What is Your “Super-Power”?

It’s a skill that has always come easily to you and you wonder why other people seem to struggle so much to master it.  Your team automatically looks to you when it is needed and assumes that you will be the one to do it.  You invent new and creative angles while you are daydreaming in the shower.  When you look back on a project, the times you were exercising this skill are the times that come most vividly to mind.  You feel like you are flying when you are using it.

These are all clues that can help you find what my old team called your super-power.

What Does a Super-Power Look Like?

Your super-power might be something that people are used to thinking about – you are amazing at playing the piano, or speaking in public, or throwing a ball.  But it might be something much less obvious.  There are many, many different kinds of things that people excel at.  While our society celebrates remarkable skill in athletics or performance, I love to look for and to be inspired by unusual intellectual achievements.

For example, I’ve known some truly amazing programmers.  I was one of the best coders around when I was an undergrad .. and then I met these people, who just utterly crush me in their ability to construct large systems at seemingly super-human speed.  I worked with one of them who could hold tens of thousands of lines of code in his mind; he could see instantly how to create some new feature or modify the design in a fundamental way.  I could work through the system and build up the knowledge in my head to get to the same goal, but he had the whole system on tap and immediately saw the solution.  No amount of practice on my part would ever leave me able to match him at that particular skill.  It was his super-power.

Richard Feynman was a brilliant Nobel Prize winning physicist who wrote a set of highly entertaining stories about his life.  One of my favorite anecdotes was about his use of visual metaphor to grasp deeply complex abstract ideas.  He would use this to test new topology theorems:

For instance, the mathematicians would come in with a terrific theorem, and they’re all excited.  As they’re telling me the conditions of the theorem, I construct something which fits all the conditions … the balls turn colors, grow hairs, or whatever in my head as they put more conditions on.  Finally they state the theorem, which is some dumb thing about the ball which isn’t true for my hairy green ball thing, so I say, “False!”

He was famous for creating visualizations of abstruse ideas that would let you use intuition rather than mathematical formulas.  Other physicists would be laboriously building up their mental models using mathematics and other abstractions and he could leap to insights that they could never have gotten without hours or days of contemplation.  Now that’s a cool super-power.  But it isn’t one that most people would think of as a “skill”.

I hope these examples encourage you to look beyond the obvious and find the skills where you really stand out.

Investing in Your Super-Power

Even if you are naturally great at something, you have to hone it.  Michael Jordan was legendary for ruthlessly pushing himself to practice and prepare harder than anyone else.  If he had settled for a pickup game or two every week, he’d never have become the incredible player that he was.  Louis Pasteur said “Let me tell you the secret that has led me to my goals: my strength lies solely in my tenacity.”  There are many, many similar quotes from people who have accomplished great things.  It is consistent with recent scientific studies, popularized by people like Malcolm Gladwell and Geoff Colvin, that magic happens when a talented person uses deliberate practice to develop a skill for 10,000 hours.

But if you are going to invest that kind of time and effort into something, you’ll get a much better result if you are betting on something you excel at.  Lots of people are pretty good at lots of things .. you’ll achieve a more distinctive result if you invest massive time and energy in something that you are remarkably good at.  And, you’ll be much more likely to stick with it, if you enjoy it.  So I believe that one of the great quests is to find those things and to design your life to practice and exercise them as much as you can.  I’m convinced that it is also one of the ways to be happiest and most passionate about what you are doing.

Enthusiasm is one of the most powerful engines of success. When you do a thing, do it with all your might. Put your whole soul into it. Stamp it with your own personality. Be active, be energetic, be enthusiastic and faithful, and you will accomplish your object. Nothing great was ever achieved without enthusiasm.      Ralph Waldo Emerson

Finding Places to Apply It

Once you have figured out what you do distinctively well and commit to honing that skill towards excellence, you need to find a place to use it where it is valuable and valued (those are not the same thing!).  Any super-power is probably going to come in handy now and then, but you won’t get equal leverage from it in every environment.  Being a dynamic and inspiring public speaker is not as useful to an accountant as it is to a teacher.  Being rigorously analytical is probably not the first super-power you’d pick if you want to be a great actor.

Ask yourself what activities rely on and benefit disproportionately from your superpower.  Where do people congregate who are amazing at it?  Whom do you admire and seek to emulate while doing it?  What job do they have?  Where do they work?  These are all clues.  Ask around, too .. there may be many worlds of activity you don’t know anything about, where your abilities may be much more valued than you realize.

You’d also like to be in an organizational culture that values your skill.  Visual design is crucial in building great software, but different companies in the software industry vary dramatically in how much they value designers.  Find somebody else who is great at what you do (maybe they blog or write articles?) and figure out where they work.  More clues.  You probably won’t find any permanent answers .. but over time, through successive approximation, you can find productive places to exercise your super-power.  You might have to design your own job (or your own company) to get there – super-powers often don’t fit into boxes that were neatly labeled by other people.

Oliver Wendell Holmes said something that I’ve tried to take to heart: “Most people die with the music still in them.”  Find your super-power .. and let it sing!