then in the group take turns to describe your toolbox of talents, skills and interests. After each member’s presentation give the group opportunity to:
Affirm or otherwise comment on your findings.
Mention ways or situations in which they have seen you using your abilities.
Suggest possible further developments you might consider for yourself.
Richard N. Bolles, What Color is Your Parachute? (Ten Speed Press, 2004)
Richard N. Bolles, The Three Boxes of Life and How To Get Out of Them (Ten Speed Press, 2003)
John L. Holland, Self-Directed Search (Psychological Assessment Resources - package edition, 1994)
Gary Gottfredson and John L. Holland, Dictionary of Holland Occupational Codes (Psychological Assessment Resources – 3rd edition, 1996)
John L. Holland, Making Vocational Choices: a theory of vocational personalities and work environments (Psychological Assessment Resources – 3rd edition, 1997)
Arthur Miller Jr, Why You Can’t Be Anything You Want To Be (Grand Rapids: Zondervan,1999), page 35.
4th Edition, US Department of Labor, McGraw-Hill, 1992.