What You’re Good At

by Norman C. Hill

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    Racing toward the job market, how do you know which of all the possibilities to pursue?

    “Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?”

    “That depends a good deal on where you want to get to,” said the Cat.

    “I don’t much care where—” said Alice.

    “Then it doesn’t matter which way you go,” said the Cat.

    “—so long as I get somewhere,” Alice added as an explanation.

    “Oh, you’re sure to do that,” said the Cat, “if you only walk long enough” (Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, New York: Bantam Books, 1981, p. 46).

    It is difficult to make choices, especially when it comes to deciding what work you’d like to do for the rest of your life. There are so many opportunities that it’s easy to become overwhelmed simply by the sheer number of options. Did you know, for instance, that the Dictionary of Occupational Titles published by the U.S. Department of Labor has more than 60,000 entries? That’s a lot of possibilities!

    Although career decisions are difficult to make, it is worthwhile to choose wisely. If you can place yourself in a job you enjoy, going to work each day will be a pleasure. If you hate your work, the days will drag on and on. So what makes the difference? Good jobs and satisfying careers do not just happen. You can’t just walk aimlessly in any direction and hope to end up at the right destination. It takes planning.

    Let’s look at how Steve and Tom planned their careers.

    Steve wanted to become a doctor. He had scored well on national aptitude tests and liked the idea of being a respected, wealthy member of the community. Every once in a while, Steve even thought about how rewarding his life of service would be.

    But during his senior year in high school, Steve chose to have fun. He substituted woodworking for physics, music appreciation for calculus, and varsity athletics for college preparatory English. He had a great time, but he didn’t learn a lot that would build a background for a career in medicine. He entered his freshman year in college and decided to relax there, too. He took some easy courses and left himself more than enough time to socialize and goof around. Steve wasn’t a bad fellow, but he hadn’t used his time and resources well.

    When Steve returned from his mission, he had a serious discussion with an academic counselor. He realized how far he was from his goal of becoming a doctor. Discouraged, he changed his major and eventually dropped out of college altogether. He’s working part-time now, still trying to decide on a career.

    Tom was also a good student in high school. He won prizes in state and regional science fairs. He attended Utah State University and included some challenging courses along with his basic classes. After serving a mission, Tom transferred to the University of Utah as a pre-med major. Then came the national medical aptitude exam.

    He did well, but was not accepted by any of the schools to which he had applied. He was devastated. The future, once so bright, now seemed bleak. But rather than giving up, he planned a course of action. Even though he didn’t speak Spanish, he decided to attend a Mexican school of medicine, hoping he could later transfer back to the United States. After two years of distinguished study at the University of Guadalajara, he was offered his choice of several fine universities in the United States. Today, he is a practicing physician.

    Both Steve and Tom faced challenges in deciding which way to go. Both may have wished at times that someone would take over and plan things for them. But one just drifted. The other decided to move and to keep moving until he got where he wanted to go.

    Certainly, we all want to have a satisfying career. Sometimes, like Alice in the story mentioned above, we wish someone else would choose our path for us. But the simple truth is, it’s up to us. We can all reach goals if we plan for the future, then move to get there.

    In career planning, there are some road signs that can help. First, discover what you do well. Second, define what you like to do. Finally, match your skills and interests with career possibilities.

    So how do you find out what you do well?

    It’s usually easier to see other people’s talents rather than our own. “When I look at all the things Debbie can do I get discouraged,” Christine said. “She’s a cheerleader. She’s popular. She gets good grades. She plays the piano. And she’s not even stuck up. I wish I could do just one thing as well as she does.”

    Such comparisons are unfair and can be deceptive. Debbie may have struggled a lot to accomplish what she has. There may be other things she wishes she could do that she isn’t good at. Debbie may see talents in Christine that Christine isn’t aware of.

    “And unto one he gave five talents, to another two, and to another one; to every man according to his several ability” (Matt. 25:15).

    Although “talents” in Biblical times represented money, like dollars or pesos, there are several meanings which can be taken from this story. One of them is this: Each of us has at least one talent or ability. If we bury the one we have, if we fail to develop it, we will lose it.

    If you can discover something you’re good at to begin with, your strivings for excellence are much more likely to produce desired results. Too often people worry about their liabilities instead of working on their strengths.

    Keep in mind that talents, skills, and character traits are not just different words for the same thing. You may be instinctively good in using your hands, but you must develop this talent through study and application for it to be useful. For instance, a seamstress may be able to visualize what a completed dress will look like before she even begins to work. However, she must also know how to sew. And she must be familiar with the advantages and disadvantages of various types of material. Or a nurse may be wonderful in the way she relates to people—patients, doctors, administrators. That is a talent. But unless she has developed the trait of remaining calm and the skill of providing care, you probably wouldn’t want her to give you a shot.

    For the most part, your talents will lie in activities you enjoy doing. Part of the reason you enjoy the activities is because you are good at them. But having a talent in a particular area does not ensure that you will be successful in a career requiring the use of that talent. It simply means you may be able to acquire skills associated with that talent more easily than others. A researcher named John Holland has identified six basic talent areas and grouped with them occupations that seem compatible.

    (1) Realistic. Involves aggressive actions, physical activities requiring skill, strength, and coordination. Examples: forestry, farming, architecture.

