How to figure out what you’re good at

This post was republished on Lifehacker.

A lot of success advice revolves around the idea of “being honest with yourself about the things you’re good at, and pursuing those things relentlessly.” We’re told that all successful people can be boiled down to a paragraph which states their chosen field and the personal style they brought to it which allowed them to be successful.

Here are some examples:

Bill Gates: entrepreneur and philanthropist. intensely smart, workaholic, ruthlessly competitive.

Christopher Hitchens: master wordsmith and essayist. contrarian. known for his outspoken views on Athiesm and his pugnacious writing style.

Oprah Winfrey: media mogul. revolutionized the daytime tabloid talk show. philanthropist. known for her ability to get celebrities to open up about their lives on TV.

Woody Allen: writer/director/actor. known for raucous one liners, Marx-brothers inspired slapstick comedy, portrayal of neurotic Jewish characters in romantic comedies, and a prodigious output of films over his long career.

Because successful people can be described in this way, the common wisdom goes, if you can figure out what you’re good at in a similar way it will help you be successful.

In order to figure out what you’re good at, a common piece of advice is: “Be brutally honest with yourself about it.”

But the problem with this advice is that for most of us younger than 22, asking ourselves “What am I good at?” returns a blank response.

Most success advice doesn’t recognize this because it’s generally written by people who have spent a lifetime figuring out the answer to that question. By contrast, even the most prodigious 20-year-olds among us probably have been working successfully for five years, if that many.

When you’re 50, asking yourself “What am I good at?” probably returns at least a few responses. But the key is that those responses were developed from experience over the last 30 years. When they were 18 things weren’t so clear.

People forget that you aren’t born with an Owner’s Manual tucked under your pillow that says, “You are Joe Smith. Brown hair, blue eyes, very visual, cut out to be a painter, quiet and introspective.”

So telling an 18 year old to “figure out what you’re good at” is thoroughly non-actionable. We already know that we have to be good at something in order to be successful, the question is: how do we figure out what that something is?

Some people conclude that because they can’t come up with an answer to that question immediately, it must mean that they’re not good at anything.

But thinking like that is stupid and unproductive. More importantly, it doesn’t actually reflect the reality of the process of becoming excellent at something.

The nice thing about my position is that I’m old enough to know what I’m good at (at least partially), but I’m young enough to remember not being able to answer that question at all.

Given this unique angle, I thought it might be useful to get down a few thoughts on how to figure out exactly what you’re good at.

Emulate Successful People
A common first step in figuring out what you’re good at is emulating successful people.

For example, I read a few biographies of Bill Gates when I was a kid and remember reading that he used to rock back and forth in his chair whenever he was thinking hard about a problem. This was supposedly a sign of his intense mental concentration and intelligence.

For weeks after I read that I would try to rock in my chair as I thought about business ideas.

I used to do the same thing with writing.

When I was little my mom bought me the complete collection of Sherlock Holmes stories. For months after I read it, every time I sat down to write a story it would always feature a character called “Watson” and be written in British English.

In general, all of those assumed styles and traits tend to fade after a while. Sometimes trying them on can teach us as much about who we aren’t as who we are.

Some people don’t recognize this and they try to force themselves to adopt the traits and the persona of the person they most admire because they think it will make them successful.

This is not a good idea. Even if you do manage to force yourself to take on someone else’s characteristics, you’ll end up being inauthentic, and it won’t allow you to be your optimal self. What worked for them might not work for you. You’re a different person, in a different situation, in a different time.

“Okay,” you might say, “but if I can’t actively pick what I’m good at then what am I supposed to do?”

This is actually a tough problem because if you can’t actively pick, it seems like the only other option is to sit back and let what you’re good at come to you on its own. This feels wrong intuitively. You can’t sit around your whole life waiting for what you’re good at to show up out of the blue and change your life. You could wait your whole life for it to happen and die before anything ever does.

Now you’re stuck between a rock and a hard place. You can’t pick what you’re good at, but you can’t sit back and allow it to come to you. As it turns out though there is a third option that we haven’t yet considered.

The Explorer Mindset
The third option is what I’d like to call the Explorer Mindset. In order to illustrate it, I’ll give you a quick example.

One thing that I’m good at is blogging. To get more specific, I’m good at writing long, philosophical thought pieces about startups and entrepreneurship. Because I know that I’m good at this, I’ve developed a pretty large audience of people who read my posts on a regular basis.

Traditionally, someone in my position will tell you that in order to be a successful blogger you need to decide what you’re going to write about and what unique perspective you can bring to the table.

But when I started blogging I had no idea that my niche was going to be these long-form thought pieces about startups. I didn’t sit down and say, “Yes, I’m going to create and this is what I’m going to post about and this is why people are going to like it.”

