Most people can answer questions such as “What kind of work would you like to do?” or “What’s missing from your career right now?” Responses usually range from concrete or perk-oriented, such as “I want a good salary” or “I want to launch a business”, to more abstract or purpose-driven, such as “I want to solve the problem of cancer” or “I want to learn how to become a good leader.”
Alas, people have a hard time describing WHO needs THEM NOW (each of those words is in caps for a good reason). Their answers to questions such as “What are you good at?” are rarely specific enough to be useful.
People struggle with these questions because they are personal. The answers are not published anywhere, and the only way to find them is through a personal exercise of both self-discovery and empathy with others. The good news is that for those that go down that path, the reward is a neverending string of opportunities because they constantly adapt their identities and services to what the world needs from them.
Balancing Ability and Ambition
While it would be exciting to help Elon Musk or Ban Ki-moon and work full-time directly with them, it’s not realistic for most people. Similarly, it would be nice to start the next Google or Amazon, but it’s also improbable that that is your next best step. A good way to start thinking about who we should help is to first think about who we CAN help.
At the same time, while one could probably put up a lemonade stand or get a job in McDonald’s right away, those moves provide little value for most people after a certain point in their careers. It’s a waste of their assets such as experience, skills, networks, etc.
The more standard the opportunity, the more competition there is, the harder it becomes to leverage our uniqueness, and the less value we can provide and receive. The more customized the opportunity, the bigger the rewards for both sides.
Our goal is to be able to answer this question:
“Right now, who can I help better than anybody, and how?”
If you figure that out, you have discovered your next career breakthrough opportunity. The more relevant the problems we can solve, and the more people we can help, the more value we receive exchange in the form of money, creative freedom, authority, autonomy, flexibility, joy, relationships, etc.
If we want to identify which are the best opportunities out there for us, we need to understand our specific circumstances. Below are some questions to help you with this process. The trick is to revisit these questions often because with every step we take in life, our conditions change, and what we can do for others changes too.
1) What problems spark your interest?
2) Who are people that you believe to be doing important work around those problems?
3) How are you investing in becoming a better ally around those problems?
Understanding and communicating the problems you care about will allow you to bond with others at a deeper level than simply transactional. This is the famous “start with why“, and it’s a major drive behind powerful collaborations. It will also provide the fuel you need to work on something or with someone for longer than you would otherwise. If you lack clarity about what problems you care about, that is the first problem you need to work on.
1) What assets do you have that could be valuable to others? Think free time, skills (soft and hard), wisdom, information, clarity, networks, reputation, money, technology, etc.
2) What assets are you pursuing that other people can help you get?
Here’s an example of asset leverage: I was invited on a speaking tour around US universities such as Harvard and Stanford because I had the relevant previous relationships, English fluency, speaking experience and location flexibility, plus I provided cultural diversity to the speakers lineup. In exchange, since I didn’t need to make money, the experience helped me improve my speaking skills and reputation, and sparked new connections all over the country. It was a perfect fit.
1) In what way are you unique?
2) How hard is it for others to acquire your current advantages?
*There’s room in the world for most people to monopolize certain opportunities. *The languages you know, the city you live in, your culture, the information trends you see before others, the people that trust you, the things you don’t care about… These are some neither-good-or-bad conditions that can make you uniquely qualified for certain opportunities. These factors can also act as barriers of entry for others to access those same opportunities.
1) Who do you have access to?
2) With whom should you be developing a relationship?
3) How well do you understand the different people that you think you can help?
On his must-read essay about his lessons working with Reid Hoffman, co-founder and chairman of Linkedin, Ben Casnocha explains the best way to reach successful people:
“As chief of staff, I reviewed thousands of requests for Reid’s time/attention/money. It was stunning how few requesters actually offered to help him on something. Amusingly, many requests were framed as if the asking party were doing Reid a favor by giving him the opportunity to help them: “It’d be fun to get your feedback on something I’m working on.” Reid’s so generous and so curious that sometimes it is fun for him to simply help you. But why not figure out what he’s working on and send an article of relevance? Or offer to share a perspective that could be useful? Help first. Help first. Help first. It’s key to building relationships – even with the ultra successful.”
As valuable as knowing many people can be, it’s equally important to do the work of understanding their needs. Think of it as your personal “market research.” The better you understand the people in your reach, the easier it will be to persuade them that you can help them.
It’s ok to not know the answers to all the questions above. They are simply meant to prompt you to discover new perspectives about your unique situation and what you can do next in your career. The point is to remember that, in a fast-paced networked age, there’s always some unique value we can provide someone, and we must exercise self-awareness and empathy periodically to uncover it.