To free yourself from the grind, be defined by your strengths

MartialArtistHi, I’m Andy.

What do I look like you say? Well, I’m no oil painting. I’ve never been described as ‘the good looking one’. I’m too thin. I’ve not got manly shoulders.

Personality-wise, I’m pretty selfish and like getting what I want. I’m argumentative. I experience periods of quite bad depression and this leads to unpleasant changes in my behaviour towards other people. My mood swings cause trouble between me and my wife sometimes. When I’m down, I become more introverted and lose my confidence.

I also have a habit of resorting to sarcasm.

As for my work, well, I can’t focus. I’m superficially interested in lots of impressive sounding things but, when it comes down to it, I have trouble completing anything. I’ve been clinging to my dream of being a musician since my teens but really I just need to grow up.

I have no respect for authority and that means I can be really stubborn if you try and force me to do anything I don’t want to do. I put far too much effort into insulating myself from other people’s influence. This sometimes means holding on to my money with both hands so some of my friends think I’m overzealous with my frugality.

Enough about me though…

My good looking friend

When I was a teenager, I had a particular friend who was a hit with the ladies. I don’t know a girl that I went to school with who didn’t find him attractive.

I never had that problem.

Of course I had girlfriends and some girls ‘fancied’ me but the list was much shorter than my friend’s.

The funny thing is, discovering that I was not the best out of all my friends at getting girls to like me despite being comparatively good at other things like English, Maths, and History led me to inadvertently develop a skill as I progressed through my teens and in to my twenties.

Salesmanship.

As I got older, I learned that, to attract members of the fairer sex, in a lot of cases I would have to rely much more on my intellect, my conversational skills, my ability to read reactions and my sense of humour than the way I looked. In short, if I could get a ‘foot in the door’ (i.e. get involved in a conversation), I became reasonably good at ‘pitching’ myself.

This experience taught me something extremely important which is probably one of the core reasons I’ve been able to build a life which suits me. Worrying too much about my weaknesses was a waste of time. OK, I might put in a bit of effort to compensate for them sometimes, but my real focus was always on improving the things I was already quite good at.

Spending 2 hours doing my hair was never going to have the same impact as having interesting opinions and honing my, shall we say, Marmite sense of humour?!.

Of course, this strategy also had the effect of selecting for potential partners who were well-suited to me (i.e. they found my nerdy jokes funny instead of annoying) rather than me wasting a lot of time on relationships where physical attraction was the only foundation.

As weird as it sounds, this is the way to think if you want to make big changes like quitting the rat race and building a job-free life.

I’ll show you what I mean.

Excuses

As you can probably imagine, I talk to a lot of people about the whole not working 9-to-5 thing. In some cases, I’ll be having a conversation with somebody and they’ll be really engaged.

They’re fascinated by the fact that I’m neither in work on a Tuesday morning nor am I extremely poor. It seems like they’d enjoy having a similar sort of life so I start describing how I accomplished it. And then… the excuses start. They typically take the form

Well you’re lucky. That wouldn’t work for me because…

I think that this is analogous to the resignation that I felt as a 14 year old because I wasn’t the best looking boy in school.

Now, as I’ve pointed out several times, in a lot of ways, I am very lucky. I was born in the UK for a start (not Bangladesh or Somalia) but, it’s likely that my conversational partner was too.

OK, beyond that, I happened to be quite academically able, outgoing and interested in things which have led to well-paid career opportunities. But, I wasn’t born with loads of money saved up, good sales skills and a professional network.

I certainly didn’t drag myself up from ‘the bottom’ by my bootstraps. Life has never really been a struggle. However, I did (through much trial and even more error!) recognise what my strengths and advantages were and put most of my energy into capitalising upon them rather than dwelling on my disadvantages.

If I had wanted to use my comfortable middle-class upbringing as a platform for a career in underwear modelling, professional football or being a rock star, I would not have achieved much success because I would have been battling against too many weaknesses.

Be the ugly kid

So if you’re feeling stuck and unsatisfied with your situation, don’t focus on the reasons why not. Stop thinking about aspects of your personality and situation which are holding you back.

