Perhaps the most common approach to finding a good career is to identify your personal strengths, and then look for paths that match them.

This article summarises the best advice I’ve found on how to identify your strengths, turned into a three-step process. It also includes lists of personal strengths that are most commonly used by researchers (to give you a language to describe your own) and a case study.

But first, I wanted to give a warning that I think the ‘match with strengths’ approach to choosing a career seems a little overrated.

Perhaps the biggest risk is limiting yourself based on your current strengths, and ignoring your potential to develop new, more potent strengths. This risk is most pressing for younger people, who don’t yet have much data on what they’re good at – making them more likely to guess incorrectly – and have decades ahead of them to develop new strengths.

You should ask both ‘what are my strengths?’ and also ‘which strengths are worth building?’

More broadly, I’ve argued that it’s often better to take the reverse approach to match with strengths: ask what the world most needs and then figure out how you might best help with that. This orientation helps you to focus on developing skills that are both valued in the market and that can be used to solve important global problems, which is key to finding a career that’s both meaningful and personally rewarding.

I also think the main reason to ‘focus on your strengths’ is to find something you might be great at in the long term, and I don’t think simple ‘match with strengths’ is obviously the best way of predicting that.1

With those caveats in mind, I still think that clarifying your strengths is one useful input into career planning — especially after you’ve had a couple of jobs — and that there are better ways to do it than the norm.

For instance, I’ve noticed that people often think of their strengths in an overly abstract way. Michelle, who’s one of our advisors, thought of herself as introverted, so she didn’t think she’d be a good fit for the job. But when she considered what it involved on a more granular level — one-on-one conversations about doing good — she realised this work matched her strengths after all.

These exercises are also useful even if you’re not currently in the middle of a job search. Finding ways to spend more time using your strengths can also make your current job more satisfying (I’ve found the ‘energy audit’ covered in Step 2 especially useful, both for myself and those I work with.)

Negativity bias means we usually focus most on our weaknesses, but most people seem to agree that building a successful career is more about capitalising on your strengths than improving your weaknesses. (Areas of weakness should be brought up to the minimum level needed, simply avoided, or overcome by working with people who are strong where you’re weak.)

Being able to explain your strengths to others is also vital in job interviews and promotions, and these exercises can help with that too.

Finally, assessing your strengths is one of the steps in our full career planning process — so if you’ve been meaning to plan your career, this could be a good jumping-off point.

How to identify your personal strengths?

  1. Don’t focus only on what you happen to be good at today. Careers are played out over decades, and you have the potential to develop new strengths.
  2. Look at your work history, but be careful not to rule out a strength too early. Look at your rate of improvement compared to others with a similar level of experience and training, rather than your absolute performance.
  3. What you find energising and motivating is also crucial in determining your strengths. At college, it’s possible to do well at a subject you don’t find energising, but it’s hard to keep this up for 10+ years.
  4. Get feedback. Negativity bias and familiarity makes us blind to our strengths, so asking others is one of the most useful ways to learn about ourselves. We’ve included some example questions.
  5. Think broadly about what counts as a strength. Consider relationships, resources, and reputation as well as skills and abilities – within those, consider personality, cognitive abilities, and character traits. As well as tasks, think about what contexts, cultures and types of people best match.
  6. Get concrete. Look back over your calendar over the last few weeks. Which activities did you find most energising?
  7. Combine and compound. Think about how to combine strengths to make rare but useful combinations. Look for strengths you can keep improving for decades.
  8. Browse the lists of strengths developed in psychological research, which we’ve attached at the end. Unfortunately, these traits don’t relate in a simple way to your likely performance in matching jobs. But they correlate weakly, and seem like the most well-constructed categories we have.

How to use the full process

There are three stages:

  1. Gather feedback and data on bright spots in your work history
  2. Reflect on questions designed to help pinpoint your key strengths
  3. Use research-backed lists of strengths to generate ideas

A short version could involve a quick pass over Step 1, writing one or two paragraphs about two questions from Step 2, and then glancing over Step 3 to see if it further clarifies anything. Or you could spend an afternoon or two really thinking about all of it.

What are strengths?

