Strengths and talents

Something I think a lot about is personal strengths and talents–one’s forte (or in Japanese 得意). I believe everyone has at least one, and you should figure out what it is and base your life around it. Ideally it’s something you can build a career on, but in some cases it isn’t, like if your talent is charisma and the ability to manipulate social situations to your benefit (ha, that sounds evil! But I actually do know someone who I feel has this talent). For this reason, I tend to prefer people who have found that strength and are doing what they love, and I’m working hard to be able to say I’m doing the same. (I kind of can now, but not completely.) I’m aware this belief is a little presumptuous and first-world-problems; obviously, not everyone has the means to be able to see their talents through to the fullest. Or some people just can’t find a way to do what they love, career-wise, because they aren’t cut out for anything lucrative. And I get that. But sometimes, there’s a degree of lack of trying that plays into it as well, and that’s what I primarily don’t like. If you’ve tried your hardest to figure out a good way to monetize your natural talents, and you’ve sunk time into research and contemplation and experimentation, and in the end you just can’t find a way–okay. At least you made an attempt. But if you haven’t exhausted every option you have, you owe it to yourself to at least try. Life is so much better–for you, and for everyone around you–when you’re able to live your passion. Again, I know this is all going to sound arrogant, patting myself on the back, and like I think I have it all figured out. I don’t. I’m struggling with this myself, and have for years. But I think this is one way to find happiness, so it’s worth exploring and advocating.

First, talents. It did take me a while to discover my own. After all, sometimes what you love to do is not necessarily what you’re good at. This is the case for me and art. I have given up on art by now and almost never draw or anything, or even do photography which I used to love (although that’s really because I lack the time and a good camera to fully sink into it–someday I want to build my own darkroom though), but in elementary and middle school I really tried to be good at art. I tried so hard in elementary school to get the art teacher to let me into the higher-level after-school “gifted” art classes–which may I point out the majority of my friends were in, which was so frustrating and jealousy-inducing for me–but she rejected me at least two times. LONG TANGENT/RANT TIME: I submitted to her a portfolio of what I thought was my best work, but basically she told me (maybe not in those exact words, but this was her gist) as nicely as possible that it wasn’t creative enough for what she wanted. I applied again and she rejected me again. She also turned down my application to join the newly created after-school “pet patrol” that went around to all the class pets in the school and fed them (she was in charge of it). God. I was like obsessed with every single pet at my school, all the teachers who owned those pets knew me and liked me, a job on that “pet patrol” would have been made for me, two of my close friends were in it, and yet she wouldn’t let me in. It was ridiculous. I think she had something against me, probably dating back to first grade when I would purposely misbehave so she would give me an assigned seat next to the real perpetrator of misbehavior in our class, a boy I had a crush on. I was a really crafty kid. If there was a way to get what I wanted, or a way to be closer to someone I liked, I would do it no matter the personal cost to me, even if it involved tricking people.

Anyway. So that’s what happens when you love to do something but you have no natural talent for it and that makes you too frustrated to put in the hard work it would take to overcome it. But sometimes it’s the case that what you’re good at is not necessarily also what you love to do. This is the case for me and history. I hate it. But it doesn’t hate me. For whatever reason, I seem to be able to do it; I get good grades in it. When we took IB exams at the end of high school, I got my second-highest score not on English but on history. And for some reason teachers have always liked my history research papers, even though I haven’t always enjoyed writing them. Maybe it’s because history is largely essay-based, and I’m a good writer. Who knows.

And sometimes there are things you feel like you might be good at but you’ve never gotten the chance to pursue them. I feel this way about acting. I’ve always been kind of a dramatic person, drawn to theatrics… maybe not a good trait. That should make it obvious why one of my more thoughtful elementary school teachers recommended to my mom that I enroll in some sort of acting/theatre program. So around third or fourth grade, I did–I became part of a summer children’s theatre program that took kids and placed them in a play that could accommodate them. There were maybe 30 kids and we were given different supporting group roles (such as “three cowboys”–I was one of the three–or “crowd of people” and so on) and had choreography rehearsals, etc, before the final performances. It was some sort of wild west story. Adult actors carried the play and then the kids came in with secondary roles; I don’t think any kids had any lines. So I did this summer program–disappointed as I was that 1) I had to crossdress and be a cowBOY; 2) I just walked on, I didn’t have any lines–and then that was it. I never pursued it further, and my mom never pressed me to (since she believed in not forcing kids to do anything they didn’t want to, which I can see, but sometimes kids don’t know what’s best! It’s for this same reason that she let me quit ballet and tap dance after one year, when I think she should have pushed me to give things more of a try before giving up).

