You Don’t Have To Do What You Are Good At
We all have strengths and weaknesses. This should come as no surprise to anyone.
It is common advice to work on your weaknesses, so you can turn them into strengths. This can be fine and, when applied judiciously, can turn you into a more well-rounded person. It can also result in spending your precious time on actions that don’t bring you joy and activities that don’t enrich your life, or the lives of anyone else.
When you spend your time doing something you don’t want to do, you are taking your most precious resource and squandering it in pursuit of something undesirable. This is exactly what is meant by the proverbial phrase “casting of pearls before swine.”
There is nothing more valuable than your time, and you need to spend it enhancing your experience of life. When you consider that your existence is finite, you need to be prudent about how you use it.
It is in your best interest to use your strengths to your advantage and to be cognizant of the areas in which you lack strength.
Reconsidering Strength and Weakness
Think for a moment about the meaning of strength. Think, also, about weakness. If we are to consider your strengths and weaknesses, and how to allocate your time accordingly, we need to understand what it means for something to fall into these categories.
It’s easy to view those things you do well as your strengths. The term “strength” really implies being good at something. Physical strength makes it easier to perform actions with your body than it would be able to in the absence of such strength. Mental ability makes it easier to solve a puzzle of reason through a complex challenge. Thus, it’s only natural to think of the areas in which we are the most successful as the core definition of strength.
Let’s look at strengths and weaknesses from a different angle, though. Could it be that your strengths are not necessarily the pursuits that you do well and that come easily, but the actions that give you energy, joy, and life?
Podcaster and life coach Tripp Lanier views strengths and weaknesses exactly this way. When I started listening to his The New Man podcast, something that really resonated with me was his emphasis on the need to be “lit up.”
In order to live life as best you can, to be consumed with life, and to maximize your utility in this existence, kindling a figurative fire in your soul is a great illustration for the best of what life has to offer.
Don’t you love the sound of that? Who wouldn’t want to be lit up for life?
According to Tripp, your strengths are the endeavors that light you up—the actions that bring you energy and joy, the enterprises that charge your batteries, the pursuits that make you feel alive.
In short, a strength is something that inspires you and helps you to be your most authentic self.
By contrast, weaknesses are the exercises that drain your energy, the activities that take your life force, the obligations that make you feel spent.
Which of those do you want to engage?
Light It Up!
Notice this formulation does not include any mention of the things you do well or that come easy to you.
It’s not that what you do well is completely independent of what lights you up. In fact, there is a relationship between enjoyment and competence. Doing something well is rewarding in and of itself.
For example, I feel one of my most significant talents is relating to children. I derive immense joy from interacting with small humans. Because of this, I coach youth sports for my kids’ teams.
The feedback I’ve received in these efforts has been positive. Hearing from parents and from the children themselves that my efforts have been positive warms my heart and brightens my spirit.
In a meeting, the coaching director of my children’s soccer organization (football to many of you in the Simple Programmer world) said “coaching these kids can drive you to therapy, or it can be your therapy.”
This is exactly the case for me. Helping kids learn about being part of a team, the unfairness of life, and dealing with events that don’t go as planned, while ensuring they have a positive, fun experience, lights me up.
If I didn’t feel like I was good at it and doing it effectively, it probably wouldn’t light me up . Certainly not to the degree it does.
Sometimes, though, it’s not enough. I know other coaches who, despite having a positive impact and receiving great feedback, view it as a chore. They view it as an activity they’ve committed to out of a sense of obligation, and they’re just trying to get through it.
Being good at it is not enough.
Professional Athletes, Like Programmers, Need to Be Lit Up
In the United States of America, many people are interested in American football (it’s probably more accurate to say obsessed), particularly the National Football League (NFL).
In the history of the NFL, there was an exceptional player named Barry Sanders. His athleticism was extremely astounding and he could move his body in ways unlike anyone else, ensuring that he is always mentioned in any argument about the greatest players who ever lived.