Try to get a really deep understanding of your best attributes. I’m not necessarily talking about things you can do which have the power to immediately double your income, just qualities you have that you haven’t been nurturing enough.

You might find that there’s something which you’ve been uniquely good at all along which will open up opportunities to build a life of freedom and autonomy. There’s a chance you’ll discover that some of the things you perceived as weaknesses actually give you a unique advantage after all.

My minor burden

An example of one of my seemingly negative attributes that I’ve learned to embrace over the past couple of years is the diversity of my interests (otherwise known as my lack of focus).

Just look what I wrote in the intro to this article.

I’m superficially interested in lots of impressive sounding things but, when it comes down to it, I have trouble completing anything.

I had pretty much resigned myself to the fact that, even though I now have plenty of free time, I’ll probably still never achieve a lot of my creative goals. In my first year of job-freedom, I kept flitting from one big project to another, getting bored of each after a couple of months.

I was really tempted to try to ‘improve’ my focus by employing various productivity strategies. However, I found that if I wasn’t interested in the current focus, I could never force myself to work hard enough to achieve any results. I came across the label multipotentialite which seems to describe my personality quite accurately.

But, over time, I’ve learned to embrace the positive aspects of this personal characteristic. Framed in terms of describing a weakness, I might say

I can’t focus and that stops me from completing anything

However, looking on the positive side of this, a different way of putting it might be

I’m interested in (and have superficial knowledge of) a lot of things. This allows me to look in more places for opportunities and makes me quite an efficient autodidact.

Nowadays I just don’t have unrealistic expectations of myself. I will lose my focus sooner or later. I accept that. Trying to change it would be an inefficient use of my resources. I just need to make big enough steps to make a dent in each goal every time I manage to get focus. I manage the weakness sensibly, but I don’t try to get rid of it.

However, I do try to capitalise on the fact that I can now engage reasonably intelligently in conversation with people who are experts in a wide variety of areas. This opens up lots of opportunities which wouldn’t exist if I only ever thought about one specialist area.

I’ve recently (inadvertently) tested the concept of embracing my ‘new shiny thing’ excitement/short attention span problem. When I decided to add a blog to this site, I experienced the familiar manic obsession I seem to get at the start of every big project. I put all of my creative energy into writing. I actually got to the point of feeling a bit burnt out.

However, I wrote upwards of 15,000 words over a very productive 2 week period, including writing 4 posts in advance of their publishing dates. This has prepared me well for me getting bored of writing and starting to procrastinate, which previous experience tells me will happen any time now.

I’ve used my unhealthy new project obsession to compensate for the productivity lull that I’m reasonably sure will come in the next couple of months when my attention is diverted by something else interesting.

Imperfect, and loving it!

So, the moral of the story is that nobody is perfect. In fact, perfect isn’t even a word with a sensible meaning.

Nobody is absolutely ideally placed to build a life of freedom and autonomy. Some have it easier than others but, if that’s what you want to achieve, you need to focus on what you have got going for you, instead of always seeing advantages that other people have, but you lack.

So here goes…

Meet Andy

Hi, I’m Andy.

I’m good at some things and bad at many more.

I spend a lot of my energy trying to capitalise upon my natural talents to get what I want out of life.

I accept that I have a lot of weaknesses but I don’t dwell on them. I’ve learned to know when it’s worth trying to compensate for them and when I should just accept myself the way I am.

I know myself well enough to not get quite as frustrated as I used to about my lack of smooth progress.

I’ve learned to focus on the things I can control.

I’ll never be classically good looking, but my wife doesn’t seem to mind, so I can live with that.

Accepting myself for being this way (and learning how to make the most of it) has allowed me to build my life of freedom. I imagine that you could probably do the same.

Your turn!

Although I normally write about the nuts and bolts of making and managing money, I think that learning how to tame my personality has been one of the biggest contributors to the success of my plan to get out of the grind. 

What do you think? Are there any things you would consider as weaknesses that are currently getting in your way? What about times you’ve learned to use your natural talents to your advantage? Please leave a comment!