Here are some criteria for what would constitute a strength in the context of longer-term career planning:

  1. Something that — if you practice — you could become good at, compared to (i) others who have the skill and (ii) your other skills2
  2. Something you find enjoyable enough that you might do it for 10+ years
  3. Something that’s broad enough it can be used in more than a couple of jobs
  4. Something that’s stable enough that it won’t change from year to year

I say ‘something’ because I want to keep strengths broad. They can involve skills (e.g. writing, statistics), ability to work in certain contexts (e.g. under pressure, in a big bureaucracy), resources (e.g. connections to influential people), character traits (e.g. persistence, charisma), or abilities (e.g. dexterity).

(For readers familiar with 80,000 Hours: There’s a lot of overlap between strengths and career capital. Your strengths will often be your most valuable career capital, though your strengths can also reflect future potential in addition to career capital you already have.)

1. Gather data

Bring together all the relevant information. This can help you spot what you’re good at right away, and also informs the next two steps.

Look for bright spots in your work history compared to those with similar experience

Sketch out your education, work history, and hobbies (or look at your CV / LinkedIn profile).

Then, try to identify ‘bright spots’ — times when things went usually well or you produced unusually good results.

A common pitfall is to focus too much on your absolute level of performance. It takes decades to get good at many skills, and there’s no point comparing yourself to someone who has had far more practice.

Instead, look for times when you performed well compared to people with similar experience to yourself. Roughly, you want to find the skills for which, for a cohort of people with similar experience to yourself, you rank highly among the cohort.

You should usually focus more on rate of improvement rather than absolute performance. Hopefully rate of improvement is a better proxy for long-term success, and seems to be something that often distinguishes people who later become top performers. (Some even like to define ‘talent’ as your rate of learning.)

One caveat is that how quickly you learn depends a great deal on the context and teaching. So be careful about, for instance, concluding maths isn’t a strength just because you didn’t have a great teacher at school.

Once you’ve identified these bright spots, you can start trying to spot patterns in them. The questions in Step 2 will help with this.

If there’s time, collect extra feedback

We often don’t notice our strengths, because what we’re good at feels easy and natural, while our weaknesses create headaches.

And although people are overconfident in many ways, they tend to underestimate their abilities compared to others for difficult skills – like those we’re talking about here.

This makes it especially useful to ask other people about your strengths. (And in general, I’d suggest getting more feedback is generally the best route to self-knowledge – see more on that in the book Insight by Tasha Eurich.)

You might have had performance reviews at work, and so you might already have a lot of feedback to consider. Are there any patterns in that feedback that might suggest a strength?

If you haven’t had much feedback directly about your strengths in the past — which is not uncommon — then you could consider emailing a couple of friends and past co-workers.

This can be a bit awkward, but many people enjoy giving positive feedback, and it may well be the quickest and most useful thing you can do to learn about your strengths.

Here are a couple of questions to consider asking (which we adapted from the Conscious Leadership Group):

  • What am I doing or talking about when I seem most energised and happy?
  • When I seem my best, the exact thing I am doing is __________.
  • What are your three favorite qualities you see in me? (Do your best to use one word per quality.)

Are there any themes that come up more than once? Even just asking a couple of people these questions is often enlightening (and motivating), but if you ask 10 or more it’ll become easier to spot patterns.

2. Reflect on these questions and prompts

I’ve gathered some of the best questions I’ve found for helping people clarify their strengths. Now that you’ve collected your thoughts about your past experience, you can use these to go beyond the strengths that are most initially obvious, and to get more precise about how to define them.

What doesn’t feel like work (but is)?

If you were only going to reflect on one question, I might pick this one from Paul Graham. Look for tasks you find naturally absorbing, exciting, and energising, but aren’t normally experienced that way by others.

He gives the (rather extreme) example of his father:

In another conversation he told me that what he really liked was solving problems. To me the exercises at the end of each chapter in a math textbook represent work, or at best a way to reinforce what you learned in that chapter. To him the problems were the reward. The text of each chapter was just some advice about solving them. He said that as soon as he got a new textbook he’d immediately work out all the problems — to the slight annoyance of his teacher, since the class was supposed to work through the book gradually.

This question helps you find things you’re likely to be good at, that you’re likely to be able to work on for a long time, and that are unusual — all key elements of strengths.

These can be hard to spot, since you probably hang out with people similar to yourself, so you may not realise it’s unusual to enjoy what you do. Try to compare yourself to a wider group instead (e.g. your high school class).