In his prime, Barry Sanders was a spectacle for the capacity of the human body.
And he quit.
He retired from playing American football at a time when it was unexpected by everyone. His skills were not diminished; he still awed and amazed everyone when he played.
And he quit.
Shocked and outraged, fans felt cheated by not being able to see him exercise his talents. They were wrong, though, he didn’t owe them anything. The talent was his and his alone.
He was undeniably good at playing football, but he didn’t have to do it.
Neither do you.
There has been speculation about why Barry Sanders left his game, why he bowed out before the ravages of age and the physical toll of being a professional athlete left him less capable. Maybe he was unhappy with his pay. Maybe he was unfulfilled playing for a losing team. Maybe he had some personal problems.
These conjectures and the truth are inconsequential details, though. Ultimately, being a professional athlete was sapping his energy, instead of adding to it.
According to the typical definition of strength, American football was exactly that for Barry Sanders. He was astoundingly good at it.
Thinking about it more in terms of the impact it had on his experience of life; it was something quite the opposite.
Consider the activities consuming your time. Do they result in positive or negative changes in your energy and fulfillment? Adjust accordingly.
Sucking Your Soul
In the Harry Potter saga, author J.K. Rowling invented a world of magical creatures and powerful wizards interacting in marvelous ways, interweaving a tale of a boy who turns into a man through a journey of self-discovery.
Amid harrowing adventures, Harry encounters many of the lessons a growing boy learns. He has experiences that make him grow and many that set him back as he progresses along The Hero’s Journey. This is no different than the experiences of any of our lives.
Among the amazing and powerful magical creatures in the epic tale are the gruesome and phantasmic Dementors. They are beings so terrifying and terrible that killing a person is not good enough for them.
We learn of the Dementor’s Kiss in the third book of the saga, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. The Dementor’s Kiss is an act of violation upon the victim, so heinous that the victim loses not his/her life, but his/her soul.
I think of the Dementors when I think of spending time on weaknesses. When your life force is sucked from you via an activity that tears you down, you suffer both the misery of the things you don’t like, while also missing out on opportunities for other things that could have built you up instead.
It’s like losing a piece of your soul.
Being Good at Something Is Not Enough
It’s easy to look at the things we do well and choose to do those with our time. There is danger in this, though. There are many tales of successful software developers and entrepreneurs who put their life into their work, only to find themselves in crises, losing their health, family, or other valuable priorities.
It’s great to do what you do successfully, but there’s always a cost. If your actions are not making your life more enjoyable, you’d be better off doing something else. You must consider the person you want to be, the life you want to live, and choose actions consistent with your values and priorities.
John Sonmez wrote a sentence in a post here on Simple Programmer that really moved me. In writing about why money won’t necessarily make you happy, John included this gem: “How many days did I spend waiting for the clock to tick down to 5:00 PM instead of actually living and enjoying every moment I had writing code or solving problems?”
Writing software is fun. It’s useful and valuable and challenging, but it’s also fun. At least, it can be. Remember that, and take the joy that comes from solving difficult problems with technical tools and enjoy it. Let it build you and light you up.
Your job can be fun and rewarding.
If software doesn’t light you up, you may need to consider doing something else, even if you are really good at it.
Perform Activities That Bolster Your Experience
If you’re good at something, there’s a correlation that it may well be something you enjoy. Everyone likes success. If you have talent and aptitude for any particular endeavor, it’s not only possible, but likely, you’ll enjoy doing it.
This is not a certainty, though. I encourage you to go deeper. If you enjoy the recognition that comes with ability, you still need to consider the activity itself. Is what you are doing really adding to your experience of life?
If it is, congratulations, you are making the most of the existence we share. If it’s not, you’re missing out.
Every time you say yes to one course of action, you are saying no to everything else. Doing something because you are good at it is not necessarily the optimal choice.
You don’t have to do what you do well; you should do what lights you up. Count yourself among the fortunate if those are the same. Choose wisely if they are not.