A terrible phenomenon has emerged in the United States since the Great Recession. I call it serial unemployment. Many of those in transition – people who are understandably anxious to get back to work – take the first job offer that comes along, only to find themselves back out on the bricks six or twelve months later looking for another job.
Why? Because the employer or the job or both didn’t match their skills, their values or their talent. Now, everybody recognizes the potential downside of the first two, but it is the mismatch with your talent that is most harmful. It more than anything else causes serial unemployment.
Why? Because when you’re not employed at your talent, two bad outcomes occur. First, you aren’t able to perform at your peak. And second, you feel dissatisfied at work. You contribute less to your employer than it deserves, and you give away one of the rights you deserve as an American – the pursuit of Happiness.
What Makes Someone Happy at Work?
You are going to spend one-third of your life on-the-job. While some believe that’s the penance you must pay for the enjoyment you get after work, recent research has found exactly the opposite to be true.
We now know that work is the single best place to be engaged with meaningful challenges. No less important, when you’re employed at that kind of work, you achieve two positive outcomes. You perform at your peak and you feel happy doing so.
The only work that will engage and challenge you, however, is work that requires you to use your talent. That presupposes that you have one, and in our culture, talent is not generally seen as a democratic attribute.
If you watch TV, for example, talent is winning a dance contest or the Super Bowl. In other words, it is the province of special people doing special things. We recognize the talent of Lady GaGa and Joe Flacco, but not the talent of a city bus driver or an accounts payable clerk or a customer service representative.
Why is that?
It all begins in elementary school when we give our kids an IQ test and, based on the results, designate a small number of them as “gifted and talent.’ By definition, then, all of the other kids are “ungifted and untalented.”
Now, of course, we want to take care of those youngsters who are academically more able, but we have to do so without telling every other child that they were at the end of the line when talent was handed out. Because nothing could be further from the truth.
The Mystery of Talent
You see, talent isn’t a skill, an occupation or an achievement. Talent isn’t the ability to hit a baseball over some fence or to act in the movies or on the stage. Talent is the capacity for excellence. And happily, it is an attribute of our species. All of you reading this column as well as your spouse or partner, your kids and grandkids, your siblings and parents – every single one of you – has been endowed with the gift of excellence. Like our opposable thumb, it is a characteristic that defines being human.
The tragedy is that most of us don’t know what our talent is. Just a few lucky people are born with that knowledge. They’re the ones who say they have a “calling.” The rest of us can only discover our talent if we make the effort to do so.
It might be the ability to communicate technical subjects so everybody can understand them. Or, to disaggregate complex problems into smaller, more manageable tasks. It might be the ability to empathize and show compassion to others who are struggling or ill. Or, to organize a group of disparate individuals and get them to function as a team. Such a talent resides quietly within you; you just have to take the time to make its acquaintance. Now, some will tell you that talent is your passion. It’s what you love to do. That’s nonsense. I’m passionate about golf, and Tiger Woods has nothing to worry about from me.
No, talent is what enables you to excel at work. So, it is the intersection of passion and practicality. It is what you love to do AND do best.