Less strengths, more interests

There’s been a lot of talk lately – by which I mean the last 20 odd years – about strengths.

Strengths Finder (now called CliftonStrengths) has been the linchpin of so much career coaching, HR team building, and individual career exploration and planning. That’s all fine and good, but I wish there was more talk about your career interests.

It’s not that it’s a bad idea to know your own strengths. But are your strengths really what drives job satisfaction? I’m not convinced. I think your interests are at least as important, if not more so, as a key driver of job satisfaction. 

Why your Career Interests Matter More than Strengths

What you’re interested in, curious about, can be a strong motivator at work, particularly for academics, who are naturally smart and curious and highly skilled at research. Being able to spend more of your work time on your interests correlates to a higher chance of job satisfaction and long-term engagement.

Knowing and capitalizing on your interests can be key to stumbling onto greater job satisfaction. 

A Quick Exercise to Get to Know Your Interests

Maybe you already know your interests, but if you don’t, give this sorting exercise a shot.

  • List your responsibilities, duties and skills. All of them. 
  • Read through your list. Highlight things that you LOVE to do and wish you did more of in green.
  • Highlight in yellow the things that you are ambivalent about. You’ll do them without eye rolling but not interested in building on those areas.
  • Highlight in red the stuff that you hope to never have to deal with again.

I’m a visual person, so I like the highlight approach, but you could just as easily do this in Excel and sort into columns of Love, Meh, and Nope.

When you’re lucky enough that your strengths line up with your green interests, you are in the zone. You are where you need to be, you adorable unicorn!

You Might Not Want to Do What You’re Strong at for a Living

But for the rest of us, often our strengths are not necessarily the same as our interests. For instance, I am highly skilled at writing, but if I had to write for a living, I think I would starve. It’s one of my strengths…but not something I’m interested in building a career around! 

Playing to your strengths can make finding, learning and mastering a job a heck of a lot easier, but that doesn’t mean it’s a job that will bring you long-term satisfaction. Some career coaching models will screen both for your strengths and your aptitude for something – which is an important consideration. Just because I am highly interested in baking doesn’t mean I’m skilled enough at it to make a go of it as a career. And personal passions don’t necessarily lead to realistic career options.

Following Your Interests Can Lead to Career Longevity

But much of the time, in particular for academics, I err on the side of finding value in allowing yourself to explore the question rather than dismiss that interest out of hand. If you’re interested in something enough to continue to learn, practice and improve…why not give that interest some greater weight when considering what you will do for your next job. 

You are not one-dimensional, despite what your academic training may have led you to believe. You are more than whatever your field was. You may not be old enough to remember, but before the internet, it was rare to hear about or find tribes who had studied one thing but taken their work in a completely different direction via pursuit of an interest. Now, luckily thanks to the power of the web, we have rampant examples and models today: side hustles, abrupt “left turn” career changes, and abandoning one path for something that has absolutely nothing to do with your academic background. 

Leading a double life: academics with extraordinary second careers

Leaving Academia

Leaving Academia: One Chapter Ends, Another Begins

Meet 5 academics who have switched disciplines mid-career

Even among my friends, I have

  • an ecologist turned lifestyle blogger / podcaster
  • a biologist turned research analyst
  • an engineer turned restauranteur

What are your favorite tales of academics who took “left turns” in their career to pursue their passions and interests?

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