And so I wouldn’t suggest that you do that either. Just because I ended up with a niche, doesn’t mean that you should pick one.

Instead of actively picking one, what I did was adopt an explorer mindset.

I knew I wanted to blog. And throughout high school and into college I started a bunch of blogs and wrote on them. No one ever really read them, and I was a pretty bad writer.

But I kept going because I couldn’t help myself but write. I just liked to do it when I was bored.

Then one day I stumbled across Hacker News and read a few of the articles. They really resonated with a lot of things I was thinking about. Most interestingly, they all centered around the software business – the other thing that I’ve always done with my free time.

And I thought to myself, “Hey I think I could write something like that.” And so I started writing about startups.

As I kept writing I started to understand what I could talk about well and what I couldn’t. It became clear what kinds of posts I was able to write most successfully. And gradually a style, and subject matter of choice materialized.

Now, 2 years later, I can confidently tell you that I’m good at writing this type of blog post.

This might seem like pretty simplistic advice: it sounds like I just sort of stumbled across something that worked and stuck with it. But I think it’s a little more nuanced than just that.

The process is almost “lean” in the sense that you want to try a lot of different things, and develop a strong feedback loop for what works for you and what doesn’t. But what’s really key is to not be discouraged by the fact that if someone asks you what you’re good at, you can’t give them an answer right away.

You weren’t meant to be able to do that.

Figuring out the answer to that question is an organic process that unfolds over a long period of time. Expecting anything else is unrealistic: no one’s power’s of introspection are so strong that they can plumb the depths of their head and find an answer immediately.

The whole thing reminds me of sailors traveling uncharted waters during the Renaissance.

Just like you can’t actively decide what you’re good at,
Christopher Columbus didn’t sit around in his Spanish villa, point to a map and say, “This is where America is!”, and then claim that he discovered the New World.

Just like you can’t say, “I’ll wait for what I’m good at to find me,” Christopher Columbus didn’t decide that the location of the New World would just pop into his head some day and sit around waiting for it.

Instead what he did was get on his ship and point it in a direction that looked promising. And every day he would look out across the horizon and say to himself, “Do I see land?” And eventually after doing that for enough days in a row with no result, he got up one morning and saw a shoreline in the distance.

And he sailed his ship straight for it.

That’s what it’s like to figure out what you’re good at – it’s like discovering land in uncharted waters. You have to travel long distances, and constantly be on the lookout for land. And if you see land, you have to head straight for it and chart every inch of it.


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31 Mar 2013, 11:54am | 40 comments

  • Joshua

    Great post Dan. Thanks. Like the open mindset

    • danshipper

      Really glad you liked it!

  • Ethan Abramson

    Dan, great post! I think the argument weakens towards the end. Not to be too nit picky, but Columbus was never looking for the new word. He was looking for a quicker route to India. I think it actually strengthens your analogy, however, because Columbus never found what he was looking for. Instead he went on this journey and discovered something completely different, but way more profound than what he had hoped. I think this analogy is even stronger for the pursuit of what your good at because it supports the open mindset by asserting that even if you don’t like what you try, it could lead you to a new world to explore. Just a thought.

    • danshipper

      Hey Ethan, thanks for pointing that out – you’re actually 100% right and I like that the truth strengthens the analogy somewhat. I’ll go back and change it.

  • Connor Meakin

    Nicely said about how younger people shouldn’t necessarily know what they’re good or great at. With all the stresses and expectations put on college students or new grads to follow the mold and ‘figure things out’, the whole process is pretty overwhelming.

    My advice: enjoy the experience of figuring out what you’re good at. Embrace the uncertainty it gives you and get exploring… much like your friend Chris Columbus.

    thanks Dan!

    • danshipper

      No problem! thanks for the comment ๐Ÿ™‚

  • CF5mith

    I enjoyed your article. FYI you cannot “center around” something…you can revolve around it or center on it. Keep writing, you’re interesting.

    • danshipper

      Much appreciated ๐Ÿ™‚

      • James

        worst EIC ever

        • DanShipper


  • Shelley

    I love reading your life advice. it’s so encouraging reading what you’ve gleaned in your early 20s. so many of these lessons I’ve just begun to realize as I enter my 30s. truth be told, the “explorer mindset” is one to be nurtured and encouraged at every age. with the world moving at breakneck speeds and old models of following a single career path over a lifetime being crushed, cultivating curiosity may reveal itself to be our greatest asset.

    • danshipper

      Really glad you do. Hope you stick around

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  • Feng Chi Tsai

    I know what I’m good at? Analysis, recording, observation, to find a different point of view.

  • Mike

    Great read! Persistence pays as I like to say to my children.

