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Defining Talent: Three Conflicting Beliefs and How to Navigate Your Natural Abilities

Defining Talent: Three Conflicting Beliefs and How to Navigate Your Natural Abilities

In search of a meaningful, happy, and successful career, I've found that many professionals seeking career changes are on a quest to discover their unique talents. However, most find themselves cracking their heads with little clues.

There are two reasons why such seemingly easy tasks are actually challenging: First, there is a vague understanding of the definition of talent and the confusing interchangeable use of its related terms, such as skills, strengths, aptitudes, and personalities. Second, as a result, there are conflicting beliefs about where talent comes from.

I've observed many deem they are born with certain talents defined by certain genes, which are hard to decode. Others believe we are all born with very few natural talents, as any talent can be developed with great efforts.

Let’s tackle these fundamental questions about talent - one of the biggest pieces in your career pivot puzzle - so you can embark on your career-changing journey with more confidence and clarity.

1) "Everyone is born with certain talents" vs. "Talents are the pure results of hard work."

According to Tom Rath, author of StrengthsFinder 2.0, talent is a natural way of thinking, feeling, or behaving, and when talent is combined with investment of time to practice, it becomes your strength.

Similarly, psychologist Dean Keith Simonton says talent is a "package of personal characteristics" that helps you acquire expertise or enhance your performance quickly. Psychologist Angela Duckworth also acknowledges the existence of natural abilities and emphasizes the importance of "grit" in relation to talent, the idea that perseverance might be more critical than your natural abilities.

From my perspective, what all of these varying perspectives have in common is that talent is a set of characteristics you are naturally endowed with that gives you the aptitude for and enjoyment of certain activities. Talent, in this sense, is only the starting point. It informs that you have the potential to be great at something, and in order to be truly great at it, you need to put in hard work.

If someone says you are talented at painting, what that would mean in this instance is that you are not born immediately being great at it, but with an aptitude for colors and visuals. Exposure and dedicated practice over time made you a skilled artist. Similarly, when I am said to be talented at coaching, that doesn’t mean I carry the “coaching” genes, but rather, the traits that form my coaching skill, such as connecting with and developing people.

Therefore, to happily perform at your peak in a role of your choice, focus your time, energy, and efforts on the aspects of the job (and even opportunities beyond the job) that tap on your natural talents to strengthen your talents, thus making them your brand and unleashing the whole you.

If you are in human resources and one of your unique gifts is communication, hone on employee communication. If you are a software engineer and your talent is visual creativity, consider a related hobby.

[Related: What Do You Do Brilliantly?]

2) "Talents are set" vs. "Talents evolve."

Over time, certain aspects of your personality can change for various reasons, such as adaptability or wanting to become a more well-rounded person. Your core traits, however, are relatively stable.

For many people, this can mean your natural talents are quite set. At the same time, it’s important to note that when you are exposed to the right environment, the other aspects of your personality you didn’t see before could become visible. Although your innate talents might stay more or less the same, you likely won’t be able to uncover all of them unless you interact with new activities and environments that activate them.

It's important to expose yourself to as many areas as possible to find your “hidden” talents in the first place. If you have no clue where to start, use your passions and interests to guide you.

If you have too many passions, lean on your purpose to prioritize. If you like dancing, cooking, photography, and organizing parties equally, but nourishing people's souls through meaningful messages visually makes you feel more purposeful, explore photography.

Once you find yourself in the “flow” state, work hard on those uncovered talents until you develop your unique skills. Your skill set, rooted in your naturally defined talents, will evolve.

[Related: How to Find Happiness Through Your Strengths]

3) "You should focus on the talents you were born with" vs. "You can be talented at anything."

I've found talents give you the double advantage of passion about certain activities and the acceleration of related skill acquisition. When you focus on areas that utilize your talents with consistent practice, I've observed many leaders are able to become experts faster and more easily.

On the other hand, those with a growth mindset believe you can be great at anything if you work on it hard enough, even without any natural talent in it. So while you are not talented at everything, spending hours practicing and putting forth extra effort on a certain thing outside of your talent zone will help you in that particular area.

In reality, there are rarely jobs that require skills solely within your natural talents. So, if possible, focus on opportunities that allow you to tap into what you are great at. If you are talented at showing empathy, connecting with people, and developing people, you can look for jobs in counseling, teaching, or coaching.

For the skills that are outside your natural talents, practice. You just need to spend a bit more time and effort on them. You can also try outsourcing, delegating, or partnering with someone talented at them.

As technology has become more present and the job market is getting more and more competitive, the best way to stay relevant and irreplaceable is to tap into your natural advantages: your talents. Be aware of them. Work around them. And enjoy the fruits they bring to your career.

[Related: Four Practical Steps to Truly Define Your Life's Purpose]

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Amy Nguyen is a passionate and highly-skilled career happiness coach based in the New York City area.


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