Success has a flavor most of us long for. We follow people who are successful. We try to figure out what they’re doing right. We read books that promise to have cracked the secret code. It’s family, culture, and friendship, says Malcolm Gladwell in Outliers. It’s purpose, intelligence, and chance, says Anthony Tjan in Hearts, Smarts, Guts, and Luck.
If you’re reading this, chances are that you too want to be successful—and that like most people, you’re still trying to figure out how, despite all the information out there.
Perhaps it’s time to stop looking outside for answers and to look inward instead. Because no book can substitute the inner work that’s needed to understand what you really want in your life. Once you’ve figured that out, go back to the books, because you’ll be able to pick up helpful information without being overwhelmed by information overload.
Here are 3 areas you’ll want to think about. They’ll help you define a new path forward, or bring more energy and passion into your current work. Don’t skip any one of them—you’ll soon see why!
Area #1: What Are You Great At?
Many people struggle with this. We’re so used to focusing on our faults and failures that rattling off a dozen of our weaknesses feels far more natural and is way faster than coming up with even 3 things we’re truly great at. It helps to think about past successes at work or in your life. What were the strengths you displayed? What was the expertise or what were the talents that helped make it happen? These are all in your toolbox, and the more aware you are of them, the more you can align your work with them so that you show up powerfully every day.
Caution: Skills without passion are lifeless. Without purpose, they may not be put to their highest use.
Area #2: What Do You Love to Do?
You’ll be surprised at how few of us know this either. For many of us, passions are actively discouraged. “Art is a waste of time” or “Music will get you nowhere” are not uncommon nuggets of wisdom we grew up with! Schooling subtly (or not so subtly) emphasizes certain subjects over others, often developing the head at the expense of the heart. Yet passions are what fuel us and light us up. Robert Vallerand’s research on harmonious passions shows that they keep us motivated when the going gets tough, and that they add to our well-being. So what lights you up? What would you do even if you had to pay someone to be allowed to do it? And how can you include it in what you do every day?
Caution: Passions without skills won’t make you very successful. Without purpose, they’ll feel good only while they last.
Area #3: Who Will You Serve?
We humans are social creatures. Our pursuits can feel meaningless if we can’t see how they impact the lives of others for the better. Parents rise up to the challenges of raising children because of the little moments of shared joy. Employees stay in difficult workplaces when they feel that their work is making a difference to others. And Adam Grant’s research has shown that they put in greater effort and perform substantially better when they know how their work impacts others. Stepping out of our worlds into an ecosystem of service benefits both the giver and the receiver.
Caution: Service without skills won’t help anyone at all. Without passion, you wouldn’t have the emotional strength to push through.
I once read that to be truly human, we have to live at the intersection of our head (skills), heart (passions), and hands (service). It’s a beautiful reminder that you’ll find your zone of genius when you can connect to what you’re passionate about, identify the needs associated with it, and bring your skills to meet that task in the best way possible.