When I look back at my life and career, it seems at first that I never really planned anything. It has been a series of serendipitous moves. But as I spent time contemplating, I realised that everything seemed accidental, but actually had an underlying, not-so-obvious pattern.
Very early in life, when I was in high school actually, I figured out that my strengths were a) uncluttered thinking and an ability to spot patterns and big pictures, b) burning curiosity, and c) an ability to simplify and communicate well. Actually it isn’t difficult to figure out your strengths—when you get drawn to doing something repeatedly or when you feel totally absorbed and engaged in the midst of something, you know these are your strengths.
In simple terms, they are things you intensely love doing. These three strengths defined who I was. I also understood what I did not like: wooing people and constantly building new relationships, and organizing things.
In high school, my strengths worked well and to my advantage in physics. Physics is the building block for all other sciences and needs a deep understanding of fundamental principles and the nuances of them. It’s a subject where you cannot make any meaningful progress with partial understanding. I absolutely loved it. I was also exposed to role models who were scientists, mostly physicists, and developed an inclination for the sciences.
Engineering seemed a way to further my interest in physics and that is how I ended up studying mechanical engineering. At engineering college, I was exposed to economics through an elective course and it became a serious interest though I continued to focus on engineering. It was curiosity that led me to economics, and it served me in good stead later in my career, though at the time, it seemed to be just a passing pursuit. So, I’d say that if you’re presented with opportunities to learn something new, outside of your field of work or study, keep the interest alive and make the best of it.
These three strengths continue to define who I am and have manifested in different ways in everything I did. They became, and remain, my career anchors. At different times in my career or in varied contexts, one strength becomes more crucial than another. For instance, in the early days of my career, the ability to simplify and communicate crisply was helpful to communicate with senior management and get their buy-in for important initiatives. Uncluttered thinking has worked well throughout my career to help define and structure problems, and set priorities.
I picked jobs that did not require me to do what I hated the most—wooing people and organizing things. At some point in your career, of course, you cannot avoid doing a few things you dislike, but if you are aware of your likes and dislikes, you can manage to keep such chores to a minimum and manage them with equanimity.
I quickly discovered that a strength cannot be leveraged beyond a point, and domain knowledge as well as ancillary skills are needed. Let me illustrate this with an example.
If clear thinking is a strength but you are really bad at execution, people around you will soon mock you as an armchair intellectual, and that would undermine your talent for clear thinking. If you want people around you to value your uncluttered thinking, you need to earn their respect by demonstrating that you can implement what you suggest.
I focused on improving execution, and in time, I became very good at it. But whenever I find someone who can execute flawlessly, I happily delegate and go back to focusing on what I do best—think clearly and make the right strategic choices. While we may only excel at what we are inherently good at, working on weaknesses does add to our strengths.
In summary, be aware of your strengths and develop the skills and knowledge that will take advantage of these strengths. Finally, even if you are doing something that does not play to your strengths, when opportunities that suit your strengths appear, grab them.
T.N. Hari is head of human resources at Bigbasket.com and adviser to several venture capital firms and startups. His most recent book is From Pony To Unicorn: Scaling A Start-Up Sustainably.