Find Your Area of Expertise

Find Your Area of Expertise

Remember, however, it is never too late to engage in the process of skill determination. I can tell you story after story of successful careers that started after forty. Frank McCourt started his career as a Pulitzer Prize-winning writer in his sixties by turning an avocation into a profession. Colonel Sanders was almost fifty when he realized his talent for producing tasty fast food on a massive scale. The earlier you start looking, however, the more likely it is that you will find your field of excellence while you still have enough time to make a name for yourself.

It is a sad fact that there are millions of people out there who are toiling in mediocrity because they never discovered their great skill in life. According to a top Beverly Hills agent, Joel Gotler, the more you see or read, the more you learn, and the more you learn about yourself, the more likely it is that you will find some thing or things at which you truly excel. Unfortunately, few people make the effort to find their areas of expertise.

Look at it this way. There are so many fields of opportunity that there are bound to be a couple of them where you rank among the best. If you want to become the invincible executive, therefore, you must test your skills in many areas as early in life as you possibly can. Do not let the fear of failure limit your experimentation. I wonder how many middle managers could be in the New York Philharmonic if they had just picked up a violin. More than you might expect.

Divide Your Interests into Three Categories: Fantasy, Avocation, and Talent

At some point, however, you need to start refining the skill determination process by moving in some general direction. By the time you are a few years into your career, if not earlier, you should be dividing your interests roughly into three categories: fantasies, avocations, and talents. Fantasies are those areas where you have determined that your skill level is too low for you to become a professional. Let go of any pretense that you will succeed in these areas. Do not waste your limited time and energy developing these skills other than as an occasional, compartmentalized outlet for your fantasies. As we said before, you cannot be anything you want to be.

For example, agent Joel Gotler told me that he wanted to be a novelist when he was younger. He read like a maniac. He wrote a lot, too. But soon he realized that he just was not going to make it as a writer. He could write pretty sentences but could not get the story told. So he abandoned his dream to become a writer and never looked back.

Avocations, on the other hand, are areas where you have enough talent that, under the right circumstances, you might be able to excel in that field. "You have to assess your talent ... and [ask yourself] if this is going to be an avocation or a job," according to Norma Clayton. I know an engineer who is quite talented as a painter. He has painted attractive still life oils for friends and family, and he has submitted his work to shows with enough success to know that his dream of becoming a famous painter is not a complete fantasy. Someday he may make it big, so he should never give up on that avocation. In fact, while he has not yet gotten his work displayed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, he has kept his eyes open for other opportunities to advance his artistic endeavors. To his great satisfaction, he has taught art to disabled children, writes art reviews as a paid critic for the local newspaper, and makes a lot of money appraising art for a trust company. In fact, he has established quite a reputation for himself in these endeavors—making frequent television and radio appearances in his city.

This man has a hip-pocket avocation that already brings him some success. Interestingly, most invincible executives do. I mentioned earlier that National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice is an excellent pianist; a top lawyer friend of mine is a pretty good weekend racecar driver; another legal eagle friend is a regional triathlon champion; my mentor, Senator John Danforth, is an Episcopal priest. And, while not invincible but trying, I am a numismatic writer and coin collector.

Invincible executives always have interesting avocations (and I don't mean golf) because they have multidirectional minds that they have devoted to discovering their own talents. As a result, they have developed multiple areas of expertise. Anyone who really adopts the skill determination mind-set that all invincible executives have will almost by definition find two or three areas in which he or she has real potential.

In fact, sometimes you only have to make minor adjustments to your fantasies to turn them into professional success. As I mentioned earlier, Joel Gotler, who abandoned his dream of becoming a novelist, made it big representing novelists and screenwriters. Drew Baur, the chairman and CEO of Southwest Bank, was an athlete when he was in high school. But he quickly realized that he lacked the ability to become a professional ball player. Nevertheless, he recognized that his knowledge of baseball—combined with his banking skills—was an avocation that was still worth pursuing. So he spent as much time as he could learning the business of baseball. Eventually, he helped put together an ownership group that bought a major league team. He feels like he is living his fantasy, but none of it would have happened without a healthy dose of realism and the necessary adjustments that turned the fantasy of being a player into the reality of being an owner. I have never met a more professionally satisfied man.