Explore your talents, not your limitations

From the Archives

Originally published March 27, 2015

When was the last time you tried something, performed miserably at it, improved yourself, and tried it again? I hope you answer that every time you didn’t live up to an expectation, you kept at the thing until you either mastered it or truly determined it wasn’t for you. Of course, I wish that were my answer, too. It isn’t always. As a life skills coach, though, that’s the thing I see most that holds people back from reaching their full potential. As recently as this evening, I’ve fielded responses from people – even young people who have nothing to lose by exploring their possibilities – who give up after one effort, dismal as they might judge their results to be. Let’s look at ways to focus on the endless possibilities that people can enjoy when they stop considering their limitations and start discovering the gifts they already possess to get the job done.

I worked two years ago with a young lady on a project that was entirely new to her at the time. The assignment seemed to go well, and afterwards she felt bad about her performance. When we talked about trying again, she was at first on board for another go, and on the day she would have made another attempt, she backed out for unspoken reasons. I didn’t question her motives at the time. About a year later, another similar opportunity arose, and I told her about it. She seemed more enthusiastic to try again under a different set of conditions. Nothing came of that dialogue, though. Finally, I introduced yet another project to her this year, and she politely turned it down, saying that she tried it once (referring to that first project two years earlier), thought she’d be good at it, found out she wasn’t, and was OK with it.

Unlike my reaction two years ago, I was curious about her response, and while I respect her position, asked why she thought she wasn’t good at it. Hers was the only negative opinion of her performance, and I’ve pointed out her knack – a natural talent – for the kind of activities involved in these projects. Really, that’s the message I share with people who are ready to give up after one or more failed attempts at something for which they are clearly qualified and in which they were at one time interested. Once they’ve resolved not to continue, though, I let well enough alone because ultimately, it is their life and choice. Even so, there’s a lesson here that follows the cliché, “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try, try again.”

We’ve all been in this young woman’s shoes, though. Sometime, somewhere, somehow we’ve been in that awkward and uncomfortable position after a failed effort to take on something new. How have we responded? Have we immediately written the thing off as unattainable? Worse, have we written ourselves off as incompetent? Ironically, the young people who do this are the ones in the best position to keep trying until they get it right or truly find that it’s not a fit for them, and the more mature and experienced of us who are too tired to try anymore are the ones who have learned the value of trying again and again. As an educator and coach, it is my blessing to be able to show people where to look and my curse that I cannot also tell them what to see. At the very least here’s where to look:

  • Is this your passion?
    Do you enjoy this thing you’re avoiding? One of my high school English teachers berated me time and again for writing problems I had in his class. Later, another English teacher outright told me to “stick to your cartoons and leave the writing to the rest of us.” Undeterred from my passion for written self-expression, I worked on many of those roadblocks and enjoy writing – and in the opinions of my college professors, writing well – in both fiction and nonfiction genres. On the other hand, if I didn’t care about writing or its value in my life and career, I would just as soon have followed my teachers’ advice and left writing to the rest of them. That’s a first test: is this something about which you’re passionate? Even if not, you still have a choice as to whether it’s an area you care to explore or to improve.
  • Whose voices are you hearing?
    When you have made up your mind to walk away from something, whether or not it’s a passion, you limit yourself and accept the limitation. I’m not saying that’s a good or bad thing; I’m only saying that you and you alone set that limit, and you and you alone agree with yourself to live with that limit. So this question really asks whether you’ve determined that this thing you’re giving up isn’t for you or someone has decided this for you and you’re agreeing to abide by that opinion. No judgments. Just a question worth considering. My father urged me to get into photography for years when I was younger. I didn’t see it as being for me. Now I’m never more than an arm’s length away from a camera. And I’ve had terrible early experiences in photography, from lost shoots to dropping and breaking a flash to getting a camera back in pieces after letting a student use it. The voices I choose to hear, though, are the ones that reinforce my gift for turning out meaningful photographs time and again.
  • How much of this is about comfort zones?
    It’s true that we tend to do things that we believe will bring us peace and comfort, a life balance. Everything we do is to that end, no? And then there are people – we envy these people – who seem to live and breathe new life everywhere they go. They’re clearly happy, well adjusted individuals, and they seem to do all the things they want to do when they want to do them. Whether it comes down to financial independence or some other freedom, they always seem to have it. So when we fail at something and walk away with no desire to try again, are we settling into a zone that affords us the impossibility of another failure by sticking to what we know we can do? If so, we’re doing ourselves a great injustice because there’s much we haven’t tried that we’re probably good at doing and that we’ll probably enjoy just on the outskirts of the familiar zone to which we’ve confined ourselves. Another question to consider is how much of our current comfort are we willing to risk for the possibility of greater things in store for us?
  • What does “not your thing” mean?
    Again, no judgment here. I’ve used that line. I’ve been camping, snowboarding, snow-tubing, swimming, fishing, caroling, gift shopping… all activities I enjoy when I do them, and none of which I care to do on a whim. In other words, it would be safe to say that these are among the “chores” I can take or leave. I don’t avoid doing them, though they’re not necessarily my thing. What does “not my thing” mean for you, though? In my example, I’ve done those things multiple times, and only one of them came about after some coaxing. Are there things I won’t do whether or not I’ve tried them? Sure. Do I say they’re not my thing, even though I haven’t done them? Absolutely not. My point isn’t that we don’t write something off as not being our thing until we’ve tried or done it more than once. Rather, I’m pointing out that there will be some things that pass all the other tests – you’re passionate about it, you’re skilled at it, you’re listening to your own body and mind, and you’re not confining yourself to a box – and still you find yourself scared to venture at it again. Does “not your thing” mean that it doesn’t fit your life goals or that you’ve given up on trying because having to try again feels too much like failure?

Un-limit yourself. Sometimes passion isn’t a factor in whether you do something well. On the job, there are tasks that you have to perform, regardless of whether you’re heart’s in it. You’re expected to do them well because it’s what you’re paid to do. Maybe you’re sent to school to improve on a particular job skill, technical or soft. Perhaps a big part of your job requires you to be uncomfortable pretty much all the time. I use a job that doesn’t align with your passions as an example because many of us have also been there. Discovering what your gifts are and learning to remove, nay deny, any limitations on your abilities apply to anything you do in life. Start by sharing in comments below examples of things you’ve allowed to limit you, and talk about ways you will begin to remove those limits and reach your full potential.