I think I was disappointed that I hadn’t gotten to do any real acting that satisfied my dramatic, attention-seeking urges, and maybe also I was scared of what might happen if I really put myself out there, so I didn’t do anything more with acting. Well, actually, in fourth or fifth grade I organized a play for the talent show with some classmates (something about a castle/princess, not sure if it was original or adapted–it was a class project and then it seemed only natural to me that it get performed at the talent show too so I sort of browbeat the people in my group into doing that and did a lot of the work to make it possible (making the scenery, bringing the props, organizing rehearsals and helping with costumes)–funny thing, at least two of the actors went on to join theatre and act in plays). But while I had opportunities to start taking theatre classes in middle school as my elective, and I really should have because I loved going to all the plays (I went to every one from middle school through college) and I idolized a lot of the people in theatre and the teacher seemed fantastic, I didn’t. I wanted to take art instead, but then I was forced to realize I was bad at it, and then I decided to do band to be near a friend and near a crush (stupid reasons). But also I was too scared, and I still am too scared, too afraid I’ll be bad at acting even though I have a feeling I might have some natural talent for it that just needs to be honed. Which is why I should have started it when I was a fearless, fully confident and secure kid (I used to think the world of myself as a child, haha) and now it’s too late. Maybe I’m a frustrated theatre kid.

And, of course, sometimes it’s the case that what you love to do and what you are good at is not something you can turn into a career. Maybe due to timing (of a few years or even of centuries; maybe your abilities would have been better appreciated in a previous time–or a future one), geography, the economy, and other things you can’t help. Maybe due to the fact that all those factors notwithstanding, it’s just not fodder for a career. This is really the worst situation of all. I don’t like thinking about it.

In any case, I did eventually stumble upon my real talents. Finally, at the end of freshman year of high school, I realized that I was–in all vanity, I admit, though it actually was a legitimate surprise to me when I finally noticed other people had a harder time than me–better than most other students at Spanish, my one foreign language at the time, and maybe I should try learning some others. Maybe someday I could turn it into a career. So I added French, then Japanese in college… and the rest is history. Prior to that I knew I was also good at English and writing too, but the pool of competition was bigger there. In any case, I’m lucky–I finally figured it out. Of course, the real test is in turning it into a career.

On that note… my first summer at TOKYOPOP as an editorial intern was actually funded by a program at my school that provided a stipend to 60 successful applicants, allowing them to conduct an internship in a desired career field. I even got a travel allotment too (some people’s internships were in other countries!). (I think the program, a true pre-recession relic, has run out of funding now, which makes my memories of this whole thing take on a tinge of was-I-really-so-lucky did-that-really-happen unbelievability. I mean, needless to say I couldn’t have afforded/justified doing this without the grant.) As part of the program, we went on a retreat at the start of summer to properly prepare us mentally for the internship, ensuring that we’d view this as a true trial career and contemplate whether it fulfilled our abilities as we progressed. (During the summer we had to keep a journal with an entry for every day of work, and upon our return to campus in the fall we had to attend a semester-length course that would have us contemplate our experience, our goals, and our career. Yes, this money came with lots of strings attached!). Prior to the retreat we were asked to take a strengths quiz and bring our results with us, where we’d discuss them. I really love this sort of thing–taking quizzes, discovering my strengths (it’s why I’m such a sucker for Myers-Briggs)–so I was overjoyed and have cherished my results ever since. Here is what it told me were my five strengths.

Excellence, not average, is your measure. Taking something from below average to slightly above average takes a great deal of effort and in your opinion is not very rewarding. Transforming something strong into something superb takes just as much effort but is much more thrilling. Strengths, whether yours or someone else’s, fascinate you. Like a diver after pearls, you search them out, watching for the telltale signs of a strength. A glimpse of untutored excellence, rapid learning, a skill mastered without recourse to steps-all these are clues that a strength may be in play. And having found a strength, you feel compelled to nurture it, refine it, and stretch it toward excellence. You polish the pearl until it shines. This natural sorting of strengths means that others see you as discriminating. You choose to spend time with people who appreciate your particular strengths. Likewise, you are attracted to others who seem to have found and cultivated their own strengths. You tend to avoid those who want to fix you and make you well rounded. You don’t want to spend your life bemoaning what you lack. Rather, you want to capitalize on the gifts with which you are blessed. It’s more fun. It’s more productive. And, counterintuitively, it is more demanding.

