How do I find the work only I can do? The work I am uniquely talented at, enjoy, and is rewarded by the marketplace?
I've spent more than a few hundreds of dollars on tests and quizzes and whiled away more than a few hundred hours working out the best way to answer that question.
To the extent I've been successful, I've found five strategies more effective than the rest:
1. Find what you are scared of, and run toward it
"Most of us have two lives. The life we live, and the unlived life within us. Between the two stands Resistance." -Steven Pressfield, The War of Art.
Nothing in my life has been a better indicator of what I should do than finding where an inner resistance is blocking my path and then running toward it.
I've learned that any act which foregoes short-term pleasure in favor of long-term gain will create the feeling of an inner resistance.
That feeling before you make a cold call? The Resistance. The person telling you that you can't launch a new venture or lose another 10 pounds? The Resistance. That expensive qualification you think need before you can do the the work only you can do? Hellooo Resistance.
The only way to overcome it is to run toward it.
As part of my weekly review, the first question I ask is: Did I Move toward my Resistance?
Did I lean into the fear?
Asking this every week help you find out what it is that you are trying to subconsciously avoid, and where the biggest potential for growth lies.
2. Do an anti-productivity productivity day
Marc Andreessen, founder of Netscape and now a well-known venture capitalist, recommends not sticking to a schedule for a whole year. Everyday, pick whatever you most feel like working on when you wake up, and then go work on it.
No schedule, no commitments.
While that's difficult to do for a whole year, it's quite easy to do for one day. I like to schedule at least one Saturday a month as my 'anti-productivity productivity day'.
A friend that runs a high-end web design agency did this experiment a few times, and he always ended up setting up and attending meetings for the entire day with clients or potential partners.
Unsurprisingly, he found out that he is an incredible salesman and speaker, and has seen more growth in his business from speaking and meetings than anything else.
When you decide to be productive, but can work on anything you want, what do you do? That may be your natural strength talent.
3. Get rid of your least productive activities
As any truly prolific individual will tell you, productivity is an act of subtraction, not addition.
The process of eliminating or outsourcing our least productive tasks makes more space for us as far as what we can achieve in a day, as well as the size of the goals we can aim toward.
At the end of my daily ritual, I ask myself: What's the least productive thing I did today?
While it can be hard to see what you are amazingly good at, it's easier to see what you are bad at and then get that out of your life.
Eventually, you'll only be left with the things you are uniquely good at.
4. Discover your unique ability
"You possess a kind of inner force that seeks to guide you toward your Life's Task -- what you are meant to accomplish in the time that you have to live.
"In childhood, this force was clear to you. It directed you toward activities and subjects that fit your natural inclinations, that sparked a curiosity that was deep and primal. In the intervening years, the force tends to fade in and out as you listen more to parents and peers, to the daily anxieties that wear away at you. This can be the source of your unhappiness -- your lack of connection to who you are and what makes you unique.
"The first move toward mastery is always inward -- learning who you really are and reconnecting with that innate force. Knowing it with clarity, you will find your way to the proper career path and everything else will fall into place. It is never too late to start this process." -- Robert Greene, "Mastery."
I have spent a lot of time trying to get back to the truth of what I am naturally inclined toward. It eventually led me to one of the best things I have tried yet to discover what my unique abilities are:
I picked people from all different areas of my life -- college, high school, first jobs, second job, different cities.
I sent them all an email from the same template, and I asked them "What do you see as my Unique Ability? Talents and abilities, characteristics that describe me, what I'm good at, how I do things, what you count on me for, any other distinguishing features you see about who I am."
It was shocking how similar all the responses were. People that knew me from totally disparate areas of my life (including different countries a decade apart) sent back remarkably similar responses.
Nine of the 10 even involved the exact same phrase, and it's gone on to shape a lot of how I've approached my career and personal development in the past year.
5. Stay on the bus
In downtown Helsinki, Finland, there is a bus station with around two dozen platforms. Hundreds of buses leave from the station each day. They set off on the same route for the first mile, stopping two or three times, all at the same set of stops.
Metaphorically, imagine each stop as a period in your life. Despite being on a different bus from everyone else, you stop at all the same stops. What most people do is they get two or three stops down the road, realize they're on the same route as everyone else, get off and grab a cab back to the bus station -; life is short and I need to be unique and special right now.
So they go from working sales to writing. They get on another bus and ride it two or three stops down the road again. They look around to see they're on the same path and that their writing is just like everyone else's writing. It's not special or unique. So, they get off and hop another cab back to the bus station.
You are not going to do that. You are going to stay on the bus.
Because, what happens is that after a mile or so, the bus routes fork. The 21 heads south and the 71 heads north. Eventually, the tendrils of bus routes stretch far out of downtown Helsinki, each ending its own unique destination. Ten, 20 years on the bus yields unique, one-of-a-kind work.
While the first four strategies have helped me and others get closer to uncovering our unique skills, there's no substitute for staying on the bus.