Posted by: alexswallow | September 16, 2013

How to find out what you’re good at (by trying what you are rubbish at)

hammer manAn example of something I’m awful at. Image courtesy of imagerymajestic/

One of the things that I think is such a treat about getting older is that it is easier to be clearer about the things that you are really good at and the things that you really aren’t.

At school for example, it may be that you are good at quite a lot of things.  You might be good at say, football and maths. Or, science and swimming. Perhaps you get little certificates for endeavours in these areas.

The more that you learn about the world though, the more you meet people who are really good at things. For example at school I was probably one of the better people at debating, not because I was particularly skilled, but because I was confident and willing to give it a go. When I went to Cambridge and joined the Union, it only took about 5 minutes for me to realize that some people are much, much better at debating than me (I’m not doing myself down, there were World Debating Champions there!).  Cambridge in general was an amazing experience, because apart from the fact that a lot of people were incredibly clever they were also accomplished at a great many things- for example they might also be able to play a musical instrument brilliantly. One year I picked our University Challenge team and their general knowledge was just extraordinary ( This guy is from my college, but a few years later).

The more people you meet, the more you meet people who astound you with their talent in a particular area. At University my best friend could remember dates in a way I have never seen anyone else do. When my much younger sister throws a ball, she throws it with a grace that I just wouldn’t have even if I practiced every day. My grandfather is brilliant at just about everything. His mechanical skills are extraordinary- I once was helping him lay some carpet and his economy of movement meant that something which would have taken me five separate steps required just a flick of his wrist. I have tasted food cooked by chefs who must have genius in their senses. I have seen Usain Bolt run 

Over time I have realized with awful clarity that there are certain things that I am just not good at. For example I am generally terrible at anything that involves using my hands. I am awful at fixing things, building things and making things. I find such activities tedious, time-consuming and frustrating. I marvel that others find them thrilling and life-enhancing. Growing up my poor father would tell me in fine detail how a car worked or how a boiler worked and to me it was as if he was telling me a boring story in an incomprehensible language. I felt really bad, but I just didn’t get it. That isn’t to say that I have never tried to make or do things, in fact I would recommend it to anyone in helping show you how brilliant other people are. I used to work as a labourer and, while my own job was smashing tiles, stripping wallpaper and pulling dust from under floorboards (exactly what I was doing on September 11th actually) I saw at close hand men with skills so much greater than mine and it gave me a real respect for their work. Even now, when I achieve a relatively simple manual task I am filled with great pride. Finding a way to remove a razor blade from a plughole a year or so ago was my biggest achievement that month. Trying such tasks may make me feel like an octopus rollerblading but they are worthwhile if only in order to remind me where my talents don’t lie.

Of course, I have found a few things I’m good at. For example I am a massive pedant, so I’m quite good at proofreading. I’ve always been quite a sensitive chap, so that’s probably helped me in the various charity roles I’ve had so far. And I don’t mind looking like an idiot in front of others too much, so I have taken myself out of my comfort zone a lot and picked up a lot from such experiences.

What have you realized you are great at/terrible at and how did you find out? I’d love to hear your stories.


  1. I really enjoyed reading this Alex (particularly liked your ‘uselessness’ at practical skills – I am the same!). I think you raise an important wider point about aligning your skills and passions to a career which fits them. In this current market, many people are (naturally) happy to 1) take whatever job comes along 2) remain in a job they are unfulfilled in. Whilst this may seem sensible in the short term, it may not be the best medium to long term career plan.

  2. Thanks Alex that’s a really good point. I think another issue is that our education system ‘forces’ people into certain jobs and only a narrow band of jobs seem to have high status. We could probably learn a lot from the apprentice system in Germany for example.

    By the way, bet I am more useless than you!

  3. […] are good at and do it better, or perhaps your challenge will be something that you are naturally a bit rubbish at. Here are some […]

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