You are inquisitive. You collect things. You might collect information-words, facts, books, and quotations-or you might collect tangible objects such as butterflies, baseball cards, porcelain dolls, or sepia photographs. Whatever you collect, you collect it because it interests you. And yours is the kind of mind that finds so many things interesting. The world is exciting precisely because of its infinite variety and complexity. If you read a great deal, it is not necessarily to refine your theories but, rather, to add more information to your archives. If you like to travel, it is because each new location offers novel artifacts and facts. These can be acquired and then stored away. Why are they worth storing? At the time of storing it is often hard to say exactly when or why you might need them, but who knows when they might become useful? With all those possible uses in mind, you really don’t feel comfortable throwing anything away. So you keep acquiring and compiling and filing stuff away. It’s interesting. It keeps your mind fresh. And perhaps one day some of it will prove valuable.

You can sense the emotions of those around you. You can feel what they are feeling as though their feelings are your own. Intuitively, you are able to see the world through their eyes and share their perspective. You do not necessarily agree with each person’s perspective. You do not necessarily feel pity for each person’s predicament-this would be sympathy, not Empathy. You do not necessarily condone the choices each person makes, but you do understand. This instinctive ability to understand is powerful. You hear the unvoiced questions. You anticipate the need. Where others grapple for words, you seem to find the right words and the right tone. You help people find the right phrases to express their feelings-to themselves as well as to others. You help them give voice to their emotional life. For all these reasons other people are drawn to you.

You love to learn. The subject matter that interests you most will be determined by your other themes and experiences, but whatever the subject, you will always be drawn to the process of learning. The process, more than the content or the result, is especially exciting for you. You are energized by the steady and deliberate journey from ignorance to competence. The thrill of the first few facts, the early efforts to recite or practice what you have learned, the growing confidence of a skill mastered-this is the process that entices you. Your excitement leads you to engage in adult learning experiences-yoga or piano lessons or graduate classes. It enables you to thrive in dynamic work environments where you are asked to take on short project assignments and are expected to learn a lot about the new subject matter in a short period of time and then move on to the next one. This Learner theme does not necessarily mean that you seek to become the subject matter expert, or that you are striving for the respect that accompanies a professional or academic credential. The outcome of the learning is less significant than the “getting there.”

You like to think. You like mental activity. You like exercising the “muscles” of your brain, stretching them in multiple directions. This need for mental activity may be focused; for example, you may be trying to solve a problem or develop an idea or understand another person’s feelings. The exact focus will depend on your other strengths. On the other hand, this mental activity may very well lack focus. The theme of Intellection does not dictate what you are thinking about; it simply describes that you like to think. You are the kind of person who enjoys your time alone because it is your time for musing and reflection. You are introspective. In a sense you are your own best companion, as you pose yourself questions and try out answers on yourself to see how they sound. This introspection may lead you to a slight sense of discontent as you compare what you are actually doing with all the thoughts and ideas that your mind conceives. Or this introspection may tend toward more pragmatic matters such as the events of the day or a conversation that you plan to have later. Wherever it leads you, this mental hum is one of the constants of your life.

I would say… yes. This is all quite accurate. Empathy surprised me at the time, but since then I’ve come to realize it’s really true. I can always sort of sense what someone is feeling. This isn’t necessarily a good thing, as sometimes it’s not a good feeling and if it’s my fault the other person probably wishes I couldn’t pick up on it but I can so it makes me miserable too. Or even if I can pick up on a bad feeling, I may not want to do anything to fix it (if I don’t like the person, etc) so I end up feeling like a terrible person. But I really do rely on my instincts and ability to 空気を読む (KY!) a lot, it’s true. Observing and picking up others’ emotions is like second nature to me.

All the same, I find that the people I’m closest to are also the ones who are maximizing their strengths and talents–who have found them and are putting them to good use. People with day jobs, people who are floundering and won’t put in the time/effort to figure out what they really want from life and then pursue it, people who drift along in life and sort of fall into things, or get pushed into things by others, and then wake up years later and go “What happened?”–those are not my people. I just don’t understand them and moreover I have a hard time feeling sympathy for them. At some point, we have nothing in common. I can’t comprehend why they won’t pursue a career–or something, anything that’s both lucrative and fulfilling, which yes is not easy but I believe attainable for anyone given enough effort, time, and research–and I sense jealousy towards me from them. (I’m sure this all sounds terribly narcissistic and superior.)

But Aro’s dad is always telling us the same thing. He’s so glad that both of us, and a lot of our friends, are pursuing careers that utilize strengths and talents as opposed to soul-sucking day jobs–even if we’re not there yet, just the fact that we’re trying is enough. To this day I don’t understand people who are content to work day jobs and then go home and pursue their “real” interests and hobbies. Follow your passion instead!

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