Sief, a former colleague of mine, has an MBA from a top business school and is a rising star at a technology company. But he’s interested in a new job and he recently called to ask if I’d serve as a reference.
I told him that I’d be happy to describe his strengths to potential employers. I’d witnessed first hand Sief’s organizational skill, administrative acumen and effectiveness at project management. But I also warned him to be careful.
He was pursuing a marketing role requiring creativity, strong technical skills, and comfort with lack of structure. And I was concerned Sief might not have the very skills he needed to excel in the job.
“The reality is you’re probably good at a lot of things,” I told him. “But you’re not very good at most of them. I’m not either.”
In my upcoming book, Howard’s Gift: Uncommon Wisdom to Inspire Your Life’s Work, Harvard Business School professor Howard Stevenson and I coin a phrase called “cheating at solitaire” to describe the all-too-common occurrence of men and women telling themselves that they have the skills they wished they possessed to achieve certain professional goals — as opposed to objectively considering whether they actually do or do not.
The hard reality is most of us have few areas in which we really, truly excel. The key, Howard and I argue, is to identify those areas — and then search for professional opportunities where our strongest capacities are most often needed and utilized. The earlier in your career that you identify these, the easier it is for you to take control over your own professional trajectory.
There are two questions that anyone confronting or pursuing a new opportunity needs to ask him or herself:
- Do I have the core capacities — the knowledge, skills and personal characteristics — to do a job really well?
- If my sense of career satisfaction is based on achieving a narrowly defined goal — like gaining entry to a very selective profession, getting a specific job, or working at a particular organization — does the depth of my core capacities compare advantageously to the capacities of people with the same goal?
Put more simply:
- Can I do it?
- Can I win when competing against others who can also do it?
In today’s tough economy, the second question is at least as important as the first. Avoiding it or answering it dishonestly is cheating at solitaire. (See the sidebar to this article for a description of five common fallacies to avoid.) But instead of stealing one card in a meaningless game, you’ll end up robbing yourself of professional success and satisfaction.
Howard thought he was going to become a mathematician when he graduated from Stanford. But an honest self-assessment of his math skills — sufficient but not extraordinary — versus his classmates’ — often spectacular — led him to chart a career in a different field, involving intellectual curiosity in the field of entrepreneurship, communication and empathy — where he had a stronger competitive advantage. I’ve similarly learned to avoid roles focused primarily on “maintenance” — which isn’t my strongest suite — in favor of those needing more strategic insight focused on “building.”
For Sief, a young talent who excels in operations-centric positions, a career marketing and sales probably doesn’t make sense. And he shouldn’t risk his future success by cheating at solitaire.