Coming to Terms with the Limits of Your Strengths
I always wanted to be extraordinarily good at something. Not just as in, “Great job, Jimbo!” No, I wanted to be best-in-class, awe-inspiring, elite good—a world-renowned prodigy, like Michael Phelps or Mark Zuckerberg.
Unfortunately, my version of reality did not quite line up with this delusional vision. I was a good swimmer, but I peaked at the collegiate State Championships level. My academic record was pretty solid, but I never would have made it into one of those ivy-league schools.
Though I rose to above-average status in a couple of areas, the disappointing truth was that I would never amount to anything more than a mid-sized fish in a small pond. God apparently had other plans.
What drove me crazy, though, was the superstar talent thrown in my face at every turn. Some folks just seemed to get an unfair whopping dose of it. Why couldn’t I be like Bernie Williams, the famed New York Yankees player who also happens to be a world-class jazz guitar virtuoso?
Some say greatness is simply a function of putting in the practice time. Around ten thousand hours, to be precise, according to author Malcolm Gladwell. I don’t question the theory of devoting herculean efforts to develop one’s expertise, but it seems that raw talent is equally important. You either have it or you don’t.
I’ve heard that as people approach middle age, life satisfaction increases because they begin to accept the gap between their once-lofty expectations and the current reality. After a few frustrating decades of grinding it out without desired results, we eventually come to terms with how our lives turned out, even if they fall far short of our idealized youthful aspirations.
Hope bends, it seems.
I recently heard an interview with an up-and-coming soprano about her career path in the hyper-competitive world of opera. “I don’t have a big voice, which is a disappointment,” she said, “But I concentrate on other strengths I have.” Here is a woman who knows herself within the world she has chosen to occupy. Rather than spending a lifetime as a frustrated Diva wannabe, she is carving out a path for herself that best accommodates her unique gifts.
She says, “It’s good to understand your strengths, but also knowing your limitations helps you stop wanting what you can’t have.”
Perhaps this is the secret to a happy life.
This doesn't mean you should throw in the towel. There are still plenty of good things to wring out of the years ahead. It's just that your success, your greatness, your achievements...they may look a little different than what you had originally imagined. They are by no means any less significant.
I suppose it takes years to truly understand what you’re good at—as well as your limits—in the process of finding the niche you are best suited for. It’s all part of the journey of discovering yourself, unraveling God’s plan, engaging in the dance of honing your career, your identity.
In the end, being world-renowned for something may not be nearly as important as simply being known.
As for me, I found a satisfying niche in an executive management career paired with an enjoyable sidebar of writing. Here, I circle two small ponds in relative obscurity, but where I know I have impact.
You probably won’t ever see me on TV, or read about me in The New York Times, but I’m okay with that. It’s better than trying to be something I’m not. That would drive me crazy.
J.B. Wood is author of At Work as it is in Heaven: 25 Ways to Re-imagine the Spiritual Value of Your Work.