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Working out what’s right for you
Let’s break down the different considerations when it comes to self-knowledge.
1. Aptitude – a natural ability to do something; a natural tendency
This is what we need you to identify. It’s the manifestation of who you are, what defines you – your innate abilities. Everyone’s got something, maybe it’s sport, maybe it’s debate, drawing, languages, influencing people, listening skills, acting. Whatever it is, there is one thing you can do better than other people you know.
Through self-knowledge and reflection you can identify what that thing is and you can develop that to become an advantageous selling point. The biggest scandal is when you have a natural aptitude and refuse to use it and develop it properly, which is where we come to…
2. Skill – the ability to do something well; expertise
It actually comes from an old Norse word which is more akin to knowledge. Knowledge of an area, really knowing something.
Skill is an aptitude that has been developed. To take my cartooning as an example, I had a talent for it and I practised lots and lots, and over time that aptitude was developed into a skill. Now, many of you may think you are without skills, but that almost certainly isn’t true; it simply means it’s either undercooked right now or you’ve yet to identify it as such.
When you’re at school it’s very hard to shake off that institutional thinking that accompanies every conversation about your future: by that I mean how what you do can be equated to a tangible educational result. Being good at writing is associated with English Language, a flair for languages would see you being encouraged to do French or German. Good at adding? Maths is the thing for you.
Only that’s very short-sighted and wrong-headed and students are press-ganged into academic choices without a focus on the bigger scheme of things. You may be good at certain academic choices that would naturally map on to a variety of career choices, but equally you might be unremarkable in lessons but have a wealth of skills that your school doesn’t know how to harness effectively – the skill to lead a group of people such as in sports or the Duke of Edinburgh Award, or in the Combined Cadet Force (CCF) or in a school society; the skill to work with people in a collaborative way; the skill to persuade and influence; an entrepreneurial ability – these are all skills that can be used effectively in the real world.
Maybe you have a logical bent of mind that means you are particularly good at problem- solving, there’s some maths in there, maybe a nod to the sciences, but it’s fundamentally just an ability you have that can be parlayed into a career in something such as project management or logistics.
So, if you look at that as an end point and work back from it, a path can be revealed to you that wouldn’t necessarily suggest itself from your current vantage point.
3. Interest – the feeling of wanting to know about something or someone
It almost naturally follows that your interests will be aligned with your skills and aptitudes: if you love playing football it’s unlikely that you won’t also enjoy watching it and discussing it with your friends. If you enjoy drawing and painting, chances are you will enjoy going to galleries. If you like writing you’re going to like reading.
Having an interest in a subject is how we can begin to define where your skills and aptitudes may take you. By taking an interest in an area you are more likely to turn up possible career paths, even inadvertently. That’s why it’s so important to foster your interests – your parents and school may see them as a distraction but what your unconscious mind is doing is giving you the biggest signposts towards where your goals may lie.
If money wasn’t an issue what job would you do?
Now we’ve identified what we mean by each of these words, how do they relate to self-knowledge and why is it so important? The important thing to realise is that not everyone who enjoys playing football is going to make it to the Premier League, and not every cartoonist is going to draw for Marvel, but that doesn’t mean to say you can’t still carve a career for yourself in a field that will be a whole lot more fulfilling than something which doesn’t excite you. There’s an old exercise which asks the question, “If money wasn’t an issue what job would you do?” – obviously the thinking is flawed because money is always an issue, but it does raise a valid point: stop thinking about your expectations from life for a moment and think about what you’d genuinely love to do.
So, to follow the football idea, if it’s what you love, be honest with yourself – are you going to play in the Premier League? Probably not, so stop pretending it’s a possibility and think around the problem. Coaching, refereeing, something in sports management? Could you study overseas and get a scholarship to do so in a country where the sport is played at lower level? All of these are options for you, but the sad truth is people give up too easily. By understanding what the limitations of your abilities are you can afford to get creative; where others might see the end of the road, look beyond it and see where else your skills may take you.
The single biggest issue people have is failing to recognise their aptitudes as aptitudes and rather just dismissing them as stuff they are OK at. Self-knowledge isn’t innate; it’s something you have to work at and sometimes disproving ideas is as helpful as proving them. You might think you want to do something because you just feel like you want to do something, or your parents want you to do something, or your school or the society you were born into suggests it’s the right thing to do. This is flawed thinking: a decision that has been made in a vacuum.
As important as it is to understand what positive attributes and capacities you have, it is equally important to understand how far those abilities may take you – we’ve all watched deluded contestants on The X Factor who believe they have what it takes to fill arenas and we all know that the closest they’ll get to that is busking.
Not everyone can be famous or fêted and that’s OK. If you like singing, join a choir, form a band, maybe even gig a little, but have a back-up plan just in case. I think at a certain point you have to be honest with yourself and own up to the fact that you may not have what it takes; you can then enjoy it as a hobby and get on with the business of forging a path that will pay the bills as well as make you happy.
I’m not saying don’t pursue your dreams. You should absolutely pursue your dreams, but give yourself a time frame, don’t go looking for the end of the rainbow – you need to be hard on yourself, you may be an undiscovered genius but you have to accept the possibility that you might not be. Once you accept that possibility, put plan B into place; this isn’t an admission of failure, it’s a proactive decision to take control of your life.
Some of the greatest discoveries and most inspiring stories from business have come about through accident or failure: sometimes plan B takes you exactly where you were supposed to be, even if it doesn’t feel that way when you set off.