Finding Your Strengths Can Be Difficult

Published at 08:46 on 9 October 2018

I remember when I first figured out I was naturally good at discrete math, probability, and statistics. It was in a probability theory class, which up to that point had been easy. Then came the unit on Bayes’ Theorem. Up went a welter of new and confusing notations on the board, accompanied by a confusing, mind-numbing, and nonsensical welter of jargon. For the first time in the class, I was lost.

The end of the class came. Unexpectedly, the teacher assigned a problem which to my eyes had nothing to do with all the confusing mumbo-jumbo of the past hour. Moreover, the apparent answer was so cryingly obvious I couldn’t fully understand why the professor would ask anyone to solve such a self-evident exercise. Hoping to clarify the past hour of confusion, I blurted out a question to the effect “Well, offhand, the answer is intuitively (some number), because the second event is a sub-event of the first, and that’s a product of the two probabilities, but I’m not sure that’s right by the theory you just discussed.”

The professor scowled at me, because I had just ruined his homework assignment by answering it and explaining the logic behind it, and he now had to cook up another one on the spot. It was then that I thought back about times I’d run across sets of math problems in puzzle books: generally difficult, but with a few mysteriously easy probability or statistics ones thrown in for some reason.

It dawned on me: those “easy” problems really weren’t intrinsically easy; I was gifted at solving them. The problems just seemed easy, because they were easy… to me. In the absence of any data on how challenging those branches of mathematics were for others to understand, I had been operating on unrepresentative information and laboring under the misconception that my level of talent was representative.

That latter assumption is usually a valid one, of course. In most things, talent is distributed according to a bell curve, and odds strongly favor one being somewhere near the middle of it. The rub is, usually and always are not the same thing.

Nearly everyone has at least some areas where they excel far above the norm, but the principle above can make it difficult for one to realize those strengths. For those trying to assess their strengths, or to build a career based on them, this can make that task difficult.

For those trying to advise others, it can render their advice far less useful. Consider this article. It’s a common thread I’ve run across: just follow your passion and everything will sort itself out.

Sorry, wrong. No, it won’t—not unless you’re very lucky and by random chance happen to choose something that’s marketable. I speak as someone who pissed away four years of his life doing just that sort of passion-following and hoping for something to come of it. Nothing ever did.

You see, that author has innate entrepreneurial ability, and I do not. While he was “simply following his passions” he was also filtering them for marketability without even realizing it, or at least without realizing how difficult that can be for others not so gifted as he. He simply assumed he was normal and virtually everyone else shared his special ability. He wrote a whole book on helping the innately entrepreneurial make careers for themselves while believing he was writing a book useful for everyone.

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