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[Image “Cartoon Character Hamster Exercise” courtesy of saphatthachat at FreeDigitalPhotos.net]

 

15 thoughts on “To free yourself from the grind, be defined by your strengths

  1. Fellow scanner/multipotentialite/short attention spanned person here signing in. In fact I’m supposed to be completing a blog post of my own right now but have instead read about 5 other posts on various subjects. Exactly like yourself though I find this a big benefit overall, despite many projects with ends left to tie up laying about the place (my kitchen and bathroom refurb are both like 96% finished, and have totally lost interest in the remaining 4%!).

    Being interested in many things makes it more likely you will try new stuff out and find out something you might be really good at for a starter. I’d like to think it makes you a more interesting person as well. If there is one thing I can’t stand it’s someone who is into their one thing, “their thing” and every time you bump into them you are resigned to just having to talk about that as that is all they talk about.

    And oh don’t you just love the complainers!?
    It’s like everything just fell on your lap, you are so lucky to be living your life like you do 😉

    1. I have to admit, I’d come to think of my ‘scanner’ nature as a bit of a roadblock until the last few years. However, I now see it as something which makes me quite economically resilient.

      It comes back to Pareto again I suppose. I’ve not got 100% mastery of anything (I’d like to think my professional skills are at least pushing in that direction). But, I’ve definitely got the 20% mastery necessary to at least be able to discuss in-depth concepts for 5 or 6 subjects. If you’re getting 80% of the ‘bang’ for each of 5 subjects that you have 20% mastery of, that’s going to give you far more opportunities on the whole than being, for example, the world-leading expert on Cartesian Genetic Programming. If you can at least talk the talk, broad, shallow knowledge will usually give you an opportunity to prove yourself later. That’s when I could hit the books/start practicing to work towards real mastery.

      The complainers generally fall into two categories.

      First you have the people who genuinely don’t/couldn’t have access to the same opportunities you have. I have no desire to rub their faces in the dirt and have sympathy for their situations. Meeting those people makes me feel gratitude and, to some degree, guilt.

      On the other hand, you have the entitled, first world problem whiners who have had all the same opportunities as you, but in every single case, can find a reason for not capitalising on them. I have no particular problem with their self-pity so long as I don’t have to listen and nod along. Don’t get me started on ‘…it’s just so expensive to even get by these days…’ (whilst tapping away on iPhone 7, sat in driver’s seat of brand new car).

  2. I have begun to think that it is when someone calls you “lucky” you know you are a success. The first time it happened to me, I was annoyed and all I could think about was the hard work and focus that had gone into getting me where I was. But for some reason, people do not want to say “Well done on achieving your goals, seeing the opportunities and putting in the effort”. It comforts them to use the word “lucky”. We need to recognise being called lucky for the compliment it actually is.

    1. Hi John,

      Thanks for your comment.

      I suppose it depends on context.

      Making the statement that I am lucky is correct. The place I started my adult life from was about the middle (in income/wealth terms) of a very rich western society. I also happened to be born in the early 80s and be good at maths and solving logic puzzles. Add that to my natural self-confidence and it’s difficult to argue that I wasn’t (through no effort of my own) perfectly equipped to prosper in today’s world.

      On the other hand, saying that this fortunate endowment accounts 100% for my ability to get things roughly how I want them is like arguing that Lewis Hamilton wins races because he has a fast car. He certainly wouldn’t win with a slow car, but not that many people can drive a fast car like him because very few would have the stomach for the work (or risk) required to learn.

      When people who started with no chance call me lucky, I feel humble. When people who had as much of a head start as I did (but still bitch about their lot in life) call me lucky, then I take it as a compliment.

      I think that most people who use the ‘lucky’ cop out are trying to achieve something specific (albeit subconsciously). They are evading responsibility. If they dismiss something as out of their reach, they don’t have to risk trying (and maybe failing).

  3. > the diversity of my interests (otherwise known as my lack of focus).

    It is this in me which convinces me engineering isn’t the way to making money for me post-work. I look at the technical blog I have and it’s full of random bits and pieces on all sorts, if I saw that I would think Jack of all trades, master of none. At work it was all about specialisation, although I managed to duck it at the end since I had different legacy skills, they wanted us to go through Cisco accreditation (ie know how to command-line program Cisco routers and videoconferencing/Telepresence kit from memory). I was too old to be prepared to commit that sort of crap to memory, though I was perfectly able to set the gear up for our early demonstrators with the help of the product documentation and Google.

