If you haven’t gotten this question by the time you’re a junior in high school, beware…it’s coming: what do you want to do?

There are some people who can answer that question with certainty at age 16 and will live that out according to plan, in seemingly perfect fashion. For example, there could be someone sitting next to you who already knows they want to become a doctor. Graduate high school, graduate college, graduate med school, and start residency. The truth is, I’m about to be 34 and just now getting an idea of what I’m good at. As for where I’ll be in 10 years? I have no clue.

If you’re thinking about chasing a big dream, I’d like to give you an alternative idea of where to begin that quest. Instead of starting with “what do I want to do,” start with “what am I good at?” We ALL have strengths. The truth about life is: a lot of adults spend their entire life focused on what they think they *should* do instead of really trying to find out what they’re actually good at. When other people tell you what you’re good at, LISTEN TO THEM.

I was never nominated for anything in high school, never won an award for anything, didn’t receive a superlative and only made honor roll one semester. I’ve been told I talk too much and that I’m too sensitive. My love of talking and my empathy were things I considered to be hindrances when I was 17 years old. Now, I’m the host of a thriving podcast and have an internet business that depends on my voice. When you look at your life in high school, take notice of what you’re good at – even if it seems silly now, and tuck that away.

I’ve seen two different approaches to finding your way in life. In approach A, you figure out what you’re good at, then spend your time refining that skill. While you’re working on refining that skill, start thinking about what you want to do that can utilize your strengths. If it doesn’t exist yet, invent a new role.

Approach B is what I grew up thinking I should do. Go to college, declare a major, do some internships, get a job in that field. Then, figure out what part of the field you like.  Looking back on life so far, I can confidently tell you how backward that is. Spend 4-7 years of your life learning something you HOPE you’re good at? What I’ve seen time and time again is that you intern, study and you plan, hoping to reach a goal you’ve set for one particular industry. Then, you get there and you realize you hate it. OR you look around and realize you’ve put yourself in a market where you can’t use your strengths. You’re suddenly a Certified Public Accountant with an accounting degree CONSTANTLY struggling in the workplace and finding it hard to rise because it’s not where your strengths lie. You’re surrounded with other people who are accountants with innate skills.

The truth is, if you take the first approach and lead with your strengths, you will be MILES ahead of other people in the same field. You’ll notice there are people who chose their path without knowing their strengths. You will be leaps and bounds ahead of others. It’s not impossible to rise to the top of approach B, but approach B will ALWAYS be an uphill climb and you may wake up and realize one day that you really hate what you do. Approach A won’t be all breezy and you’ll fall down, but your falls will be springboards forward for you.

So think about that. When people give you compliments about your strengths, listen and tuck them away. When people say you’re too sensitive flip it and tuck away as compassion and empathy. When you’re told you talk too much, find a way to responsibly use your voice. 

I went to college with one dream: work in the music business. I drove down Music Row on my first college visit to Belmont and had goosebumps. My mission was clear from that visit: I would work in music, and I did. I went to school for it and quickly realized a business degree used zero of my strengths, so I turned to PR, thinking my socializing skills would finally come in handy. I spent a little over four years refining something I was told I was good at in high school – writing. I used my major as an excuse to refine that skill. I had six different internships – some good, some bad. Both taught me equally as much. Then I got it. My dream job in the music industry. A co-worker from one of my internships knew I was looking for a job and sent my resume to some high level people in the music business in Atlanta. A guy named Charlie Brusco took a chance on a kid with very little experience to be the day-to-day person for some of his classic rock bands. He told me as long as I could make myself useful, I could stay.

I learned more than I ever thought I would at that job and I’m grateful for the guy who saw a spark in my eye and agreed to pay me. I was responsible for making sure dominoes fell into place for his clients with regards to their tours. The truth is, I don’t really have the sharp edge that makes a good talent manager. Chasing and closing deals isn’t my thing. What I did notice is how valuable my empathy became to my clients. When I was ready to leave music, realizing my best shot at success wasn’t there, one of my clients who is an artist but also in TV introduced me to the world of TV news. I’m now the assistant to that TV personality and two others. She knew I was a hard worker but I think she’d tell you now, my empathy and sensitivity that I used to view as my worst traits are now some of the things that make me the best at my job.

What I’ve discovered is…it wasn’t ever music that I was so enamored with, it was getting to help people forge and maintain their path. My favorite times in music were days I got to solve problems using the human being side of myself, not the business side. I find now that my favorite days at work are when I get to help my anchors navigate something difficult. My “aha” moment happened less than two years ago. One of my anchors said, “Callie you really are so emotionally in tune with people. You are so good at reading people.” When I gave a flippant response to her compliment she said, “Callie I’m serious, what you have is a gift.”

That was perhaps the biggest lightbulb moment of my life. I started to realize in that 60 second interaction every success in my life is tied to the emotional, sensitive, chatty part of myself and I’ll never see that as a weakness again.

LISTEN. When people tell you what you’re good at, LISTEN. Internalize it. When you realize your strength, work as hard as you can to refine that strength. Your strength can be utilized in any industry you want to work in. What’s rare is your natural abilities. Find them. Study them. Improve them and chase after them like crazy. You have a gift.

I know that was long and if you’re still reading this, bravo to you. A few more things to remember:

  1. Treat all of your classmates as if you’ll need something from them someday…you really might. I can’t tell you how many real life interactions I’ve had with former classmates I wasn’t really friends with in high school. You don’t have to be friends with everyone, but being cordial and nice pays off big time. I work with a WA grad, I’ve had to call in favors to WA grads and I even almost rented a property from one of my classmates last year. I was not Susie high school and I don’t go to reunions but this is a big one.
  2. Your high school friends can last forever. As I’m typing this, I’m on a group text with my best friends from 7th grade at Woodward as one of them heads into the hospital to go give birth to her baby!
  3. No one you’ll make friends with after high school will ever decide to be your friend because of who your high school friend group was, what shoes you wore with your uniform or what car you drove when you were 17. Also: none of those things matter on your job applications. #perspective
  4. You can’t REALLY take back anything you ever put online, even if you think you delete it.
  5. If you wouldn’t want it in bold letters on the front page of your favorite website, don’t put it in writing.
  6. Your words matter. Don’t be an a-hole.
  7. Go to therapy. Seriously, it’s the best. It will serve you in ways you can’t foresee.
  8. Find the bigger picture in what you do in high school. OK true, you may not need to use math equations ever again in your life BUT here’s what you will learn in high school that you will refine in college and use EVERY SINGLE DAY of your adult life:
    • Learning how to work with people you don’t like
    • Solving problems as a team (group projects, ugh)
    • Learning how to find the right resources to help you solve a problem
    • Time management
    • Working on a deadline
    • Having a boss/teacher that you don’t like (my parents never used to let me swap teachers and I always hated it, but it’s paid off for me in the workplace
    • Failing (you’ll fail a lot in your life)