What do you find most energising? (‘Energy audit’)

A related exercise I and others working at 80,000 Hours have found useful is the ‘energy audit’:

  1. Look at your calendar over the past two weeks
  2. For each activity, categorise it as energising or draining
  3. What patterns are there in the tasks you found energising?

This is nice because it’s granular and concrete. Unlike trying to follow your passion, it’s more about specific tasks that are definitely relevant to your work, rather than broad interests.

Besides spotting your strengths, you can also use this exercise to improve your existing role:

  1. How might you be able to do more energising tasks, and fewer draining ones?

Look for patterns based on many categories

Look at the bright spots in your work history. Don’t just classify them by role, but also ask:

  • Which specific tasks were best? (e.g. writing, meetings, making spreadsheets)
  • Which contexts were best? (e.g. how many team members, what kind of office environment)
  • Which types of people were you working with? (e.g. extraverted, ambitious)
  • Which type of culture? (e.g. pressured, high feedback, independent, etc.)

In addition, strengths don’t have to be skills. Think more broadly and ask:

What’s my most useful career capital?

  • What are my most important relationships?
    • Strong ties (friends, collaborators, mentors)
    • Weak ties (which communities and fields are you connected to via acquaintances?)
  • What are my best contributors to my reputation?
    • Educational qualifications
    • Your past jobs and indicators of performance
    • Things you’ve built (website, software etc.)
    • Awards
    • Other impressive achievements
  • What resources do I have access to?
    • Months of personal runway
    • Influence on an organisation
    • Capital
    • Technology
    • Public platform (e.g. reputation in your industry, blog)

Where do you feel most determined?

Success in almost any career requires years of hard work, and often decades.

This is easy to underestimate: Throughout our education, we’re presented with challenges where it’s possible to do well (e.g. pass the test) in under a year. The world of work is very different — you can easily work hard for five years, and still be near the bottom of your field.

This means that it’s especially useful to ask yourself something like: What could I imagine working on for 5+ years, even if I didn’t see much success?

What might be a compounding edge?

Another way to focus on the long term is to focus on strengths that can compound — grow consistently each year. Even a modest rate of growth can add up to a huge increase over 20 years.

This is especially the case in areas where there are positive feedback loops — in other words, where early success leads to more success. (This is called the Matthew effect.)

This favours focusing on strengths where there is a high ceiling. See a list of strengths with high ceilings here.

It can also favour focusing on strengths that can build up in a way that’s hard to quickly copy. That could mean building upon an unusual skill or starting advantage, focusing on something with network effects (e.g. connections), or other difficult-to-replicate career capital like having a good reputation.

What unusual combinations can you make?

Besides just thinking about strengths in isolation, also think about how your strengths might be combined to create especially useful combinations.

One useful rule of thumb is to try to combine 2–3 strengths that are not commonly combined. It’s a lot easier to become one of the top people in the world with the intersection of 2–3 unusual skills than one of the top people in any one of those skills.

This is a common piece of advice that is attributed to Scott Adams, the creator of the comic Dilbert:

In my case, I can draw better than most people, but I’m hardly an artist. And I’m not any funnier than the average standup comedian who never makes it big, but I’m funnier than most people. The magic is that few people can draw well and write jokes. It’s the combination of the two that makes what I do so rare. And when you add in my business background, suddenly I had a topic that few cartoonists could hope to understand without living it.

Adams doesn’t explain why this strategy works. If combining skills were an easy way to become more successful, then everyone would do it. I think the explanation is that people tend to get funnelled into standard paths, but making unusual combinations requires a measure of independent and strategic thinking, and so intersections get neglected. But if you’re reading this post then you probably have the ability to do that.

Some of our priority paths are built around unusual combinations — for instance, not many people understand both the latest in machine learning and how government policy works, making AI policy an especially promising career path.

3. Review these lists of personal strengths

If you don’t feel like you’ve identified your strengths based on the above, here’s a long list of strengths in various categories: work skills, personality, abilities, character traits and work interests. (Note these lists are overlapping. The aim is just to give you lots of ideas, not to be a mutually exclusive classification.)

You can skim them to help both spot strengths you might have missed, and also to give you language to describe the strengths that we’ve uncovered above.

