Over the past 18 months on The Limit Does Not Exist we’ve recorded over 60 interviews with multi-hyphenated folks that my co-host and I call Human Venn Diagrams. They share their journeys building custom career paths that allow them to combine interests like computer programming and filmmaking, or choreography and robots, or astrophysics and jazz. Many of them share stories from their childhood or early education where their proliferation of interests was always apparent and the likelihood they’d conform to a pre-determined career was next to zero.
So it’s not surprising that one of our most common listener emails is something like this: “What if I’m not sure about the elements of my Venn diagram? What if I don’t see my ‘onlyness’ clearly?
What if I don’t actually have any superpowers?”
The answer is that it’s completely normal to not fully recognize all the things that make you you. Sometimes we need our friends to hold up a mirror and reflect our talents back to us. Sometimes we need to get outside our head and see ourselves from a different perspective.
Five years ago, after my first startup failed, I had a complete crisis of confidence. I had no idea who I was or what I what I was good at. I had an eclectic background with undergraduate degrees in math and theater, an MBA, and a resume spanning opera to management consulting to a failed fashion startup. I wasn’t even sure I had anything valuable to offer the business world.
At first, I crawled into bed and stayed there for three weeks, which, by the way, is how long it takes to watch all seven seasons of The West Wing. I left bed only to answer the door when food delivery arrived. But after three weeks of moping, I had to pay rent with a cash advance on my credit card, having emptied my savings on my startup. So I decided to end the pity party and figure out how to make forward motion before my next rent check was due.
And that’s when I kicked off a project that I termed, simply, 70 Coffee Chats in 30 Days.
It was pretty straightforward: I emailed everyone I knew in the greater NYC area (and a few farther flung) and asked them to get coffee or take a walk. I reached out to people who had known me for over a decade alongside people who had only met me a few months ago. All in all, I did 70 of these conversations in that month (hence the name). I wanted to get a meaningful sample size so I wouldn’t overweigh any one opinion.
In every one of those coffee chats I asked the same three questions:
1.What do you come to me for help with?
2.When have you seen me happiest?
3.Where do I stand out against my peers?
Those three questions were devised to help me see my strengths clearly (I already was quite clear on my weaknesses) and to help me distinguish between what I was good at and what brought me joy.
What was amazing was that I heard virtually the same thing from nearly everyone I met with:
1.They came to me for help with storytelling – for positioning a new product or connecting the arc in their resume or just pulling up one level to see the forest through the trees.
2.They saw me happiest when I was in charge of my calendar and able to incorporate all of my interests alongside my work — from singing in a chamber choir to mentoring a handful of recent grads to taking writing workshops. I wasn’t afraid of working hard, I just wanted to do it on my terms.
3.And I stood out against my peers in my ability to connect ideas and communities that would never intersect naturally like non-Euclidean geometry of curved spaces and fashion or climatology scientists and screenwriters. My network was huge and orthogonal to nearly everyone I knew, and I delighted in making great introductions and connecting ideas diagonally.
Those conversations helped me understand what kind of roles I might excel in, what kind of workplace culture I would be happiest in, and that my multidisciplinary life was a superpower and something I should continue to invest in. To be honest, the insights were all kind of obvious once I thought about it. But sometimes it really does take 70 cups of coffee to see things clearly.
Christina Wallace , WOMEN@FORBES