There is something that inherently resonates with people in the idea of maximizing individual potential. I’m thinking of this for myself but as I begin to write I realize that this is a very opportune time to address this idea in the midst of the Olympics which, in its essence is a worldwide public display of athletes attempting to do exactly that in their various sporting endeavors.
I like the image of the Olympic torch to symbolize this because I am not referring to athletic accomplishments specifically but to any personal endeavor. In the Olympic Torch Relay any person could theoretically be chosen to participate – I also love the image of the runner surrounded by supporters of many varieties.
I am fascinated with the first step in realizing or maximizing personal potential which is described in The Cure for the Common Life as unpacking your bags. It is the idea that each individual is uniquely qualified to do specific kinds of things – as opposed to the popular but perhaps misleading attitude that “you can be anything you want to be.” In an ideal world a person would not be excluded from being whatever they might want to be but even in that ideal world, just because someone can be something does not mean they are really suited to that something.
The idea of maximizing my potential is one that I have been introduced to a number of times from a variety of sources. Many of them focus on the arena of maximizing your potential in a career sense and while I am interested in a whole life perspective on the issue I think the principles are essentially the same.
One of my first sources for this concept was the essay How To Do What You Love by Paul Graham. Anyone who wants to get a quick but complete overview of what most of these sources are addressing should read that essay. While I enjoyed this essay and learned from the how that Paul presented the essay seemed to assume that people would already know what they loved. That’s probably true for many people but certainly not all people. In my experience, what a person thinks they love to do is as likely to be a reflection, a shadow, an imitation, or even just a facet of what they really enjoy doing.
Last year I started a new job and one of the first things they did when I got there was give me a copy of Strengths Finder 2.0 and had me take the strengths finder assessment to determine what my particular top five areas of strength were. That was a revealing and valuable but it was also incomplete because knowing what I was good at did not include any consideration of what context worked best for me. It was like knowing that you were good at the backstroke without any consideration for whether you were good as a competitive swimmer, a recreational lap swimmer, or if you even had an affinity for open-water swims.
A few months ago I discovered a series on the Art of Manliness website focused on finding your vocation. I felt that in one simple equation the concept of vocation described there was more complete than what was presented in the Strengths Finder assessment:
Your True Vocation=Your Gifts+Your Passion
The vocation posts from Art of Manliness provided some suggestions for how someone might attempt to identify their gifts and their passion but did not really delineate the difference between the two.
I personally found it easier to my passions than my specific strengths (which were more concrete than what the Strengths Finder assessment offered) but the lack of real certainty drew me back to the Cure for the Common Life. Not only did this talk about a combination of gifts and interests (using the terms strengths and topics respectively as part of their acronym STORY) but after 150 pages about the process of finding and living in your zone or sweet-spot the book included 25 pages of a how-to for identifying your skills, passions, and context that was developed by People Management International. I wish there was a free or very cheap way for people to take their assessment. Their website offers it for $20 but at that price I would recommend just getting the Book.
After working through the exercises I felt like I finally knew not only what my best stroke was but whether to use it casually or in competition, in a pool or in open water.
It turns out that my skill lies in designing and building things to solve problems (for myself or for others) and that I am best able to employ it when my work (or my part of the work) can be accomplished independent of the efforts or pace of other people who might be working in cooperation with me. I specialize in technology solutions but just as Michaelangelo could employ his artistic and creative skill in painting, sculpture, or other areas, I am not confined to technology in applying my problem solving skill.