I’ve used research-backed traits that are most used in psychology where available. Just be aware that most of these traits have weak predictive power when it comes to job performance, so definitely don’t think of your results as ‘determining’ what you should work on. Nevertheless, I think they’re still useful because (i) care has gone into designing these traits to be useful as a vocabulary3 and (ii) weak predictive power is still useful — so long as you don’t put too much weight on the predictors.

Work skills

Work skills are more changeable than what we might most naturally think of as strengths, but they’re obviously a relevant way of categorising your abilities if you’re doing career planning.

Here is the list of skills used by the US Bureau of Labor Statistics to categorise the skills needed in hundreds of the most common jobs.

Basic Skills

  • Active Learning: Understanding the implications of new information for both current and future problem solving and decision making
  • Active Listening: Giving full attention to what other people are saying, taking time to understand the points being made, asking questions as appropriate, and not interrupting at inappropriate times
  • Critical Thinking: Using logic and reasoning to identify the strengths and weaknesses of alternative solutions, conclusions or approaches to problems
  • Learning Strategies: Selecting and using training/instructional methods and procedures appropriate for the situation when learning or teaching new things
  • Mathematics: Using mathematics to solve problems
  • Monitoring: Monitoring/Assessing performance of yourself, other individuals, or organizations to make improvements or take corrective action
  • Reading Comprehension: Understanding written sentences and paragraphs in work-related documents
  • Science: Using scientific rules and methods to solve problems
  • Speaking: Talking to others to convey information effectively
  • Writing: Communicating effectively in writing as appropriate for the needs of the audience

Social Skills

  • Coordination: Adjusting actions in relation to others’ actions
  • Instructing: Teaching others how to do something
  • Negotiation: Bringing others together and trying to reconcile differences
  • Persuasion: Persuading others to change their minds or behavior
  • Service Orientation: Actively looking for ways to help people
  • Social Perceptiveness: Being aware of others’ reactions and understanding why they react as they do

Complex Problem Solving Skills

  • Complex Problem Solving: Identifying complex problems and reviewing related information to develop and evaluate options and implement solutions

Technical Skills

  • Equipment Maintenance: Performing routine maintenance on equipment and determining when and what kind of maintenance is needed
  • Equipment Selection: Determining the kind of tools and equipment needed to do a job
  • Installation: Installing equipment, machines, wiring, or programs to meet specifications
  • Operation and Control: Controlling operations of equipment or systems
  • Operation Monitoring: Watching gauges, dials, or other indicators to make sure a machine is working properly
  • Operations Analysis: Analyzing needs and product requirements to create a design
  • Programming: Writing computer programs for various purposes
  • Quality Control Analysis: Conducting tests and inspections of products, services, or processes to evaluate quality or performance
  • Repairing: Repairing machines or systems using the needed tools
  • Technology Design: Generating or adapting equipment and technology to serve user needs
  • Troubleshooting: Determining causes of operating errors and deciding what to do about it

Systems Skills

  • Judgment and Decision Making: Considering the relative costs and benefits of potential actions to choose the most appropriate one
  • Systems Analysis: Determining how a system should work and how changes in conditions, operations, and the environment will affect outcomes
  • Systems Evaluation: Identifying measures or indicators of system performance and the actions needed to improve or correct performance, relative to the goals of the system

Resource Management Skills

  • Management of Financial Resources: Determining how money will be spent to get the work done, and accounting for these expenditures
  • Management of Material Resources: Obtaining and seeing to the appropriate use of equipment, facilities, and materials needed to do certain work
  • Management of Personnel Resources: Motivating, developing, and directing people as they work; identifying the best people for the job
  • Time Management: Managing one’s own time and the time of others

You might be interested to read our rough analysis of which of these are most correlated with employability.

Here is a list of skills that we’ve found useful to use within the effective altruism community when discussing potential bottlenecks to progress on the most pressing problems. You can see results of a 2019 survey on which of these are most valuable.