    When I look at job ads, it’s all about knowing lots and lots about the specific task in hand. Generalists are cast to the winds, because they can’t tick enough boxes.

    Interesting idea, though, playing to your strengths. I learned to try and fight down the weaknesses over my career, I became able to stand up in front of a bunch of people and speak in public which I never would have thought possible early on, and much of the early part of my career was learning from others who had more experience and ability than I had. Only in the second half did this start to turn round the other way. I get the feeling this isn’t how people learn to get better nowadays. You have a more constructive mental model than I do.

    1. Hey Ermine,

      Shockingly, I’m going to take the opposing view 🙂

      My engineer friends and I frequently comment on how we’re really professional Googlers. Don’t get me wrong, our base engineering knowledge and project experience are essential to solving any electronics/computer engineering problems. But, Kirchoff’s laws haven’t changed (even once!) during my career, coding best practices are pretty constant (if you ignore the fads) and TCP/IP is as old as the hills.

      Perhaps it’s because I’ve only ever been involved in small enterprises (<10 engineers) but, in my opinion, an intelligent generalist who is capable of reading a book/datasheet/Stack Overflow is worth 3 specialists. The up sides outweigh the down sides.

      My target clients these days are design consultancies with 2 or 3 engineers. If I went to a sales meeting and presented a thesis on how firmware cyclomatic complexity and bug counts are correlated (to prove how much of a real firmware specialist I am), I might look clever but they're sure as hell going to want me to prove that I can do simple things like... erm, I dunno, read a schematic or know which end of the scope probe to hold before I get a look in. You'd be shocked at the number of people I've interviewed who sound like impressive specialists on paper but when it comes down to it, they have f' all ability outside their narrow field of expertise. Not much use to a tiny company!

      Job descriptions are a funny one. Most people get placed by recruiters who have very little domain knowledge. I swear that I once got approached by a recruiter who insisted he had a position which required 'Python or programming'. I've written JDs and interviewed a lot but found that the best actual matches might not have been the best skill matches 'on paper'.

      In my opinion, the secret to capitalising on working with more experienced colleagues is to become good at filtering. I've learned absolutely loads from my older friends. But on the other hand, it would be easy to get sucked into 'the way we've always done it' if you didn't listen to all advice with a critical ear.

      One thing I've noticed is that the 22 year olds are already running rings round me and I probably learn as much from them as from the guys who are 20 years older than me.

      Sorry for the usual voice of dissent!

      Have a good weekend.

      1. That’s interesting. I have worked for a small company – a 10-man band, early in my career. But I have been a big company employee from well before the widespread application of the Internet from ~1992 onwards. It shows in the different mindset, I could see that generalists have the edge in small companies. I have the edge in application of technology on our farm, for instance – from the sensors and cameras through to fixing generators. Using, of course, the big G. For me the trick with using Google and SE and all that is to cover a lot of ground, there is endless amounts of rubbish but the picture of what’s true sort of builds up after a while. Which is sort of the same as ‘listen to advice with a critical ear’. Searching online worked better for me than for many colleagues for some reason.

        I appreciate the voice of dissent, as this big company/small company split seems at the heart of where my impression varies adversely from say yours. For sure the age difference will form part, you will be more adaptable from that angle, but it doesn’t explain all of it, and I am gaining understanding.

        1. My experience whilst looking for freelance gigs is definitely that if a company is big enough for an HR department, it’s probably too big for me! Not a hard and fast rule but cutting through ten layers of bureacracy to find a semi-technical person who I can just sit down and have a sensible chat with is not how I want to spend my time. That limits me to design consultancies and niche product companies which means generally applicable skills are definitely the order of the day.

          I completely agree that the best approach to getting the best out of search/question and answer facilities is to ‘cover a lot of ground’. It’s like the difference between learning something specific out of a text book and ‘immersion’ learning (i.e. just starting, making mistakes and then getting it right by the 3rd attempt) 🙂 The skill you need in that case is the skill of being able to teach yourself, not necessarily the skill you’re trying to learn.

