The April 12 launch at Pad 39A of STS-1, just seconds past 7 a.m., carries astronauts John Young and Robert Crippen into an Earth orbital mission (STS-1. 1981). NASA

Best Secret For Succeeding When You’re “Smart”

Forrest ChristianCareers, Coaching, Overachievers, Underachievers 2 Comments

Here’s the most useful piece of coaching I can give you: Do you what you’re good at doing.

It seems so simple that feels almost insulting to receive as advice: Do what you’re good at. It seems like such a truism.

Except that so many high potentials just don’t see it.

They spend their lives working at things that are to meet someone else’s expectations, or even what they think someone else wants (but really that person doesn’t care.)

This isn’t a recipe for success. So why do they do it?

Some of them are still caught in the Overachiever’s Dilemma. You’re good at something, usually something technical or detailed, and so good that you massively outperform all other comers. But that’s just because you are doing that PeopleFit called “burning capability”: you are a size too big for the role you have, so you can do the job faster than anyone else.

But you don’t really like the job. You feel like you could do much more, doing something else. But you get strokes being better than anyone else. Deep in your heart you know you need to jump to something else before you get stuck here but you can’t make the break.

Others have already passed through the Overachiever’s Dilemma. Now living in the Underachiever’s Nightmare, they have so much more capability than the job requires that they can’t do it well. Think of a highly trained cabinetmaker trying to pass himself off as a student in a high school wood shop class. It sounds like it would be a cinch, but the expert always tries to do more. And then there’s the insane, mind-numbing, soul-destroying boredom.

So why not just do what you’re good at?

Some of is related to something my colleague, Andrew Olivier, has discovered in his Working Journey classes: Most people cannot self-diagnose their own level of capability. And let’s be honest: it’s not just our level of capability but almost everything high potentials do.

Some of them have been yelled at for so long, told not to “take airs”, that they’re no better than anyone else – heard these things so long that they don’t know how to self evaluate. They simply no longer have that function working.

The biggest reason for not doing what you’re good at is simpler.

Very, very simple.

So simple you are not going to believe me.

You don’t do what you’re good at because you are so very, very good at it.


When you have an amazing gift you spend time developing it because it feels so good to do. But you don’t spend a lot of time thinking “Hey! I’m developing a talent!” You just think…. well, actually, you don’t think anything at all. You just do it.

And because you are so good at it you think that everyone else has this gift to.

It’s a problem associated with high-potentials because they have the problem of leaking their future capability. You see, you have this problem of every now and then getting amazing insights that are way beyond your current level of capability. Elliott Jaques and Kathryn Cason said that it’s what led to the phrase “the wise sayings of bright little children”. Not always but often, you have an insight that shortcuts your entire thinking process. You simply make the giant leap to “that’s it!”.

This leads you to thinking that you have no real skill. Everyone should be able to do this if they think about it because it didn’t take any skill (read: trained ability) to get to the answer.

The upshot is that you because you don’t see what happened or understand how weird it was, you don’t get that it’s what you’re good it. You figure that everyone is good at it.

Add to this the fact that what you’re good at is different in the Level of Work (or even the domain of work) than most of the people around you. It’s going to be hard for you to figure that out on your own, because of the reasons I talked about. You can do it, it takes effort and it takes a ruthless honesty.

You might want to avoid asking too many people what they think you are good at. For whatever reason, high-potentials threaten and tick off people who are not in their growth trajectory. Especially people who are in the same boat, not doing that they are good at.

Thinking about what gets you into Flow. Where do you feel great after having spent effort? You may not believe this either but work that really fits should leave you tired but energized at its best. Work that doesn’t fit grinds you down. Where do you have that wonderful feeling of flow in work?

Take the time. Think about it.

Start giving to the world what you are good at, rather than what you think others want you to do.

Image Credit: Space Shuttle Columbia launching (STS-1. 1981). NASA

Comments 2

  1. This is really true. Years of production art wore me down, but at 9 pm I would pick up a brush for “five minutes of work” and accidentally work until midnight, even when I had work the next day. Sitting in the office when I wanted to be sitting an easel was painful.

    What happens when you have multi-talents? I have read about high-potentials, and that part of the fear of making the jump is the confusion surrounding “which talent should I pursue?”

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