I suspect you've heard of "blind spots." We typically use the expression to describe the thing you're unknowingly doing, that's hampering your effectiveness or annoying others. Basically, they're bad.
However, we've done the term a grave injustice. Contrary to what you may believe (and far more importantly), our "blind spots" actually conceal our greatest strengths. Here, I will explain why this is the case, the consequences of this situation, and what we can do differently because of it.
Why don't we know what we're best at doing?
Positive blind spots are the unintended consequence of our culture of self-improvement. Growing up, we're taught that we can do anything. The sky's the limit. Dream and you can achieve. Etc, etc. It feels good to hear, and I think we're guilty of actually believing it.
Unfortunately, that's not the case, and it obscures a more powerful and actionable message, that "there is something truly great that ONLY YOU are capable of doing."
Because we're taught that we can do anything, we believe that everyone is capable of anything. The implications of this are staggering. It means that if I fail, it's because I didn't try hard enough. I wasn't willing to "fully commit" (whatever that means). If I keep trying with all my will-power, ultimately I will succeed. This line of thinking turns productive failure into "real" failure, as we continue trudging down the wrong path.
Conversely, it also means that I'm not "allowed" to be naturally better at something than you could ever be. If we can all achieve anything, then you can do it too! Although this is clearly logically incorrect, we get queasy admitting it. It's so inconsistent with the popular messaging, it seems somehow wrong or immoral to believe it.
Our positive blind spots are also tricky to recognize, because they come naturally to us. Pop culture tells us they don't exist, so we're not looking out for them. We don't notice them because we didn't work for them. We're proud of the things we earned. They represent the fruits of dedicated effort and commitment. However, positive blind spots are like a windfall inheritance; we're almost ashamed because we can't associate them with any work or effort on our own part.
Positive blind spots escape detection because they tend to not fit our preconceived notions of "strengths." We have a vocabulary of neat categories for strengths, almost like the stats of two-dimensional characters from a video game: Intellect, Charisma, Dexterity, 'Strength,' Willpower, etc. In practice, our greatest and most individual strengths are extremely complex and manifest themselves in different ways.
For instance, I'm talented at understanding the underlying dynamics of a business and translating them into operating and financial models. However, this ends up being perceived by others as me being "great with Excel!," "good at math," or a "numbers guy." The first may be true, but it misses the point of the actual talent (plenty of people are Excel experts yet bad at modeling). The second two are patently false.
Consequences of Positive Blind Spots
Ignorance of positive blind spots can result in a lot of negativity, as we struggle to understand why we can't do something the same way as someone else. I believe they're especially vexing for generalists (full disclosure, I'm probably biased, because I'm a generalist).
Specialists are easy. They're easy to hire, easy to manage, easy to be (I suspect). They do one thing, they do it well, and they don't yearn to do something else or get bored with their specialty. If everyone was a specialist, then we could neatly and efficiently parse our work and make maximum use of our comparative advantage.
In fact, specialization makes so much logical and economic sense, that many gurus and experts identify it as the key to success. This is so wrong.
Unfortunately for the gurus, a large number of us were put on this planet to do something other than fit into a neat, pre-existing, professional archetype. Hard as it may be for us to figure out, it's critical that we do figure it out, because this is why we are here.
Our failure to understand positive blind spots frequently results in bad situations at work. As employees, we focus on improving our weaknesses so we can be better at our jobs. However, we'd be far more effective if we spent 100% of our time on the things we're best at doing. We end up slogging through tasks that poorly align with our true strengths, draining our energy and nudging us towards the exits.
As managers, we tend to focus on the bad outcomes and underperformance from our employees, rather than building on the successes. When we go over "opportunities for improvement" in formal reviews, we discuss the things one is relatively bad at doing. What if we flipped this definition on its head and identified the #1 successes as "opportunities for improvement?" We'd ignore the failures and focus instead on doing more of what's actually working.
Finally, we're FAR too hard on ourselves. When we believe in the "can do" mindset, failure to achieve becomes a reflection of our willpower or "grit" rather than a gentle nudge in a different direction.
So, what can we do differently?
Most importantly, get "ok" with being awesome. This is not an ego thing, or a conceit, or arrogance, and it's CRUCIAL that you do this. If you aren't open to the possibility that you are the very best in the world at something, then how will you ever actually be the very best in the world at anything? This isn't a selfish notion, either, because the same is true for everybody else.
Since most people don't recognize their own positive blind spots, strive to find them in others. When you see one, point it out and help the person understand and believe it. For the reasons explained above, folks are usually hesitant to acknowledge their greatest strengths. Citing examples and clarifying them in your own words can make it easier for someone to accept. This work may also help you get more comfortable with your own unique gifts.
On the other hand, cut people some slack. When someone does a crappy job on a project or task, misses an appointment, or otherwise disappoints, recognize that they may be out of their "sweet spot" in life. It's not necessarily a reflection of their "attitude" or "work ethic," they may simply be doing something they're not meant to be doing. Instead of developing a resentment or trying to get someone to "improve," try to help them uncover the joy of effortless and interesting work.
In your own life, be willing to "follow the thread," even if you don't know where it leads. I think we're often guilty of treading well-worn paths because of our perceived certainty of where they are going. Uncertainty can be scary, and we allay our fears by picking a road leading to a clear destination. But think about this -- if we are each UNIQUELY talented in our own individual way, the odds are extraordinarily bad that ANY well-trod path will take us where we need to go.
The inherent uniqueness of our greatest strengths practically demands that we blaze our own trails. Unless you're one of the lucky few who lines up perfectly with a preexisting path, you'll never be making the best use of your gifts walking someone else's road.
It flies in the face of what we're taught, but maybe we really should simply follow the path of least resistance. This is what nature does. Ceteris paribus, would you rather do the work that is easiest or hardest for you? Would you rather do the thing you are best at doing or worst at doing?
Instead of trying to be like Steve Jobs or Warren Buffet and striving to duplicate their efforts, look for the way in which they followed their own threads, trod their own paths, and ultimately created massive amounts of value for the world. No one will be a better "Steve Jobs" than Steve Jobs, so get to work on being the best [YOUR NAME HERE].