What Are You Naturally Gifted to Do?
One way to begin thinking about finding a career is to start with your natural abilities and gifts. Sir Ken Robinson, Ph.D., wrote a book called Finding Your Element: How to Discover Your Talents and Passions and Transform Your Life, which serves as a comprehensive blueprint for finding work that aligns with your passions and talents and, consequently, leads to finding your “element.” In the book, Robinson breaks down the difference between aptitudes and abilities. Aptitudes are innate ways of being, and refer to inclinations and tendencies that are embedded within us as opposed to learned.
Think of that kid in school who could naturally grasp mathematical concepts with ease or the natural athlete on the blacktop who seemed to dominate in every sport. Abilities, on the other hand, are learned through diligent practice and experience. For that math wiz or natural athlete to find success in either of those endeavors, they will certainly have to increase their abilities through years of practice, hard work, and learning. And while someone can strive to make up for a lack of natural aptitude through hard work and practice, it will usually be harder for them compared to someone naturally gifted in that area.
It’s important to emphasize that this doesn’t mean you shouldn’t pursue something because you may not be as naturally good at it as the next person, since passion and drive also play huge roles and you might still find tremendous success. However, your natural aptitudes can provide a starting point, since many people aren’t inclined to pursue activities that don’t come as naturally at the expense of pursuing ones that do.
Arthur Miller Jr. wrote a similar book to Robinson titled The Power of Uniqueness: How to Become Who You Really Are, which unpacks further the role aptitudes and our natural way of being can play in our career choices. Miller Jr. developed something called a Motivated Abilities Pattern (MAP), which captures the unique and unchangeable way each of us functions in the world. According to Miller Jr., “every time people do something they experience as satisfying and as done well, they are in fact repeating part or all of a recurring pattern of specific competencies and motivations.”
Every time people do something they experience as satisfying and as done well, they are in fact repeating part or all of a recurring pattern of specific competencies and motivations.
According to the theory, which is based on studying tens of thousands of individuals, we each have a unique constellation of traits, interests, natural abilities, and ways of interacting with other people. It’s not as simple as labeling one person a “people person” and another a “born leader,” but rather that we are all motivated to act and engage the world by a series of complex factors. Miller Jr. writes:
“Hand-in-glove with this idea came a growing awareness that the rich mix of talent and passion was not the result of anything a person had done or required or ‘become,’ but appeared to be completely inherent in that individual, a natural endowment that the person ‘just had.’ This suggested a name for the phenomenon we were observing: giftedness.”
Further, one’s MAP doesn’t change and is fixed over the course of a life. Here is a very simple breakdown of the five pillars that make up one’s MAP.
Abilities – One’s natural abilities and talents, similar to what Robinson mentions in his book, such as musical ability, good with one’s hands, analytically-minded, persuasive, sociable, etc.
Subject Matter – The subject matter type (not the actual subject matter itself) that we naturally gravitate toward, such as abstract ideas and concepts, people and animals, numbers and figures, tools and machines, etc.
Circumstances – The environment or condition where one works best, such as in a more flexible or rigid environment, a collaborative or competitive setting, etc.
Operating Relationships – The way someone best operates with other people, be that as a team player, influencer, individualist, coordinator, etc.
Payoffs – The reward for accomplishing a certain task, which might include the satisfaction from solving a problem, bringing systematic order to a system, gaining the reputation of others, having one’s work seen as unique, etc.
In order to determine what these five pillars are for an individual, Miller Jr. looks to the individual’s personal history and, specifically, three “achievement stories” that represent instances when the individual felt they accomplished something well that brought them satisfaction. While these stories can come from any period of life, it can be helpful to look at childhood because as children we may have had less societal pressure to conform to certain types of activities than when we’re older. These stories can entail anything, from working with a parent on a car’s transmission to teaching a sibling how to read to inspiring a little league team to victory. They constitute achievements that are deeply personal and meaningful to the individual, and so they shouldn’t be “obvious” achievements like earning good grades in school or winning a spelling Bee contest (unless those were truly meaningful events for the person).
From these three achievement stories it’s possible to observe certain themes that return over and over again. Perhaps someone always enjoyed accomplishing school-related projects because they have a natural affinity for ideas and concepts (Subject Matter). Maybe someone’s achievements always include collaborating with others, revealing their natural preference to inspire and work alongside peers (Operating Relationships).
In addition to discovering your MAP, there are a host of other helpful tests that can provide some clarity. However, as Robinson details in his book, no test is perfect or comprehensive. No test should be used to pigeonhole you into a specific area, as if a simple multiple-choice test could capture the complex nature of your gifts, motivations, and passions. But they can at least point you in the right direction, and when taken in collection with other lived experiences and knowledgeable advice, can be valuable.
Katie Rios is a career counselor for graduate and adult degree completion programs at PLNU. Before her current role, she spent several years working with community college students to help students think about identifying a career. She understands that certain tests can be helpful, though they are most helpful when taken in conjunction with the mentorship of an expert.
“We offer students the MBTI, which is the Myers-Briggs, along with StrengthsFinder,” Rios said. “A lot of times, the StrengthsFinder is built into our students’ curriculum, allowing them to figure out what their top five strengths are and how they can use them. But we also coach students, and we sit down with them to coach them on what those strengths mean, what they mean for their careers, their personal lives, and how they can use those strengths to their benefit.”
If you’re interested in learning more about your MAP and other helpful tests and exercises to help you better understand your natural gifts and way of being, check out the Helpful Resources on the last page of this guide.
Questions to Consider:
- What events or accomplishments in your past gave you the greatest sense of satisfaction? (These don’t have to be work-related but can include hobbies or activities from your childhood or youth.)
- When you write these accomplishments out, can you identify certain themes that keep repeating themselves?
- What activities have others said you do well? Have you always been naturally good at starting up conversations with strangers, figuring out how things work, solving word problems, etc.?
- What do you think you don’t do as well? Might this be an indication that this type of work is not what you’re naturally suited to do? On the other hand, might you be comparing yourself unrealistically to others or some perfect ideal?
- What can you do today to help hone the aptitudes you have identified as coming naturally to you? Are there ways to exercise them if you’re not already doing so in your current job or after working hours?
- Can you think of certain professions that might require some of your natural aptitudes or tap into your “way of being”?
Next page: What Gives You Life?