List of useful work skills in effective altruism:

  • General management (overseeing logistics, finances, and day-to-day operations)
  • Project/product management (keeping on top of deadlines, prioritising work)
  • People management (mentorship, training junior staff)
  • Operations
  • Administration/executive assistance
  • Marketing and digital outreach (including content marketing)
  • Person-to-person movement building and group organising
  • Broad public/media engagement (public speaking, TV interviews, books, etc.)
  • Media strategy (liaising with media, providing EA-specific media advice, preparing people to represent EA causes in the media)
  • Diversity, equity, and inclusion skills (building on-ramps to EA and support within EA for aligned, talented people from underrepresented groups)
  • Translation (accurately translating EA concepts into non-English languages)
  • Skills related to entrepreneurship/founding new organisations
  • Strategy development and prioritisation of organisational activities
  • Generalist research (being able to investigate a question like “Does this intervention work?” when you’re not an expert in the area, or like what an investigative journalist would do)
  • Philosophical training
  • Government and policy expertise
  • Machine learning/AI technical expertise
  • Economics and other quantitative social science expertise
  • Life sciences expertise (synthetic biology, immunology)
  • Quantitative expertise besides economics and ML (mathematics, data science)
  • Software development
  • Tetlock-style forecasting ability
  • High level of knowledge and enthusiasm about effective altruism

Personality traits

The most widely used way of classifying personality used in research is the Big Five (not Myers Briggs!), which is based on a cluster analysis of words used to describe personality.

It breaks personality into the following five factors, which can be further subdivided into subfactors. (Though in the opposite direction, some psychologists have amusingly proposed that since the factors are partially correlated, you can also compress down into a single factor for ‘good’ personality.)

  • Extraversion vs. introversion, which decomposes into enthusiasm and assertiveness
  • Conscientiousness, which decomposes into industriousness (i.e. being hard working) and orderliness (following rules, being organised)
  • Agreeableness, which decomposes into compassion and politeness
  • Emotional stability vs. neuroticism
  • Openness to experience and ideas

These traits weakly correlate with some aspects of job performance (e.g. openness with creativity, agreeableness with teamwork, disagreeableness with leadership, conscientiousness and stability with working hard, etc.)

Sometimes a sixth dimension is added for integrity and honesty (which also seems to be useful for predicting job performance).

Note that many other popular traits usually correlate a lot with the Big Five, and it’s debated whether they are new constructs or instead a combination of personality and learned skills. Here are some other ways of categorising personality, with some very rough comments about overlap.

List of other strengths that are personality traits:

  • Grit from Angela Duckworth overlaps a lot with industriousness, though in theory is more focused on long-term persistence.
  • Emotional intelligence overlaps a lot with emotional stability, extraversion and general intelligence.
  • Self-compassion — agreeableness includes compassion as a subfactor, but it seems like equally compassionate people differ in their ability to direct compassion towards themselves.
  • Self-efficacy is your degree of confidence in your abilities. I’d expect it to overlap with emotional stability, but to also depend on your past experience and actual skills.
  • Altruism – compassion is a subfactor of agreeableness, but that subfactor seems more focused on helping people immediately around you, rather than the world in general.
  • Charisma – maybe a combination of extraversion, intelligence, and learned social skills.
  • Ambition – overlaps with industriousness, though with more focus on aiming high.
  • Optimism

You can take a free Big Five personality test here, though if you want more interesting (and probably more predictive) results, ask a friend to fill it out as if they were you.

Cognitive abilities

Within this category, psychologists most often focus on general mental ability, though many also believe this can split into subfactors. For instance, a study we’ve covered found that intelligence could be split into verbal, quantitative, and spatial, and that these differentially predicted performance within different academic disciplines among gifted youth.

Research has found that various measures of ‘good judgement’ don’t correlate that strongly with general intelligence. I expect something like ‘independent thinking’ is similar.

Creativity is often thought to be a separate ability from intelligence, since it also involves the ability to think divergently, while intelligence is more like processing speed.

I’ve often wondered if something like ‘ability to read other people’s emotions’ might be a pretty deep-rooted trait, and not simply correlate with intelligence and the Big Five.

So in summary, some cognitive abilities might include:

  • Intelligence (splitting into verbal, quantitative, and spatial)
  • Judgement
  • Creativity
  • Maybe some underlying aspects of social skills

If you want to take an IQ test, beware.

Physical traits

These can be important in some jobs — e.g. dexterity is required for surgeons, being tall is required for basketball players, and being attractive is useful for TV presenters. You could also think of energy levels as a physical trait, though it’s already in the Big Five under extraversion.

