Career counselling aims to help clients match their abilities to rewarding work. But the nature of our abilities and how we perceive them can stop us from recognizing our greatest strengths.
Supers Among Us
We are socially conditioned to associate effort with work. At first blush, this isn’t a bad thing. Once you’ve decided on a task, willingness to exert effort and persevere is useful if not outright required. On the other hand, when faced with questions such as “what will I do with my life?” or “how will I earn a living?”, effort can be more of a decoy than a guiding star.
For a few, superior abilities stand out. If you have the good fortune to be someone like Tiger Woods, then you know with certainty from an early age what you will be when you grow up. For the rest of us, the crystal ball is cloudy. Some days we feel like there’s nothing we do at an exceptional level.
Does everyone have a ‘superpower’, something they instinctively, effortlessly do better than almost anyone else? I’m not ready to go that far, but I do believe that there are many, many people with such abilities, who don’t even recognize them, or if they do, do not realize how they could transform their professional lives by using what comes naturally to them. If there’s a chance to make a good living on a superpower — something you do seemingly without effort — then in my view it would be a disaster to ‘grind it out’ doing anything else.
How I Nearly Missed Out on Becoming a Writer
To reiterate: ‘superpowers’ are often so effortless that they hide in a mental blind spot for the ‘superhero’ employing them. In my own life, I knew from an early age I liked to read, and after some intense editorial interaction with my mother, I came to like writing and became good at it. While I did, for a year or two in my teens, entertain the idea of becoming ‘a writer’ (no more refinement than that), I had a lot of interests and at least a few strengths in various areas. Was writing my superpower? I didn’t think so at the time.
All through my schooling, I wrote papers with hardly a care. When a teacher announced a take-home essay instead of a final exam, I cheered. Everyone else groaned. While other students were waiting until the night before to start a major term paper, I had finished it a week ago.
When the Internet was still in its infancy, I spent hours of my free time each week reading posts on electronic Bulletin Board Systems (BBSs), then writing extensive, passionate refutations and replies about culture and politics. Writing wasn’t only for work; it was play as well.
The hallmark of a superpower is that it becomes hard not to do things at superpower levels. By the end of my academic career, it would have been harder to turn in a badly written paper than a good one. In time, good writing became a habit, if not a compulsion.
The writing was on the wall that I had a superpower, yet I still didn’t see it. It wasn’t just that I missed the clues, but I actively had to explain away the evidence before my eyes. One way I avoided seeing was that writing was always used in service of something else. I might be a good writer, but I was a lousy art historian, so I might get a low grade on an Art History paper for poor content, rather than for poor writing.
A second mental distortion was to normalize everyone else’s experience to my own. If I can write well, surely everyone else could write well if only they put their minds to it. After all, isn’t good writing a prerequisite to university admission? Perhaps it is, but colleges are packed with abysmal writing, as any professor will be quick to tell you.
Despite my facility with the English language, I became interested in computers and programming. Interests and abilities often point in different directions, and at this juncture in my life, I favored the interest side of the equation. Over the next decade, I sweated over mountains of code in an effort to become a competent programmer. That simply did not happen. After two degrees and several jobs in computing, I had to admit I just wasn’t improving.
Fortunately, at this point I got some good career counseling and was introduced to the idea of superpowers (more commonly described as “signature strengths”). I realized I had been writing all these years without stress or strain, and that people always remarked favorably about what I wrote. At last, I had discovered my superpower. Now what could I make of it?
Given my background in technology, I was able to make a lateral move into technical writing over the space of a few months. I took writing — a skill always used in the service of something else — and made it the centerpoint of my work.
I came to realize that working a job that utilizes your superpower is a guilty pleasure of sorts. Even though I presented myself as a “technical writer”, employers and peers could not guess how strong my skills were, or how subjectively easy the work was for me. They baselined me against the last person who did the job (and was let go). “Think you can deliver this in two weeks?” they asked a little uncertainly. “I think so,” I replied, knowing it would take two or three days at the outside. Like Superman, I felt pressed to hide the extent of my strength behind a humble facade.
Watching others toil away in their cubes was painful to me. These were good people, smart people, struggling to deliver. Meanwhile I’m as cool as a cucumber, knowing I’ve got everything well in hand because I feel as though I was born to do this work. I’d better not let them know how I’m feeling.
Then the day came when I realized I made more money as a technical writer than I ever had as a software developer. I was paid more for doing what felt like nothing, than for a job that took everything I had and more. How is this fair? Eventually paranoia set in. Doesn’t someone know how easy this work really is? Surely they’ll figure it out, fire me, and bring in an intern who will do it for nothing! But that day never came. The rave reviews keep rolling in. Nobody could see my complete subjective lack of effort, because they were distracted by the manuals I wrote, which (shockingly to them) were useful and easy to read.
Wearing the Right Cape
The downside of having a superpower at work is that you can’t rely on stress to keep you stimulated. I still liked computing, but perhaps not the computing my employers needed me to document. In my “copious free time” (a phrase that was usually spoken with irony by harried cubicle warriors, but was deadly earnest to me), I considered what I liked most about my work. I realized I was most engaged when interviewing the experts who built the software. Writing is, at its core, observing, understanding, and turning that understanding into text. Somehow these conversations reminded me of my previous interest in psychotherapy. In both cases, I’m talking to people to figure out how they think and why they do what they do.
It took me several years to become a working therapist, where these sorts of conversations become the central point of my working day. And meanwhile, the writing superpower still serves me. To the dismay of most therapists, the profession also requires a torrent of paperwork, which bothers me not at all. And since you’re reading this, you also know I found ways to write about therapy itself. Having one superpower doesn’t usually tell you exactly what career to pursue. I’ve found you have to keep trying on capes until you find one that fits.
All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by Dr Greg Mulhauser, Managing Editor on .on and was last reviewed or updated by