Each Sunday, The Simple Dollar reviews a personal productivity, personal development, or business/entrepreneurship book of interest.
A little while back, I discussed my thoughts on finding a career – in a nutshell, my belief is that the best possible career is one that balances your passions and your natural talents. Is Your Genius at Work? takes something of a different tack on that idea. Dick Richards, the author of the book, argues that we all have an inherent exceptional talent of some sort, and that by discovering what that talent is and figuring out how to use it, we set the stage for a masterful career.
While I’m not entirely convinced that I agree with this philosophy, I do agree squarely with Richards on one thing: discovering the things you’re naturally talented at can be an incredible boon to your career, whatever it is. It may require you to restart your career, or find a completely new career, but if you’ve got natural talent in some area, you have a giant leg up on the competition.
The entire point of Is Your Genius at Work? is to tease out your “genius” – in other words, it’s about discovering your strongest talents.
Is Your Genius at Work? is really like two short books in one. The first half of Is Your Genius at Work? is rather like a normal book, discussing the ins and outs of discovering your “genius,” figuring out how to use it, and putting it to work. The second half of the book is a mountain of exercises for figuring this out yourself.
Chapter 1 – Answer Four Key Questions
Richards states that the process of discovering your genius (your innate true talent) comes down to being able to answer four questions: What is your genius? Is your genius at work? What is your purpose? Is your genius on purpose?
I found Richards’ language to be a bit over the top, so I felt it useful to translate what he was saying. The four questions, in my own mind, boil down to: what are your greatest talents? Are you applying them in your career? What do you hope to accomplish with your life? Are you applying those talents towards that great accomplishment?
Chapter 2 – Recognize Your Genius
So, how do you figure out what your “genius” is? Richards says that there are three steps to the process. The first is noticing certain aspects of your experience – look for events in your life where things just click for you. The second is to associate that information with other events in your life – when have you experienced similar moments of just having everything click? The third is to figure out what those patterns have in common, because they’re all clues to your underlying genius.
Makes sense, right? Just look for the instances in your life where you do something that amazes others or is a big step beyond everyone else and figure out what they have in common. When it clicks into place and becomes clear – that’s your genius.
Chapter 3 – Notice Yourself
Obviously, it can be pretty difficult to notice our own behaviors, particularly in the intensity of the moment. Richards offers a few approaches – finding the common thread and so forth – but the real key, I think, is to simply become more mindful of your behavior.
Here’s an approach that worked well for me: just take note of all of the things that you do that either earn a lot of compliments from others or feel particularly enjoyable to me. Once you have a bunch of items, look at them long and hard and try to figure out what they have in common with each other.
Chapter 4 – Find the Face of Genius
Richards argues here that discovering one’s genius is the core part of figuring out our purpose in life, and that without it, we wander aimlessly, hoping to find answers and often feeling depressed about the direction of our lives.
In other words, we inherently want to use our genius. It’s what we yearn for, on some level – to use the things that come most naturally to us to benefit ourselves and the wider world. The problem is that modern life often puts countless obstacles in the way of finding and applying this genius – we’re pushed and pulled into countless activities and places from a very early age, without the room to breathe to figure out what our genius is.
Chapter 5 – Harvest Your Experience
Here, Richards focuses on evaluating your life experiences for finding your genius. While it’s easy to look at the positives for this, I was most intrigued by Richards’ suggestion that you also look at the negatives. What sort of negative labels do people apply to you? Do they say you’re flighty, or that you’re neurotic?
Those signs are probably clues to your genius, but also signs that you might not be in the right area to apply them most effectively. Use such negative statements as clues to figure out what you inherently do well – even if it’s something that’s not convenient or valued in your current environment.
Chapter 6 – Pursue the Blinding Flash
At some point, you’ll have an epiphany – a blinding flash of a moment where you discover what your genius actually is. It might come from self-discovery, but it also might come from the comment of another.
The key thing is that you’ll know it – it’ll ring very, very true for you. When you recognize it, don’t let go. You now see the “blinding light” – now comes the chase. Where can you go to maximize your use of that blinding light?
Chapter 7 – Detect Your Purpose
On the flip side of your genius is your purpose. It’s the thing you feel called to do in life. When you’re heading in that direction, you can feel it – it’s much like a compass finding its true north. When you’re not headed in that direction, it just doesn’t feel right.
Although I haven’t really found my genius, I do know my purpose – sharing thoughts and information that helps people. My purpose in life is to help people to help themselves – give them a push to consider their situation and maybe make a change, intellectually or otherwise. Whenever I’m writing a Simple Dollar post, talking to people, answering emails, or preparing other such things, it feels right – it feels as though I’m called to do it.
Chapter 8 – Tune Your Self
Richards closes by tying these ideas together. Your life and work should be the application of your genius to achieving your purpose. I view this philosophy as being exactly what I was talking about in my career advice: find your passions and your talents and find a way to do them both.
For some, this whole exercise might lead to a complete change in career direction. For others, they might find that they’re already pretty close to the path. I think, right now, I’m fairly close to my path.
The last third or so of the book is done in the format of a workbook, with specific exercises designed to help you tease out your genius and your purpose. For the most part, they take the concepts of the earlier chapters and boil them down into a simple, concrete activity that you can do in a half an hour or so.
Take the first exercise, for example. List all the words you can think of that end in -ing and describe activities you enjoy, then make another list of nouns that describe what you naturally create around you – what you bring to the table. Then, simply choose the word from the first list and the word from the second list that seem to resonate the strongest with you. For me, I came up with “writing about humanity.”
Some Thoughts on Is Your Genius at Work?
Richards focuses very heavily on words and labels. While I wholeheartedly agree with the concepts in this book (which I tried to isolate above), he spends a lot of time focusing on creating descriptive labels, an aspect that I didn’t find nearly as intriguing or powerful. Coming up with a name for your genius isn’t nearly as important as understanding it deeply.
The half book / half workbook format is very nice. I think it’s a method that should be used in more books, particularly ones that one should read to help themselves come to a decision or improve their way of living. It works really well here.
To really work, this book requires some serious introspection time. It’s not one of those books with tips that you can immediately apply and improve yourself. It’s more fundamental than that – it requires introspection to be useful.
Is Is Your Genius at Work? Worth Reading?
Is Your Genius at Work? is one of those books that’s either going to be incredibly worthwhile or useless to you. The keys for making it incredibly worthwhile are pretty obvious, too: are you willing to take the ideas seriously and actually put in some time in introspection and doing the exercises? Do you yearn to feel like you have a purpose in life or in your career? Do you have only a vague idea of what you’re actually talented at (or none at all)? The more you said yes there, the more effective this book will be.
I think this book would have been incredibly powerful for me a few years ago, before I actually spent the time to recognize what I’m good at and what I’m drawn to do. Those are the things that Richards really focuses on in this book.
My advice? Read it if you’re young – in college or younger. Read it if you feel like your career is going nowhere. Read it if you don’t feel passionate about your career at all. Read it if you feel like your natural talents don’t match what you’re doing. If you feel like your career is in good shape and it fills you with at least some degree of excitement, this book probably won’t help that much. If you’re on the other side of that fence, Is Your Genius at Work? might just be incredibly helpful in figuring things out.