Signature strengths and character

The signature strengths were developed by positive psychology researchers Martin Seligman and Christopher Peterson, by looking for the character virtues that were most common in traditional ethical systems from around the world.

Here’s the list of strengths (24 strengths organised into six categories):

  1. Wisdom and Knowledge: Creativity, curiosity, judgment, love of learning, perspective
  2. Courage: Bravery, perseverance, honesty, zest
  3. Humanity: Love, kindness, social intelligence
  4. Justice: Teamwork, fairness, leadership
  5. Temperance: Forgiveness, humility, prudence, self-regulation
  6. Transcendence: Appreciation of beauty and excellence, gratitude, hope, humor, spirituality

I think of these as character traits, and so are a combination of personality and learned behaviours.

You can take a short free official assessment test on the VIA website.

There is some empirical evidence that finding ways to apply your signature strengths in your current job boosts job satisfaction, which is pretty intuitive. Here are three concrete exercises:

  1. At the start of each day, think of one new way in which you’ll use one of your signature strengths that day.
  2. At the end of each day, note down which strengths you used that day.
  3. Try redesigning your job description so that you use your strengths more. See ideas of 340 ways to use signature strengths.

However, simple ‘match between job and strengths’ doesn’t seem to correlate with performance i.e. If you’re high in social intelligence, that doesn’t mean you’ll perform better in a job where people typically have high social intelligence.

This probably doesn’t mean your signature strengths aren’t relevant. First, people have already selected themselves on these dimensions, which will reduce the observed correlations. Second, strengths are probably relevant but in a more complex way than simple degree of match. Researchers actually found:

If a worker in a given occupation scored higher on a less typical strength of character within that occupation, then he or she was more likely to be satisfied with work. Perhaps such an individual brings to bear strengths that are especially needed at work. Or perhaps such an individual feels distinct from his or her co-workers.

This suggests that knowledge of your strengths could be useful in predicting your performance, even if simple match is not enough.

We have an article with more detail about signature strengths and how they compare (favourably) to the Gallup Strengths Finder.4

Work interests

Organisational psychologists have put a lot of effort into finding ways to classify ‘work interests,’ especially ‘Holland types.’ These are a combination of personality, character, and other inclinations — chosen to be especially relevant to work, and to classify people based on whether they prefer to work with ideas, people, or things.

Unfortunately, most studies have shown that Holland type match only weakly predicts job performance (typically r of 0.1-0.3), though it’s perhaps better than nothing, and of similar power to the personality traits above. Similarly to strengths, they’re probably relevant but in more complex ways than simple match (e.g. in some cases match between someone’s Holland type and that of others in the job is actually negative).

Here’s a summary of each type taken from wikipedia, where you can also see a list of example jobs under each:

  • Realistic ‘do-ers’: People who like to work with things. They tend to be assertive and competitive, and are interested in activities requiring motor coordination, skill, and strength.
  • Investigative ‘thinkers’: People who prefer to work with data. They like to think and observe rather than act; to organize and understand information rather than to persuade.
  • Artistic ‘creators’: People who like to work with ideas and things. They tend to be creative, open, inventive, original, perceptive, sensitive, independent, and emotional.
  • Social ‘helpers’: People who like to work with people and who seem to satisfy their needs in teaching or helping situations.
  • Enterprising ‘persuaders’: People who like to work with people and data. They tend to be good talkers, and use this skill to lead or persuade others.
  • Conventional ‘organisers’: People who prefer to work with data and who like rules and regulations and emphasize self-control.

The US government has a free version of the test, and also classified hundreds of jobs by type. On the O*Net website you can enter your top, second, and third most important type, and create a list of jobs based on this combination. You can then filter by ‘job zone,’ which is essentially how difficult it is to qualify (‘5’ is hardest).

Case study: Myself

I think I’m partly an example of the dangers of focusing on strengths. I wouldn’t have thought of career advice, public outreach, or management as strengths before starting 80,000 Hours, though I’ve ended up doing a lot of each.5 If I’d been asked to focus on my strengths early in my career, I can imagine having ruled out most of what I ended up doing, which I think would have been a mistake.

However, I’ve found thinking about strengths more useful later in my career. The following is a bit self-indulgent, but I hope you find it useful to see a real example of someone using these steps.