    • danshipper

      Thanks! Really glad you enjoyed it

  • James

    Great post, really resonated with me, i’m only 21 on my first startup – It’s about having the confidence and self-belief to try new things and not being afraid to say, ‘i’m not very good at this, he/she is better’


    • danshipper

      Happy it resonated. Good luck with your startup!

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  • Philip Brown

    Amazing, the exact same thing happened to me. I started blogging because I was inspired by Gary Vaynerchuk’s “Crush It”, but it took my about 2 years of on and off posting before I found my groove. I totally agree on the “explorer” mind set!

    Great post Dan!

    • danshipper

      Yea Gary V was a huge inspiration for me as well. I actually starting taking blogging seriously after I saw this video of his, it’s actually awesome:

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  • Tanner Christensen

    Excellent post. I would add that the absolute best advice I’ve found to help anyone find what they’re good at (or what they should be doing) is this insight from Steve Jobs: “Stay hungry, stay foolish.”

    Or, for more guidance, this full quote from him at the 2005 Standford Commencement Speech:

    “Your time is limited, so donโ€™t waste it living someone elseโ€™s life. Donโ€™t be trapped by dogma โ€” which is living with the results of other peopleโ€™s thinking. Donโ€™t let the noise of othersโ€™ opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.”

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  • Cayce Englar

    life changing for me

  • corey

    Thank you very much ๐Ÿ™‚ I’m 18 years old. I’ve always known that Art is what I’m good at but never really knew what style or medium, so I started trying every type of fine Art I could. I still haven’t found exactly what “my style” is, But your blog sure helped me realize that i don’t need to know yet, and reassured me that i’m on the right track. Thanks alot ๐Ÿ™‚

    • DanShipper

      Good luck!

  • Alice

    Thank you very much. I’m 20 and studying Physics for have a year now and I just wann get out agin, but i have no idear at all what I wanna do or what I’m really good at and it really brings me down because i don’t want to disappoint anyone if i fail this year even when i’m dropping out any way.
    I’m just so scared that i cant find what im good at but when i change my view and think what do i wanna do the only thing i can come up with is working with people a job where i get to talk to people every day and i like organizing things and maybe if i start with this i can find what im looking for.

    And i think your article just saved me from an nerve brake down. The first thing that gave me hope in quite some time.

    • DanShipper

      Really glad you liked the post Alice! I’m sure you’re going to figure things out.

      • Alice

        Thank you ๐Ÿ˜€

    • fiza

      hey Alice, you are just 20 so dont worry. the avergae age of people looking for a career change or break starts from 28 – 30. You have a lot of time and energy ๐Ÿ™‚

  • Tricia

    Thank you. I am 45 and a divorcee of almost 4 years. I was married for 20 years and had beautiful twin girls and a handsome son. Being a stay at home mother (I do have managerial experience, since I was 16, in the restaurant business- which I love but no longer want to do). I will finish my associates degree in Dec ’15 in Business Management. I actually dislike business math but love dealing with people, managerial aspects/functions, and being very active. I think well on my feet and I am a problem solver. I feel defeated by things like Excel (lol- I will take a class) and just math..ugh! detest word problems! I love to write as well and Perrla is my best friend:) I don’t need a ton of money but 23,000 a year is not going to cut it. I could command a higher salary by going back to the restaurant industry but with a 12 year old son; I need the Mon- Fri 8-4:30 gig. Took a 7g a year pay cut to get it. My resume is weak and I feel deflated. I am doing all I can and maintain a 3.9 GPA. I again just wanted to say thanks for the post. I was looking up aptitude tests when I came across your blog. I will continue looking for land..pray I don’t get scurvy! ๐Ÿ™‚

    • prek patel

      Hii can u send me ur email.

    • jem

      Hi Tricia,

      Have you thought about working in the fitness industry? This could be up your ally – maybe a managerial role where you have to look after your staff and customers but no book work and stay active!

  • Anjali

    Great post ๐Ÿ™‚ The other posts i read were all forprofessionals. I’m 19 and I like writing but dont know what kind of. I started my blog 10 days ago. I write on random topics, generally about college. Sometimes I find writing very difficult. How should I keep myself motivated?

  • Malay Warankar

    Hi Dan, your blog are really awesome. I m a Marketing professional but I’m least interested in working in this field. I have a passion for traveling but I’m not able to understand what exactly I’m good at? I’m confused as in which path I should choose for my future. Some quick tips from you will really be appreciated… ๐Ÿ™‚

  • Hannah G Cox

    Thank you very much for writing this. I’m 19, a college freshman, and am floating between a number of possible career fields. This made things a bit more clear for me, and hopefully I can figure out if I’m supposed to be a journalist, a salesperson, or something entirely else in the near future.

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