Ask Marcus Buckingham: I Found My Strengths, Now What?
By Marcus Buckingham
March 22, 2010
Personal strength expert Marcus Buckingham answers three questions from readers who recognize their strengths but are unsure what career move to make. Ask Marcus your career question
Q: My 17-year-old twins, George and Rachel, are seniors in high school. We are overwhelmed with all of the college choices. In an effort to narrow down those choices, both twins took the Strong Life Test. George's results were Teacher/Advisor. Rachel's were Creator/Caretaker. George has "no idea what he wants to do." Rachel wants to be a special education teacher with the goal of eventually opening up her own therapeutic riding facility. As a parent, how can I best support George and Rachel?
— Katherine, age 51
Katherine, although your kids seem to be at very different stages of the decision-making process, with Rachel more certain of her future path and George still trying to figure out what to study, your support for both of them should have essentially the same goal: Help them to find opportunities to expose themselves to what they want to do.
In George's case, since he doesn't see his path right now, he should take two weeks and spend five or 10 minutes each day taking an inventory of how he felt about what he did that day (include weekends and nonacademic activities too). What was the highlight of his day? How did it make him feel? If he could repeat one activity, what would it be? After two weeks, see what patterns have emerged and how his strengths have manifested themselves. Then, help him to extrapolate from his strengths inventory to figure out what academic subjects or careers will give him the best chance to play to those strengths. Given his lead role, George may make a great teacher—but don't assume that he actually has to be a teacher to realize his potential. Teachers can make excellent managers in the corporate world, for instance, because they are drawn to mentoring talented people.
Rachel has wonderfully specific thoughts about what she wants to do. That's fantastic—but help her to make sure that her decisions are based on reality and not on falling in love with the vision in her head. So provide her with opportunities to test her theory. Can she shadow a special education teacher, or volunteer in a classroom? Keep in mind that as a Creator, Rachel probably needs time to herself to think things over—but having someone to talk to about it can help her to stop mulling and start acting. With both of your kids, be curious first, critical second. Help them to ask more questions about the "what" of what they want to do. Q: Dear Marcus, I am a 47-year-old wife and mother of three. Two of my boys are in college, and my third is a junior in high school. My husband has always earned enough money to support our family and is happy to have me home to take care of us. But I am afraid that when all my children are away I will be left unfulfilled. I'd like to work, but I don't have an idea about what I am qualified to do. I do not have a college education and I have not worked in 24 years. When I did work, I was counseling teenage mothers on how to feed themselves and their babies properly. I'd enjoy doing something similar, but I'm afraid positions like that require an college education now. What kinds of jobs are available to a woman in my situation?
— Darlene, age 47
Darlene, too many times, we find obstacles in our way without realizing that we ourselves have placed them there. You may be jumping to conclusions about what you need without doing the research to know for sure. Don't let your fear that you're underqualified prevent you from finding out exactly what the qualifications are to do what you want. Certainty is the antidote to fear. Most importantly, you must get an objective and accurate assessment of your situation and see things as they truly are—not better than they are, and certainly not worse than they are. It may be that you need to take courses or get some training to pursue your career. Know that there are many, many people in your situation who have gone back to college and gotten the training they need to pursue their goals.
You have the great advantage of not only knowing what you want to do, but also having experience in the field. You've done it before, and you can do it again.
You can also think about volunteering in some capacity related to your chosen field—not only is it a good way to add some recent dates to your résumé and make new connections, it's also a chance for you to get hands-on experience and explore whether what you want to do truly strengthens you. Q: I noticed that I change jobs every three years. It seems that I get bored and nonproductive to the point where I feel stuck, trapped and depressed. I don't know if I'm in the right field (science, microinjectionist) or what pattern I'm creating that I keep missing. My mother and others I love say I am a great teacher/adviser, but of what? Help! I feel like I'm spinning my wheels and not getting anywhere. I want to get off this ride and live my best life.
— Janel, age 32
Janel, you are the final authority on your own strengths. Your mother and friends may be right, and you can take the Strong Life Test to find out what your lead and supporting roles are, but only you can say what specific activities and tasks either strengthen or weaken you.
You change jobs every three years, but are there any aspects of your work that have energized you no matter where you have found yourself? Take an inventory of where your strengths and weaknesses lie in your current career—pay attention and note every day what drains you and what invigorates you. Then, focus on your strengths and see if you can think of a way to alter your path so that you do more of what strengthens you.
If you honestly cannot find anything in your current career that sustains your interest, you may have chosen a field that simply doesn't afford you the opportunity to really play to your strengths. It's rare to find someone who has chosen a career that is completely wrong for herself—most people want either more responsibility in their current roles or the chance to focus on a specialized subset of what they're currently doing. But if you find yourself bored and weakened by every single aspect of your job, then it may well be that you need to look into a whole career change. In that case, you have to cast your net wider and go beyond your current working life in your self-examination. Look into your past and try to remember what left you with a sense of accomplishment, made you lose track of time or inspired you to want to learn more.
Consider your personal life as well. Do you have hobbies or volunteer work that you find invigorating and fulfilling? Look for clues everywhere you possibly can think of in order to find what strengthens you, because in the end, you need to love the actual tasks that you perform on daily basis, or you will simply never be fulfilled in your work.