A couple of years ago (about six years after joining 80,000 Hours), I noticed I was a bit less satisfied in my role than I had been in the past.

Initially, I wasn’t sure what to do about it, but one approach I took was trying to clarify how I wanted my role to look in the longer term, to create a motivating vision to work towards.

One choice I considered was whether to focus more on ‘people’ or ‘ideas’ in my role and beyond. To do this, I did several of the exercises above over the course of a year or two, and discussed them with some advisors.

After an energy audit, one clear takeaway was that the work I found the most absorbing and motivating (albeit hard) was writing for the website. I’ve also found my signature strengths to mostly involve ideas, and on the Big Five, I lean introverted and high on openness.

However, I realised that I found some meetings energising too, especially those involving research, developing strategy, or getting strategy applied in the real world. So, I realised that while I leaned towards the ‘ideas’ side of things, I didn’t want a pure ideas role either — I wanted my role to also involve some meetings and getting things done in the world.

I looked at where I thought I’d created the most value in the past in my role, and looked for patterns in our annual feedback rounds. This partly supported the picture above, but also muddied it. For instance, I think that building a team around the idea of 80,000 Hours might ultimately lead to more impact than my past writing, though it’s hard to say.

Third, I tried to think about which of my skills are most unusual compared to other team members (relative to what seemed most valuable). This also seemed to be an update in favour of certain kinds of writing, since I thought there were some articles I could write that no one else would, some of which were top priorities for the website. In contrast, my sense was that a higher fraction of hiring and management could be done by someone else, and perhaps better.

I felt doubt and concern about the decision, but I decided to experiment over the last year with focusing more on writing and strategy, and less on management and running the organisation, which I’ve left more to other team members. From these experiments, I was also reminded I find public writing more motivating than internal-only research (perhaps I shouldn’t have sniffed at Holland types in the past — I just took the test and it said I’m higher on ‘persuading’ than ‘investigating’).

So far, I’d say it’s been a success for my happiness and motivation. In terms of impact, it’s harder to say. But I think happiness and motivation are pretty big proxies for long-term impact (once you’re focused on a promising solution to a pressing problem), and shifting my role has enabled us to start improving the Key Ideas series again (after a slow year in 2019) — so I’m optimistic.

Thank you to Arden Koehler, Michelle Hutchinson, Sofia Fogel, and Peter McIntyre for comments on this article.

Further reading

Peak, by Anders Ericsson, makes the argument that success is mainly driven by years of focused practice. I think his conclusions are too extreme, but it’s a provoking book, and the central idea — that attaining high levels of performance requires a lot of practice and it’s possible to improve most of our skills – seems correct. Also see this nice summary of Ericsson’s career by Cal Newport.

15 Commitments of Conscious Leadership aims to spell out a vision of work that’s productive but also fun, fulfilling, and balanced – while placing a big emphasis on using your strengths. It’s based on a leadership coaching programme that’s popular in Silicon Valley. Although it veers a little too much in the new-agey self-help direction at times (and I don’t agree with all the claims), it’s a useful book for challenging your approach to work. It also brings together lots of current ideas about leadership, management, and performance in one place.

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Now that you’ve clarified your strengths:

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Notes and references

  1. Alternative approaches to predicting your performance that seem more promising include base rate forecasts, or trying lots of things, or focusing on other factors — e.g. whether you have a good manager who will mentor you.

  2. If you’re working in a community, your comparative advantage is important, and often your strengths will be your comparative advantage. However, you can also have a comparative advantage in something you’re not good at (either relative to other people or relative to your other skills).

  3. For instance, the ‘Big Five’ personality traits are useful in that each dimension is pretty independent, fairly stable over time, and they have been shown to predict some real-life outcomes —so it seems more useful to use this list than a random list of personality traits I made up. (Though one downside is that the terms aren’t especially intuitive.)

  4. In brief, the Gallup Strengths Finder (now CliftonStrengths) also aims to classify character traits, but focuses more on those relevant in the workplace. However, the test isn’t free, and when we last looked into it there was no published academic research — so we prefer to use signature strengths.

  5. As a counterpoint, I did vaguely think as a teenager that I might do something to do with entrepreneurship or research in the future, so there was some overlap.