You Can’t Do Anything You Set Your Mind to, so Stop Trying

You’ve been lied to. How can we sleep at night lying to little kids? You can’t do anything you set your mind to, and more importantly, you shouldn’t try. I understand why we encourage this type of thinking: a large portion of the population is under-performing; they aren’t living up to their full potential. If people are told they can do anything they set their minds to, then they are more likely to try to do something. But for those of us who are trying to live to our full potential, this phrase can be detrimental to our success.

Why it’s not true.

Obviously some examples of why this isn’t true go against the laws of physics: no matter how hard I try, I will not live forever (at least not how I am living now). Some examples go against biology: I want to be 5’7″. It’s impossible – unless I chop off my feet, but that really defeats the purpose. But mostly, the issue is that it goes against our talent. Each of us has a personal competitive advantage, something that sets us apart from everyone else. We have a set of abilities that come naturally to us, and not all professions, activities, etc. use those abilities. I’m talented at developing ideas and figuring out what it takes to get it done and building a plan to get it done. Project management is a great career fit for me. I’m not talented at empathy, nor am I patient. Being an elementary school teacher would be a bad idea.

Why it’s not good.

Trying to excel in an area where you are not talented distracts you from focusing on what you are good at. I have covered this topic in past posts, but it’s worth reiterating here. Your return on investment is higher when working in the area of a strength. Trying to become better at something you are already good at is still hard work, but you make a lot more progress than trying to be better at something that goes against your internal DNA. I could spend time trying to improve my empathy and patience skills to the point I could be competitive with people who are naturally talented, but chances are I will never catch up. I would probably never get teacher of the year. If I spend time working to be a better project management consultant (where I’m talented), I will see much greater gains than I would ever see as a teacher.

cant do anything you set your mind to

Not only will your results not be as significant trying to have a competitive advantage in an area you are not talented in, it can also lead to feeling like you are a failure. When I worked for Target, I was a manager in the security department. Due to my analytical skills and my ability to problem-solve, I performed well in that department. The store reorganized, and I was moved from security to guest experience (the registers). Being in guest experience required a different skill set. I found the people who were the best at guest experience were very enthusiastic (read “cheerleader”). It wasn’t long before I started feeling worn out at the end of the day and dreading going in to work. I felt like a failure. Why couldn’t I be the best manager of guest experience in the district? Because there were others whose strengths aligned with the job. They had natural talent. Could I get better? Sure. But it was not worth the time when other jobs existed where I could excel and become so good that I could stand apart from the crowd.

What you should do instead.

Take time to understand what you are good at and how to apply it. As I mentioned in another post, understanding yourself is worth the investment. It gives you more control over yourself. The best part of working at Target was the amount of time they had us spend understanding our strengths and weaknesses. This is what helped me understand why I wasn’t getting the same results in guest service as I was in security. If you understand what you excel at, you can start aligning those talents to careers and assess how successful you will be in those positions.

If you are stuck where you are, restructure your job to leverage your strengths. You may not be able to leave your job (make sure you aren’t making up excuses because you are scared). If you are stuck where you are for now, look at ways to restructure your job so you can use more of your strengths. Can you delegate the things you aren’t good at? Can you use one talent to make up for a deficiency in another talent? I struggle making time to talk with my team. I am efficient and results-focused, and leaving my desk to make small talk is difficult for me. I feel like it’s inefficient (this feeling is shortsighted). Since I know in my head it’s important, I use my strengths to make it easier. I like to be organized and make plans, so I put “talk to 3 people on the team without an agenda” on my to-do list each day. I use my strength to compensate for a weakness.

Don’t fight against your strengths; use them. If you spend time in areas other than your strengths, the most you can hope for is average. Why not put the effort in what you are already good at and become even better? You can stand out and be one of the best.

What do you do to improve in your career? Leave a comment below!

Jana Axline is Chief Project Officer at Axline Solutions and author of Becoming You. Through her leadership musings she inspires audiences to grow as leaders and ultimately achieve who they were created to be. For more information visit Axline Solutions.

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