When I had the opportunity to attend the Social Good Summit in New York City recently, I was not surprised to hear the trendy word “disrupt” uttered in more than one session.
It’s one thing to disrupt business models worldwide in order to make it possible for the economically disadvantaged to do business and for technology to improve quality of life across the board, but it’s another thing to turn the idea of disruption around and direct it inward.
In Disrupt Yourself, which is being released on Tuesday, October 6, Whitney Johnson explores disruption for individuals. She is someone I have respected and followed for years; it is my privilege to host a guest post by her here at Perspicacity.
How to Identify Your Disruptive Skills
As a professional, you should constantly be engaged in the process of re-evaluating your portfolio of skills and leading with those that are unique — your disruptive skills. These may be capacities that are so innate you may not even consciously recognize them, or skills you have honed over years of practice. These are the skills that can help you carve out a disruptive niche — consequently upping your value in the marketplace. But how do you identify these skills? Or as one reader queried on Hacker News, “How do you identify the skills that disrupt others’ previously-established judgment of your worth to them?” This is a subject I’ve researched and thought deeply about; readers of my last post also left some great advice. Here are three questions to get started.
What do you do reflexively well? You can arrive at an answer by asking questions such as: “What do I think about when I don’t have to think about anything?” Or, “what one or two things do I spend time doing that I would continue to do even if I weren’t compensated?” Alternatively, as Alana Cates recommended in a comment on the prior post, ask yourself: “When are you exasperated? The frustration of genius is in believing that if it is easy for you, it must be easy for everyone else.”
Marcus Buckingham, the author of Now — Discover Your Strengths, frames it well: “Our strengths…clamor for attention in the most basic way: Using them makes you feel strong. Take note of the times when you feel invigorated, inquisitive, successful…These moments are clues to what your strengths are.”
What do others identify as being your best skills? Neil Reay, who also weighed in on the previous post, wrote that when he asked for recommendations on his LinkedIn profile, “several things that others said about my strengths were not the things I was using as “Core Skills” in my own profile, but were valuable to those around me.” Sometimes what we learn about our core skills isn’t what we want to hear, like the fourteen year-old who is told he’s built to be a long distance runner rather than a football player, as he aspires to be. Sometimes, however, the assessments of our colleagues and friends will actually surprise and delight us. A well-respected author who is a family friend told me he couldn’t wait to see what I was going to accomplish over the next decade. To him, it was probably just an offhand remark, but for me it was a real confidence booster that he saw me as someone with potential, a do-er.
We can gain perspective on our strengths more systematically via 360-degree feedback analysis, which we often receive in the workplace. Just such an analysis at a previous job — which indicated that my skill of networking outside the firm was exceptional, but I was perceived as not being as good at networking within the firm — helped me to identify a pattern in my life I later recognized in Professor Boris Groysberg’s article, “How Star Women Build Portable Skills.” (Groysberg found that women are generally more successful than men in moving from one job to another because we have, out of necessity, built external networks.)
If you’d like to try a little self-analysis, I recommend an HBR article titled “How to Play to Your Strengths” which provides step-by-step instruction to determine those strengths — and involves asking trusted colleagues and friends. One of the leads is asking trusted colleagues to fill in the blank, “One of the greatest ways you add value is ______.”
Do you have a confluence of skills? As you begin to inventory and mine for your unique abilities, you may discover that your disruptive skill may not be one skill, but an unusual intersection of ordinary proficiencies. As Ed Weissman opined on Hacker News: “It’s tough to claim to be one of the world’s best php programmers, unix gurus, or apparel e-commerce experts. But there may not be many excellent php programmers who are also unix gurus and apparel e-commerce domain experts. For the right customer, that combination is your disruptive skill.”
One final tip from my personal experience: keep an eye out for those compliments you habitually dismiss. It’s possible that you’re discounting a strength that others value. For example, when people compliment me on my interpersonal skills, I tend to deflect the compliment — perhaps because previous employers have discounted my soft skills vis-à-vis hard skills. Or consider a former college athlete who finds himself brushing aside the achievement of playing on a national championship team out of concern that others may view his brawn as eclipsing his brain. The tendency to deflect is often understandable, perhaps even justifiable, but over the course of our career, it will leave us trading at a discount to what we are worth. 19th-century essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote: “In every work of genius we recognize our own rejected thoughts; they come back to us with a certain alienated majesty.”
Identifying and deploying your best skills can be a game-changer for your career. Not necessarily because employers will suddenly decide to pay you more, but because accurately valuing ourselves is foundational to disrupting others’ perception of our worth. When you recognize your greatest assets — your disruptive skills — you are on your way to taking stock in you.
This post was originally published at The Harvard Business Review on 10/04/2010.
If you are intrigued by Whitney’s approach to disruption (and I’ll bet you are!), please join her for a webinar on Wednesday, October 7, at noon ET to learn more. Click here to register!
Whitney Johnson is the author of Disrupt Yourself: Putting the Power of Disruptive Innovation to Work, and Dare, Dream, Do. Additionally, she is a frequent contributor to the Harvard Business Review. Learn more about her at http://www.whitneyjohnson.com/ or connect with her on Twitter.