A special talent

Years ago, when I was in grad school, I used to be a night owl. Routinely, my friends and I would go to bars, drink, stay up late, and, throughout it all, yak it up, talking about nothing and everything under the sun. The world was still new to us and we were trying to find our place in it.

One night, at my neighbour’s house, over a drink that lasted until the early morning hours, he asked me what my special talent was. Stupefied by the question, I asked him what he meant. As an explanation, he told me that everyone has a special talent. While some people have an obvious talent, like juggling eight balls at once or breathing fire, others have quieter talents like being able to ease over an uncomfortable silence with grace or make others shine in the most ordinary of situations.

At the time, I was unable to answer his question but, as testament to its power, it stayed with me for over a decade as I intermittently tried to wrestle an answer to it for myself. As I grew up and slowly found a place where I was comfortable in the world, I realized that I have several talents. Although none stand out, screaming to be noticed, they are my strengths and I now try to play to them, instead of focusing my energies on trying to mitigate my weaknesses.

Recently, I read an article about how most organizations and people try to fix their ‘deficiencies’, focusing most of their efforts on this endeavour while taking their strengths and assets for granted in their efforts to succeed. Looking at this from a flip side, I wondered what the world would be like if people worked on their weaknesses while accepting them for what they are, and played to their strengths and talents instead. In imagining such a world, I can’t help but think that it would be a richer, kinder and happier place where people are more tolerant of themselves and that which they fear in themselves but recognize in others.

Looking at my son, I sometimes notice how he is hesitant to try things that he can’t do perfectly the first time, fearing that just doing it isn’t good enough. And, I sometimes worry that his innate desire to succeed at everything while knowing that he can’t will cause him to close off doors before they’ve fully opened out of a fear of failing that’s derived from his own unarticulated assumptions of what he ‘should’ be able to do.

As a parent watching these silent moments unfold, I remind myself that my job is to encourage my son to try different experiences, to persevere in the face of disappointment at his own lack of success, and, in the end, to recognize when to close a door and focus his energy on opening others and work on ones that are already ajar. For I hope that by trying different experiences his world will be enriched, both by an appreciation of what others are capable of and a development of self through the often unexpected moments in which he finds himself able to do something he himself previously labelled as impossible. Equally true, though, is the reality that I know: by accepting his own limitation and capitalizing on his strengths while developing his covert and overt talents he will be more successful and happier with himself wherever he finds himself in the world while being appreciative of the varied and complementary gifts that others can offer.