          I’ll always be happy to supply the dissenting opinions! It’s strange actually – I frequently ask people for negative feedback just to get those sorts of opposing views. It’s the best way to check your own logic. People are pretty much programmed to tell you want they think you want to hear, e.g. ‘Yeah… Andy, that’s a great idea’ whereas that doesn’t help anybody involved. I’d rather have a debate with somebody with strong opposing convictions and be forced to apply the filter of rationality to get at some approximation of the truth.

  4. I couldn’t agree more about focusing on your strengths. I actually did this by accident…

    In high school, I had similarities to your situation. I had very little confidence, I was thin and weak, and I didn’t have any sort of a vision or plan for the future at all. I played in a band, and that was all I really cared about. But even with that, I didn’t have big plans of becoming a rockstar or anything, I just wanted to play music. On top of that, our band played hardcore/metal, so while we had a big following for our genre, we only had a couple hundred people who were really true fans.

    Moving forward, I graduated high school and my plans changed immediately. Typical story: I met a girl, we fell in love and we got married…3 months later. Ok, so we knew each other for 2 years, but we only dated for 3 months before we got married at the ripe old age of 18. Soon after, we had our first child (totally planned, right? Sure, because you plan everything at 18, right??). I freaked out and didn’t know how to lead a family, so I focused on the one thing I was good at: work.

    Of course, this turned into me working all the time (focusing on my strengths), and making a lot of money for the family. And then, thank God I was fortunate enough to have a mentor who explained to me the importance of spending time with my family over just providing for them. Then I started to balance my life out. I focused on other strengths, such as compassion and the desire to learn, and that’s what got me where I am today.

    So in conclusion, I unknowingly focused on my strengths over the years, but I think it was really just me going back to what I was comfortable doing. I was fortunate enough to have someone to tell me I was working too much, because focusing on my “provider” strength could have easily been a downfall.

    This may officially be the longest comment I’ve ever written. Nice blog, by the way. It’s my first time here! I stumbled upon your blog from the comments section at Mr. Money Mustache.

    Cheers,
    Kalen

    1. Thanks so much for your kind words MMB.

      We like long comments round here (I personally have the tendency to ramble a bit!)

      It’s good that you found the right balance in the end. In fact, in my experience, that’s what the ‘young’ part of adulthood is for – starting out being bad at life and getting gradually better. I love David Cain’s tagline on Raptitude (Getting better at being human). That really sums up the discovery process to me.

      Kids change everything don’t they? It’s strange to think of my now almost 3 year old as a baby because the time has flown so fast. Fortunately, I got the balance just about right the year she was born.

      I don’t know that I ever really ‘knowingly’ focussed on my strengths until I was well into my 20s – before that it was just a strategy that sort of emerged out of necessity. But it’s definitely the best ‘deliberate’ approach I’ve ever come across. I suppose it’s just a case of ‘playing the hand you’ve been dealt’.

      Thanks for stopping by!

  5. I am a very old guy from Canada who hangs out on ermine’s blog and came over on his referral. I had a long career with a number of large international food companies (finished with Unilever) and retired early some years ago. I am a chemist / food scientist – or was. And yes I have a workplace pension.
    Things have changed dramatically in Canada in the food biz. Nowadays the majors are closing factories and centralizing R&D in the US or Europe, so what I did is no longer available to a new graduate in food science.
    That young person would be well advised to read through your material though; in fact the only way to have an R&D “job” in Canada today would be to do freelance gigs with the many small independent companies that might like to have new products or organic certification but don’t know the regulations or techniques. In my small town there are at least three microcompanies that roast coffee, manufacture chocolate and make calorie reduced donuts – all things I know something about (as would a food science grad of today.)

    1. Hi Ray.

      I think the phenomenon you’re describing is only going to become more widespread.

      It sounds like your career coincided with the years where what I call ‘the recipe’ worked. By that I mean that you could get a good degree, plug yourself in to a blue chip for 40 years, safe in the knowledge that you’d get 40/80 of your final salary as an inflation-adjusted pension.

      I’m really grateful that you’ve added your perspective, as it serves as a really useful comparison to help people who are in my generation to see that those days are over.

      For better or worse, that’s not how the world works any more, yet I see many (and know a few!) 18 year olds ‘planning to fight the last war’ by going to university to get degrees which will not lead to the job opportunities they expect.

