My father is an accountant. He studied accounting in college and later got an MBA. As a certified public accountant, he also did a lot of continuing education that helped keep him up-to-date on changes in tax law and other practices.
So, if I asked you what an accountant does, you might answer that it mostly involves working through financial records, auditing, and doing people’s taxes. That answer isn’t completely wrong, of course, but it isn’t completely right either.
Over the course of his career, he also spent a lot of time working with business owners to help them improve their business models. He connected people in one business with those in another who might be able to help each other. He found sources of financing for individuals looking to do a project that required funding. I suspect that that was also his favorite part of the work he did.
It turns out that a lot of what you end up doing on a daily basis is not really what gets written up in a job description. Those core tasks might occupy only a small part of your day and might not even be that crucial for success. So how can you figure out what a job really entails and then find one that involves the tasks you enjoy doing and are good at?
As I discuss in my book Bring Your Brain to Work, one important thing you need to do is to develop a mentoring team. A key component of that team is one or more “superstars”—people who have the kind of success at work you dream of. When you talk to those people, find out what skills they really use regularly. This will help you go beyond what the job looks like on the outside. Look for jobs where some of those hidden tasks tap skills you are good at and enjoy doing.
You also want to become a good ethnographer of your workplace. Ethnography is a methodology commonly used by anthropologists and other researchers who want to observe and understand the culture of a group, country, or region. It involves observation, discussion, interviews, and reading. You can use ethnography to map out the cultural landscape of the organization you work for.
It is easy to get so focused on your own job that you don’t pay much attention to what everyone else is really doing day in and day out. The more that you pay attention to the work that other people are doing, the more of a sense you get of which people are spending time engaged in tasks that fit your skills. By developing an understanding of the work (and the overall ethos) of your workplace, you can work to position yourself for jobs that will enable you to express your skills.
Finally, you should recognize that within any given job, there are many potential skills you might bring to your work. Over time, you may also find ways to shade more of the work you’re doing toward those skills that allow you to do your best work. As I mentioned earlier, my dad spent a lot of his career advising others and connecting people together to facilitate their businesses.
Not every accountant does that, but it fell in his wheelhouse, so he organized his job to do more of the things he was good at. While you might not be able to do that on your first day on the job, you can work with your supervisors to craft a set of tasks that best fit with your skills and talents.