"Know thyself." The Greeks inscribed that message over the entryway to the temple of Apollo at Delphi, which they imagined to be the center of the earth. It's still a good idea.
If you know yourself well, you've got a better chance of understanding what opportunities to seize and which to avoid. If you know yourself well, you're more likely to understand others and get along with them better. In other words, if you know yourself, you're more likely to succeed.
Here are three sets of questions to help you "know yourself" and determine which career options and activities are the best fit for you. I've divided them into three groups: questions to help you figure out your strengths; questions to help you learn about how you do things; and questions to help you decide if management is for you.
Questions to Figure Out Your Strengths
You'll do best in your life and career if you do more of the things you're good at. Here's how to determine the best ones.
What am I good at? Everybody does some things really well. They're often things that we find easy, but other people have to work at.
What do I love to do? Some things just seem like fun. They give us energy.
What things are on both lists? This is a cruel question. The activities that you want to build your life and work around are the ones that you do well and that give you energy.
The best life strategy I know of is to spend time and effort developing skills and abilities based on your strengths. At the same time, make your weaknesses inferior.
You can make a weakness negligible by choosing jobs and projects where it does not matter. You can make a weakness irrelevant by "outsourcing it" or getting someone else to handle it or help you with it. You can make a weakness negligible by learning to do things you're not good at "well enough."
Questions to Help You Learn about How You Do Things
The following questions will help you discover how you do things. Understand how you do things and you can identify ways to get more done more effectively. Understand how you do things and you can watch for potential conflicts when others do things differently.
I'll use my friend, Bill as an example. Let's start with a question about pace.
Is your natural pace fast or slow? When it comes to making decisions or dealing with situations, some people are quick and direct. Others are slower and more deliberate.
Bill is one of those people who can make good, fast decisions. His boss, however, is a slow and methodical thinker. Bill's rapid fire style made the boss uncomfortable, even if Bill turned out to be right.
So Bill learned to hold off on sharing his quick decisions. When he got an assignment, he would tell the boss: "Thanks. I'll get back to you in a couple of days with the plan."
Then, a day or so later, Bill would check in with the boss. "I think I know how to handle that assignment," he'd say and then lay out the plan he'd developed in the first thirty seconds.
How do you learn? People learn in different ways including listening, reading, and watching. Some people learn best in a structured class environment. Others prefer independent research.
Bill found that classes were not for him. He's a reader, so getting some books and articles on a subject and then synthesizing them worked very well. But Bill has learned that different people learn in different ways.
That's why he gives Karen, who works for him, research assignments. She learns like he does. But he makes sure Dennis is sent to class for anything he needs to learn. Dennis learns best in classes.
Are you a lark or night owl? Some people do their best work in the morning. Others are at their best as the night rolls on.
Bill is a classic lark. He works best in the morning. So he schedules his work at home and uninterrupted office time for mornings to get the most out of it. He gets out of the office in the afternoon and almost never takes work home at night.
Carol is a supervisor like Bill, but she's a night owl. She says that no matter what time she gets up, she does not really wake up until 10 AM. But her best time for concentration starts in the afternoon and runs into the wee hours.
When they've got to make a push to complete an important project they do things differently. Carol works into the night, then goes to bed. Bill goes to bed early, and then gets up early to work. Sometimes Carol will be emailing Bill at the end of her work on a project, just as Bill hits the desk to begin his.
What's your first question? There are several "first questions" that people ask when someone presents them with a project or idea.
Bill wanted to know the goal first. He'll ask: "Why are we doing this? What's the purpose?"
Carol wants to know about people. She'll ask: "Who's involved? Who's affected? Who's done this already?"
Their boss is a process person. His first question is always something like: "Where should we start? How will we do this?"
They've all learned that asking all three questions helps them do better project or change management. They've also learned to ask a fourth question: "What would we do if time and budget were not a constraint? What would be fun to try?"
Questions to Determine if Management is for You
Today most companies put people in management jobs because they performed well as an individual contributor. The result is that many people wind up in management roles they're not suited for, are not good at and do not like.
Things get worse because in many companies you can not go back once you've been "promoted" to management. So take matters into your own hands and determine for yourself if you should consider management.
Do you prefer to work alone or in a team? Despite all the positive press given to teams and team players, working in teams is not for everyone. Managers do most of their work in teams, so if you like that, it will help.
Do you like helping other people succeed? One of any manager's key jobs is helping people succeed.
Are you comfortable making decisions? Managers have to make decisions all the time.
Are you willing to confront other people about their behavior or performance? Some people find it very hard to confront others about behavior. But a good boss has to do that several times a day.
Are you willing to have your success depend on your team? When you're the boss, your team is your destiny. When they succeed, you succeed. When they fail, so do you. Are you comfortable with that?
One Last Question
Do you prefer working with people, ideas or things? If it's people, you can do more of that in a career in sales or management. People who prefer ideas will find that get to wrestle with more of them as accountant or planner or researcher. If things are at the top of your list, look for work where working with physical objects is part of the core job.
There is no simple recipe for success in a career. If there were, everyone would be successful. But if you do the work to know yourself you take the first big step towards career success. The Greeks knew that thousands of years ago.