Superpowers

I’ve been thinking recently about careers and jobs, and how we choose what we want to do to make money. If life were like a comic book, it would be easy: “My ability to shoot sonar from my elbows, combined with the alien doohickey that I found under some old newspapers, obviously lead me to a career fighting crime.” Superpowers are supposed to make career choices easy; unfortunately, that’s not always the case.

I have a real, honest-to-goodness superpower: I look good in all my I.D. photos. I’ve looked good in every single driver’s license, passport, work I.D., and any other photo identification. It would be kind of tough to use that to fight crime, however. “Look, it’s Easily Identifiable Woman! Don’t I know you?”

So, when trying to decide on a career, we have to turn to things like talents and skills. Let me define my terms here: A talent is something that is innate – like a sense of rhythm or an ear for music. You can build on a talent, but there has to be something there to start with. A skill I define as something that you need to learn. You don’t have it at all until you work at it. So you might have a talent for music, but guitar playing is a skill. (And one that I don’t have, by the way. I like to tell Neil that I’m a very important part of the musical experience: I’m an audience.)

The curious thing about talents is that you may not realize you have them – even if they’re obvious to everyone else. I’m a perfect example. I work as a trainer. And I love the job. But I didn’t figure out that that’s what I wanted to do until over ten years into my working life. Now, looking back on it, I could have figured it out earlier, but, well, I’m kind of oblivious occasionally.

Often we seek out situations that allow us to express a talent. Even before I knew that I wanted to teach, I loved learning new things and explaining them to others. I would offer to be the first person to try out a new piece of software so that I could help others learn it more quickly. I tutored elementary and high-school aged students. I loved study groups, because we could learn from each other. And the way I explored new ideas was to attempt to explain them to a friend or family member. (Thanks for listening, Mom!)

In fact, looking back on it, I’ve been teaching or tutoring on an informal basis since high school. As a Ph.D. student, I realized that I loved teaching. Even in my personal life, my friends tell me that I love explaining things to them, and they enjoy listening, since I’m pretty good at it.

This is both a talent and a skill. The talent is the ability to take complicated concepts and distill them down to their essence. I’ll illustrate with a phrase that I use in my Excel 2007 classes: “Data doesn’t mean anything until you can use it.” Phone numbers, for example, are useless until you give them superpowers, by connecting them to customer records and billing records. Suddenly, you can use the data to call customers who owe money. I use this concept to explain the importance of planning out your spreadsheets before you start entering data.

The skill is in my power to improve on the native talent by analyzing each class I teach, figuring out what worked and what didn’t. During each class, I fiddle with my presentation, asking things different ways and trying out different explanations to see what gets the best results. (For example, I’ve learned that when I’m demonstrating how to create organizational charts, I always get a giggle when I mention the term “peon,” but if I over-use the phrase “not rocket science,” attendees will feel that I’m not teaching them valuable material. )

I was laid off last January, and needed to look for a new job. (Unfortunately, that’s a familiar story these days. Superpowers are no use in fighting the economy.) I started by asking myself some questions. First, I had to identify my goals. What sorts of things make a job worthwhile for me? Is it the money? Or the people you work with? Or the chance to help people or to grow and learn? This analysis is not something that people often go through unless forced, since it’s a tough process. It is far easier to stay where you are than to find a new job or career path. We live every day with things that are not ideal, and they work, more or less. Unless there’s significant pain, we don’t want to change things too much, since we know that change is its own form of pain.

I was lucky – I had already figured out that I loved training and teaching. But not everyone is that lucky. Neil got laid off in March of last year. After the layoff, he knew that he wasn’t interested in finding another job like the one he had before, but he didn’t know where he wanted to go from there.

What’s funny to me is that since I started training as my career, my friends and family have said that this career makes sense for me. Just this weekend, a friend told me that I’m wired to explain things to people. So maybe the key to finding a career or job you find fulfilling is to find a way to get paid to use those talents on a regular basis.

And if you have a superpower, well, that’s cool too.

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