    (2) Investigative. Involves thinking, organizing, or understanding data, graphs, reports and the like. Examples: medicine, biology, computer science.

    (3) Social. Involves interpersonal rather than intellectual or physical activities. Examples: education, social work, sales.

    (4) Conventional. Involves structured, rule-regulated activities arranged in a logical fashion. Examples: engineering, accounting, electronics.

    (5) Enterprising. Involves verbal activities to influence others to attain prominence or recognition, to achieve collective goals. Examples: management, law, public service.

    (6) Artistic. Involves self-expression, expression of emotions, creativity. Examples: art, music, interior design. (See “Self-Directed Search,” in Making Vocational Choices: A Theory of Careers, Inglewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 1973, p. 182.)

    Basically, all talents can be grouped into one of these areas. Ask yourself: What kind of person am I? Social? Artistic? Conventional? That’s a key to the type of career you should pursue.

    Here’s another approach: List all of the jobs you have had (full-time, part-time, or volunteer). Write down the types of skills required to do these jobs well. Have a discussion with someone else who has done the same job to make certain your list is complete. Write down all of the skills you gained from each job.

    Now write down the ten most important things you have accomplished in the last five years, even if you didn’t do them all by yourself. Write down the skills used to achieve the things you accomplished. Use this list to get started:



















    Finally, make a list of three skills you want to develop. Draw from the above list if you like. Identify people you know who have those skills. Ask them how they acquired them, and get any suggestions they may have for you.

    In addition to the methods listed above, there are lots of aptitude tests you can take to help you decide on a career. They can be useful. But they are not flawless. They only indicate how easy or difficult you may find a particular career. They cannot tell you if you will succeed in a particular area; they can only predict how hard gaining particular skills may be.

    As you search out your talents and try to develop them, you will also learn another important thing: that there are some things you’re willing to keep working at even though they’re not easy.

    James Sweeney taught psychiatry at Tulane University in New Orleans, Louisiana. He directed the school’s biomedical computer center. He had a staff ranging from data programmers to maintenance workers. Sweeney believed he could take even a poorly educated man and, with the right motivation, make him into a competent computer operator. He convinced George Johnson, a janitor at the facility, to spend his free afternoons learning about computers.

    Johnson was progressing rapidly when a university administrator told Sweeney the project must stop. All computer operators must pass an IQ test before entering the center. Johnson took the test and flunked. The results indicated he did not have the capacity to learn to type, much less run a computer.

    But Sweeney convinced the university officials to allow Johnson to stay on, promising positive results. Within months, Johnson was so proficient at programming that he was asked to train new employees.

    Both Johnson and Sweeney succeeded because they were willing to stick with it. As you search for a career, you may find that there is something you feel compelled to do. You will also find that it will become easier as you work at it, that it will become something that you’re good at.

    Bishop J. Richard Clarke has said: “There are too many tradesmen who will not pay the price to become craftsmen, teachers who do not teach, repairmen who do not repair, farmers who do not farm, leaders who do not lead, and problem solvers in every field who do not solve problems. … There is a high price for excellence, but the compensation and soul satisfaction are truly worth it. To work below our capabilities creates a deep hunger in ourselves and enormous waste in society. Our doctrine of eternal progression certainly encompasses our occupational progress. Each of us should be on a career path which will require us to stretch to our full potential” (Ensign, Nov. 1980, p. 84).

    In summary, let me offer some advice for those who still wonder and worry because they are uncertain what they want to do. While it is true that in some career fields it is important to decide early (concert pianists, for example, must pursue their career from an early age), for most of us it is not necessary or even desirable to specialize at too young an age.

    Our interests change as we grow older. There may be many options we won’t even consider if we select a career path too soon. In fact, former BYU President Dallin H. Oaks would often tell students it was a mistake to choose a major before they were sophomores or even juniors in college. Choosing forecloses other opportunities. Since most of us may not know exactly what we want to do, we should gain as much information as possible before deciding. One of the roles of education is to expose us to things we were previously uninterested in.

    In a study at a major corporation, top executives and middle managers who held degrees in law, engineering, geology, business, and accounting were analyzed. Results of the study showed that few executives or managers, at the time they graduated from high school, had a clear idea of what they wanted to be. Instead, they had had a variety of experiences, including class work, athletics, hobbies, summer jobs, and travel, which had prepared them for any career in a given area.

    Some of those involved in the study were now involved in occupations which had not even existed when they were in high school. But they had used their time wisely and learned and grown all they could.

    It’s easy at times to feel like Alice, to wish someone would just tell you which way to go. It is hard to figure things out by yourself. But you are not alone. The Lord stands waiting to help you with this as with all important decisions in life. Fortunately, there are many career options which could be rewarding. There is not one “ideal” occupation you must somehow discover or remain forever dissatisfied. And your attitude about your work will affect any career you choose.

    Also remember that as you develop talents and skills, you will be given additional talents and skills. The Lord has said, “And all this for the benefit of the church of the living God, that every man may improve upon his talent, that every man may gain other talents, yea, even an hundred fold” (D&C 82:18). And that simply increases the likelihood of finding a rewarding career.

    Photo by Grant Heaton