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Making sure your job suits you

Honestly examine your strengths and weaknesses to find the job that's right for you

Rex Huppke

I Just Work Here

March 11, 2013

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Because I am predominantly flawless, I have little need for introspection.

(I'll pause a moment to give you time to agree. Feel free to applaud.)

Of course there's always a slight possibility I have room for improvement, particularly if "crippling insecurities masked by faux braggadocio" is considered a flaw. So let's talk self-evaluation.

People in the working world often find themselves run over by the daily grind and unable — or unwilling — to step back and examine whether their skills line up with their careers. This is bad.

It's bad because it leads to the clichéd situation where a 50-year-old says, "I hate my job! How did I end up here?"

You ended up there, hypothetical 50-year-old, because you never took the time to honestly evaluate the things you're good at and compare them to the tasks you do at work.

Let me speak from experience before bringing in someone who really knows what he's talking about.

I always wanted to be a chemical engineer. It was what my father did, and his father. It seemed to be in my blood.

So I went to school and studied chemical engineering and, though I didn't find it terribly fascinating, got a degree and a job. All this time, I enjoyed writing. And on the occasions when I did write, many a person said to me, "Rex, you should be a writer."

I ignored that because, as previously stated, I am flawless.

Half a year into my career as an engineer, it became apparent I had made a terrible mistake. I was miserable and only marginally good at my job.

It took me a full three years before I recognized that the thing I was good at (writing) was the thing I needed to do (assuming someone would pay me).

Harvard Business School senior associate dean and management professor Robert Kaplan has seen many people go through similar experiences, career evolutions that could be sped up if people followed one rule: "Take ownership of understanding your skills."

Kaplan has an upcoming book titled "What You're Really Meant To Do," and it drives this rule home. He asserts that most people couldn't write down their strengths and weaknesses and awareness of their own flaws gets clouded by an expectation that annual reviews will catch them.

"The reason people don't improve is not because they don't want to," Kaplan said. "It's because they're not aware of the things they want to improve on. And by the time a year-end review brings something up, it's too late."

To honestly evaluate yourself, Kaplan suggests writing out a list of the skills you feel confident about — what are the things you can honestly say you do well?

Then compare that with the things you do in you job. Do they match up?

If they don't, you can begin to look at whether there's a better position for you at your company or whether your talents — and possibly your passion — might be better used elsewhere.

"It starts with awareness," Kaplan said. "Then you think about tactics and strategy, but you need to know what you're working with before you jump to strategy."

He encourages workers to find a coach to help them through this process. This doesn't mean going out and hiring a "life coach" or some other form of abstract self-help guru. It's a matter of finding someone at work who is willing to observe you and give honest feedback, including criticism.

And you had better be willing to take that criticism to heart. Evaluating yourself requires the confidence to absorb some blows to the ego.

"Remember, you don't need to be great at everything," Kaplan said. "You need to be sufficiently good at some things and pick your spots at what you're great at."

Once you feel you've assessed yourself, talk to your supervisor. If your job isn't lining up with your skills, there's nothing wrong with telling the boss "Hey, I feel like I can help the company more if I'm in a position that makes use of these things I'm really good at."

It might not get you anywhere, but any reasonable manager would respect your honesty and want you in a position that maximizes your talents.

The other possibility is that you find yourself, as I did, in the wrong career. Then, you need to start figuring out how to make a change, moving slowly and wisely to avoid a sudden leap that will leave you in financial peril.

It's empowering to know what you're good at and to take steps to get a job that fits.

And once you have that, you can sit back and declare yourself predominantly flawless. Even if that's a far cry from being true.

TALK TO REX: Ask workplace questions — anonymously or by name — and share stories with Rex Huppke at ijustworkhere@tribune.com, like Rex on Facebook at facebook.com/rexworkshere, and find more at chicagotribune.com/ijustworkhere.