Finding yourself

Forget about straight-A’s. Focus on your A+ skills.

To be considered successful as a student (and I know you’ve been successful as a student), you pretty much need to get all A’s. If you’re like most people, certain subjects come naturally. Those are your A+ subjects. And then there are the others, where you have to work or else you’ll get a B+, or B, or even worse. Those are the subjects that you have to invest in to maintain your A average.

Wipe all that from your mind as you consider your career options. When it comes to your career, you should forget about all your B, B+, A- and A subjects, and focus on the areas where you are naturally an A+.

As a civic official and then as a recruiter, I’ve met and interviewed thousands of highly successful people. CEOs of big companies. Top global professionals. Celebrities in all walks of life. Completely diverse personalities, ways of life, and career paths. There is one thing that they all have in common, and that is that each has built a careers around the skills that he or she naturally excels in.

Successful people focus on their A+ skills

This is a little counterintuitive, I think particularly for us Chinese, because we’re accustomed to 吃苦(“chi ku,” eat bitterness), and working hard. We think: work should be hard. But what I’ve learned over the years is that, yes, work should be challenging, but you should base it around skills which are easy to you.

This point was brought home to me in my own career.

The uncomfortable way I found my own calling

I started my career in real estate development. I was romanced by the idea of it. I wanted to dream about the future, and build wonderful spaces for people to work and play in, and in which to live and raise their kids.

I thought I was pretty successful. I worked in a small firm where I worked closely with the senior partners. I even picked up two graduate degrees: an MBA in real-estate finance, and an M.A. in urban planning. In my mind, I was headed for a great career as a powerful real estate developer.

I’d had no interest in politics when mutual friends introduced me to the new mayor and suddenly I was asked to be a Deputy Mayor at age 31. OK, I figured, I’d spend a few years doing some good in the world, and then return to real-estate development with some new great experiences and contacts.

So, as our term neared an end, I confidentially contacted a friend who was the real-estate practice head at Heidrick & Struggles, the global executive search firm. We went to breakfast.

Me: “Hey, John, it’s time. I’m ready to come back to real estate.”

Him: “Joy, you’re leaving a high-profile position at a relatively young age. Many people are watching, so you’ll want to make sure your next move is a really successful one.”

Me: “Of course! Isn’t that why we’re meeting?”

Him: “So…. you’ll want to make sure that you choose a career path which will make you highly successful.”

This conversation was starting to make me nervous.

Me: “Isn’t that real estate development? Am I not a great developer? And do I not have two graduate degrees in this area?”

Him:  “Joy, I’m not saying you’re not a great developer. But, to be perfectly honest, there are some developers, even here in Los Angeles, who are even better than you. I’m your friend and I want to see you succeed. You should focus on your true strengths.”

I saw my life flash before my eyes. I was only 35. Had my career already peaked? Was this the start of the long decline of my career and life?

Me: “I thought my true strength was real-estate development.”

Him: “What I see is that you are constantly connecting with people. You can talk with a CEO, you can talk with a homeless person. You are generous. You instinctively sense what it is people need, and you find a way to deliver it to them. To do this, you’re constantly connecting ideas in new ways. You do these things better than anyone I’ve ever met.”

Me: “OK…  but what does that mean for my next job? Should I get into Marketing?”

Him: “No, I think of Marketing as one-to-many messaging. Your skills are more personal, one-to-one. I think you should seriously consider a career in executive search. And I’d like to introduce you to our firm.”

That conversation changed my life. I entered recruiting, and joined Heidrick & Struggles.

As I look back, those A+ skills that my friend identified in me have indeed been the key skills that made me successful both as a civic leader and as a recruiter. The media were not interested in me when I was a real-estate developer. That’s because any real mark I’ve left on the world so far has been in my later work.

When I was a developer, work was work and play was play. I am more joyful now because my work now is an extension of who I am, and while work is challenging, it is also a form of self-expression. Now the lines between work and play are blurred.

Find passions within your A+ strengths

This is really the trick behind the Venn diagram I showed you in my blog post on taking charge of your career. It’s a series of concentric circles, as the things you REALLY REALLY WANT TO DO are situated firmly within the things you CAN DO best.

So this is the secret behind all those super-successful people I’ve met over the years. They are not superhuman and if you sit down and evaluate them, as I do as a recruiter, you’ll find they are not A+ in all areas. They are just A+ in the very specific skills that are important to the careers that they’ve chosen.

What are your A+ skills?

I was lucky to have had a perceptive recruiter who’d known me well for years come along and accurately sum up my best strengths. When he did so, my first reaction was confusion. Yes, I thought, I love throwing parties in the evenings and weekends, and connecting interesting people. But that’s not work! I couldn’t believe that “connecting with people” and “connecting ideas” could even be considered skills. I thought that skills were things that were hard and had to be learned, like finance, or Latin.

What are your A+ skills? What comes so naturally to you that when you are doing it, it feels like you’re just breathing and reveling in life on earth?

If you don’t know, try this:

  1. Survey your closest friends and family members: What do they think you do best? When they think of you, what adjectives come to mind?
  2. Think about your greatest one or two accomplishments to date. What are you proudest of that you’ve done? What have you done that, when you were doing it, the work was so involving and felt so natural that you lost track of time and you felt, “Wow, this is amazing, I was put on earth to do this.” It doesn’t have to be in the context of a job. It could have happened while you were studying something, or during an extracurricular activity. It doesn’t have to be something that other people consider your best accomplishments or that was written up in a newspaper. Just what made you proudest and most satisfied. What were the key skills that you exercised in accomplishing that?

When you have a theory of your A+ strengths, research the jobs that would best leverage those strengths. And then find 10 companies that are growing in areas that offer those jobs.

Finding your strengths and your passions is a process of lifelong self-discovery. Not only will they unfold to you over time, but they also will evolve over time as you grow as a person.

By working to focus your career around your A+ strengths, you’ll soar. You’ll gravitate toward jobs that use you well, and that inspire your passion. And, you will be successful.

I welcome your comments, in Chinese or English, on the Chinese version of this blog post, which is here.