Over the past decade, we’ve seen a collective shift in the way we approach our unique skills. Previously, the focus was on improving things you’re not good at. Now, to succeed in a world that is increasingly volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous (VUCA), the common belief is that doing what you’re good at is the best approach.
In a way, this shift makes sense. Organizations are less hierarchical and structured now. It’s not about shoring up your weaknesses to accomplish the task a manager has given you. It’s all about utilizing your skills and strengths to add ideas that help achieve organizational goals.
However, we can’t focus exclusively on whether or not we’re good at something. That kind of one-dimensional thinking ignores whether or not we’re energized by what we’re good at doing.
As a result, more people are defining strengths as the skills they’re good at and that they draw energy from. But some of the things we’re good at actually drain us of energy, and when left unchecked, can lead to burnout. I sometimes call these “strenuous gifts” because of the way they sap our strength.
Thankfully, there are ways to identify and manage these special talents.
The first thing to understand is that we all have them. You didn’t mess up somewhere along the way or miss an important lesson that the rest of us received. We’re all dealing with gifts that drain our energy, but up until now, it hasn’t been a topic of conversation. We aren’t discussing how we end up overusing our gifts and feeling depleted over time.
There are three main reasons for this.
Others don’t realize some talent is a drain
One of the biggest reasons we end up with this kind of talent is a lack of awareness from those around us. The outside world doesn’t know, care, or even have the ability to see if we actually get energy from using a certain skill or not. It’s not that the people around you have ill intent toward you. In fact, most people will think they’re doing you a favor by giving you tasks that focus on your gifts. They simply don’t know to ask whether the thing you’re good at actually gives you energy or not (more on this later).
We unknowingly overuse skills
We forget that we can overuse a certain skill, just like a muscle. When that happens, we end up feeling tired and strained. Perhaps the people in your office noticed that you excel at coaching your colleagues. Now, you’ve got a never-ending line of people at your door, each one expecting you to spend an hour engaged in deep listening and offering them life-changing advice. An activity that once gave you energy has become tiresome and straining because you’ve spent too much time tapping the skills involved.
The result blinds us to the journey
It’s neither a good nor bad thing, but many of us focus on the kick we get from the results we produce, thereby ignoring whether or not the journey to that destination was energizing or draining. When you see your colleague reinvigorated after you led them in a coaching session, you might set aside the fact that the process wiped you out when it used to fire you up. We’ve all done this before.
It also comes down to what we can quantify. If the results of our efforts are easy to measure, we tend to trust those more than the energy a skill gives or takes away, which can be difficult to measure. And what doesn’t get measured doesn’t get managed.
Three ways to identify and manage the strengths that can burn you out
I’m not advocating for you to abandon the gifts that can drain you. Instead, I’d like to explore some ways to manage them so they don’t cause you to burn out.
Let go of the results
The best way to identify your strenuous gifts is to temporarily detach yourself from the results of your work. For a moment, focus on the journey and not the destination.
If you’re a tennis player, for example, everything is exciting and energizing when you win a match. But what about when you’re two hours into practice—does hitting one tennis ball after another give you a kick of energy? Would you hit tennis balls on the weekend, or still enjoy the activity in a more demanding environment? If so, that’s likely one of your strengths.
If you’re good at tennis but find it draining, the result of winning a match might’ve been camouflaging it. If you like the results but you’d rather someone else do the work, you have what I call a strenuous gift.
Be honest about what drains you
Just because you enjoyed writing, singing, or playing basketball 10 years ago doesn’t mean you still enjoy it today. Be honest with yourself about what used to give you energy but now drains it. People don’t look honestly at their skills sometimes because it’s an integral part of their identity. We all have an image in our heads of who we are, but that image needs to change as we change. We have to update our awareness to match the person we’ve become. When we coast by on what we’ve always done, it’s a surefire way to end up overusing our strenuous gifts.
Look at what does give you energy
Here’s the flip side of the last tip. Rather than viewing your daily activities through a negative lens, view them through a positive lens. Ask yourself, “What am I looking forward to today?” If something doesn’t make that list, it might be a talent that drains your energy.
The second part of this exercise is to determine what you’d like to spend more time doing that you draw energy from, even if it’s a skill you’re not adept at yet. We all have things that, while we’re not the best at, invigorate us. For me, it’s negotiating. I am not the best negotiator in town, but I find it fun and interesting. I’d like to do more of it, but I’m not able to right now.
Why? Because I’ve been doing so many detail checks the past few months. I used to enjoy that activity, but it’s no longer something I’m excited about doing. If I can release that, it will make my life better because I’ve made room for a skill that could one day turn into a strength.
Don’t assume others want to always use their special talents
As you work to update your awareness of your own strengths, a good way to practice is to use this lens with others. Instead of assuming that your coworker gets energy from what you’re asking them to do, ask them, “Does this task give you energy, or does it drain you?” Conversations like these will improve your relationships and help you be more mindful of the way you use your own skills and abilities.
Take a moment to list as many of them as you can. For instance, when did you receive praise for something you did well, yet really disliked doing? What skills were you using in these moments? Are there other skills you could use to achieve the same result?
Armed with these questions, my hope is that you’ll make better use of your real strengths.
Kayvan Kian is the author of What is Water?: How Young Leaders Can Thrive in an Uncertain World and a management consultant in McKinsey’s Amsterdam office.