      And then, as you rightly pointed out, the newly-minted 21 year old graduates are looking for the jobs they’ve been promised rather than thinking outside the box about how their talents can be best applied to give them what they want.

      With the world as it currently stands (see: http://liberate.life/index.php/2016/08/11/if-you-want-to-live-free-your-utopia-is-irrelevant/), the best qualities to cultivate if you want to have any amount of freedom in the 21st century are

      – self-reliance
      – independence of thought
      – abiltity to spot (and capitalise upon) opportunities
      – willingness to sell oneself

      It is a matter of fact that there are now more opportunities than there were 30 or 50 years ago. They’re just not quite so easy to find amongst all of the noise!

      I’m lucky in a way, as I’m suited to the world the way it is. However, if a person isn’t naturally suited to it and is left with the choice of ‘adapt or die’ (where die = have an unpleasant life), rolling over and accepting his fate is the worst possible approach.

      I hope I can help a few of those people.

      Thanks for leaving a thoughtful comment.

      1. I think that’s a tough call. At 18 (or even 21), your are still essentially just a kid. You’ve just come out of a structured institution (school) and you are looking around, wondering what to do with your life. I know I am generalising, but aren’t the following qualities mostly what you develop as you grow and experience life?
        – self-reliance
        – independence of thought
        – abiltity to spot (and capitalise upon) opportunities
        – willingness to sell oneself
        If you aren’t one of the people who naturally have those qualities, how do you get started? Fake it until you make it?

        1. Hi Mrs ETT,

          It is indeed tough. The ‘old world’ which my parents knew where said 18-21 year olds would essentially grow up by following ‘the recipe’ doesn’t exist any more.

          I think that the structured institutions (schools) are not structured in the right way. They are a way of moulding people to fit into the ‘cog’ mentality.

          Perhaps if we were teaching kids how to add value when they were teenagers instead of showing them how to pass tests, apply to higher education institutions and assume a pre-defined ‘role’, then young adults may be better adjusted for the world today.

          And of course, yes, those qualities grow as we mature. But I suppose that’s similar to saying that ’18 year olds aren’t engineers with 10 years’ experience’. It’s true, but after they’ve spent 10 years learning the ropes, they won’t be so green any more. I think the same applies to learning things like sales and entrepreneurial skills.

          Fake it until you make it is underrated though. I used to be terrified of selling myself by, for instance, cold-calling. But, after you’ve got something wrong a few times, you generally get better at it.

          Thanks for dropping by!

  6. Hi Ray.

    I think the phenomenon you’re describing is only going to become more widespread.

    It sounds like your career coincided with the years where what I call ‘the recipe’ worked. By that I mean that you could get a good degree, plug yourself in to a blue chip for 40 years, safe in the knowledge that you’d get 40/80 of your final salary as an inflation-adjusted pension.

    I’m really grateful that you’ve added your perspective, as it serves as a really useful comparison to help people who are in my generation to see that those days are over.

    For better or worse, that’s not how the world works any more, yet I see many (and know a few!) 18 year olds ‘planning to fight the last war’ by going to university to get degrees which will not lead to the job opportunities they expect.

    And then, as you rightly pointed out, the newly-minted 21 year old graduates are looking for the jobs they’ve been promised rather than thinking outside the box about how their talents can be best applied to give them what they want.

    With the world as it currently stands (see: http://liberate.life/index.php/2016/08/11/if-you-want-to-live-free-your-utopia-is-irrelevant/), the best qualities to cultivate if you want to have any amount of freedom in the 21st century are

    – self-reliance
    – independence of thought
    – abiltity to spot (and capitalise upon) opportunities
    – willingness to sell oneself

    It is a matter of fact that there are now more opportunities than there were 30 or 50 years ago. They’re just not quite so easy to find amongst all of the noise!

    I’m lucky in a way, as I’m suited to the world the way it is. However, if a person isn’t naturally suited to it and is left with the choice of ‘adapt or die’ (where die = have an unpleasant life), rolling over and accepting his fate is the worst possible approach.

    I hope I can help a few of those people.

    Thanks for leaving a thoughtful comment.

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