At the end of my first year at university, my tutor said to me: ‘Neil, you have a lot of strengths, but the trouble is that you are always playing to them’. He went on to explain that what he meant was that I was well aware of what I was good at and what I was not so good at, and I always headed straight for what I knew I could do well and steered clear of anything I wasn’t so sure of. The problem with that approach, he said, is that you will never develop, never extend your repertoire. And he was right. I was quite happy to stay in my comfort zone, and he helped me realise that would hold me back.
So, after that, I started trying out new things, doing things I didn’t want to do. While, at first, I didn’t like it and was beginning to doubt the wisdom of his advice, it wasn’t long before I was seeing the fruits of this new approach. I began to realise that it doesn’t take long to get used to new, unfamiliar territory and that there was a lot to be gained from doing so, not least a sense of achievement and progress.
Of course, I came across things that were beyond me, challenges that were a step too far. But even that was a positive thing as it helped me recognise my limitations. No one can be good at everything, but if you stick to what you know you are good at, there may be things that you can become good at that you will never know about, because you are not prepared to venture that far. This experience made me realise that what had been holding me back was a fear of failure – by sticking to my strengths, I knew that failure was unlikely. What I have learned since then is that failure is nothing to fear. As I have said before and will no doubt say again, failure is not the opposite of success, it is a component of success – you can’t succeed without trying and you can’t realistically expect to succeed every time you try.
Failing can be painful, but if you expect to be able to succeed every time, then you are making any failures that do crop up all the more difficult to bear – or you are doing what I used to do, namely constantly playing to your strengths and thereby denying yourself the opportunity to turn weaknesses into strengths.
Another tutor used to say: ‘Attitude is everything’, and while I think that the ‘everything’ bit is an exaggeration, I would certainly agree that our attitude, the way we approach a situation and the mindset we adopt in doing so, is very important. While some people create problems for themselves by approaching situations with an attitude of ‘I am going to fail’ (which makes it much more likely that they will), others can create problems by having an attitude of ‘I must not fail’ which creates all sorts of unnecessary difficulties.
By following my tutor’s advice to look beyond what I was already good at, I have since become good at things I would never have dreamed of doing well, while also learning that there are things that I am just not cut out for. These insights have been an important part of self-awareness and have stood me in good stead over the years.
So, why not give it a try? There’s no need to set yourself up to fail by trying something that you know to be beyond you, but there will be very many things you are not keen to try that could open doors for you – and those could be an important part of your personal and professional development.