Finding your secret strengths

To grow your skills, you must know your skills. Problem is, that’s harder than it sounds, if only because we rarely carve time out of our hectic lives to do so. Might as well use these next few minutes to do so, and this post will give give a technique to help you along.

We cannot think about our skills in a vacuum. It’s a well researched fact that humans are horrible at assessing their own skills. We often inflate skills we do not have. We downplay skills we do have. Simply put, we lie to ourselves about the strength of our skills.

We need inner honesty. We need outside voices. We need feedback… in order to examine these skills we have and those we don’t.

Evaluating Skills

If you want feedback, it helps to have a bit of structure to shape the conversation. If you want to evaluate your own skills, it helps you to focus if you have a bit of structure as well. So what then should that structure be?

I offer up this very simple model.

Strengths and Awareness
The model starts with two axes: Strength and Awareness. The rows of the grid represent the strength of the skill. You can simply not have a skill or a very weak one. A skill can be of average strength or very strong. Now obviously there is no unit of measure for the strength of a skill; it is meant as a relative measure.

Similarly, the columns represent the awareness of others of the skill. No or few people can be aware of a skill. A medium number of people could be aware of a skill, or one of your skills might be broadly known.

Each of the cells in the matrix are a category in which a a skill can live:

Not much to comment on here: you don’t have and skill and nobody thinks otherwise.

Rumors of Potential
You might have a weak skill or are developing a brand new strength. People see the beginnings of something within you and you likely do not see it yourself. Listen to those people; respect the evaluation. Rumors of Potential are fascinating to me; the thing that you don’t you are good at could be the next thing that propels you along.

Teaming Needed
You don’t really have a skill and people really know it, and that is okay! We build teams and groups not only strong skills but around weak ones as well. You might have a Teaming Needed skill and the person next to you has the same skill, but they are actually great at it.

These are skills, technical or non-technical, that you possess. People are aware to a limited degree you have this skill. These are skills that you like using but among all the others that you might have, you don’t tend to use this one.

You are pretty good at something and people are aware of it. A skill in this box presents amazing opportunities. You can go off and, in private, strengthen it and it becomes a Passion. This is what musicians refer to as woodshedding; you go off on your own and you practice. More people may learn of this skill and you’ll find yourself in the Land of Imposter Syndrome, but there’ll be more on that later. And you might strengthen this skill to amaze people with it or you might make it a core strength that people want on their teams and in their lives.

These are strong skills that you have. But not many, if any, people know about them. These are often skills that are extremely satisfying to use and you don’t feel the need to make a lot of noise about them. But if you do want to, receiving mentorship can turn Passions into Attractors.

Think of using one of these skills as pulling a rabbit out of a hat. You can do something remarkable but people aren’t expecting you to do it. It could be doing financial analysis for a business endeavor. Or being fluent in a surprising language. Or being able to change your communication approaches to make even the most difficult customer feel at ease. Use these skills and you’ll quickly find that you use them with increasing frequency… because it feels great to amaze people.

Because of this skill, people want to work with you, want your help on projects, and have you in their lives. It is probably one that you worked very hard for in the past, but now it seems to strengthen itself.

Land of Imposter Syndrome
The last of the skill categories is the Land of Imposter Syndrome – the most interesting category. In this case, people see something within you that is full of potential. You are pretty good at using this skill, but, you probably don’t enjoy using it. You worry that you’ll “get caught” and be exposed as a “fraud.” You worry that you will fail in the task at hand.

Using this skill is like crossing a perfectly frozen lake one that has formed congelation ice aka black ice; It doesn’t look like ice at all. Part of you knows that crossing this lake is the fastest best way to get home… and part of you expects the ice to crack and you’ll fall in.

Keep in mind that you will unfairly evaluate yourself. You will unfairly compare yourself to others. You will compare yourself to people with an Attractor-grade skill. You will likely pick people who have had years more experience using that skill. You will pick freaks of nature to compare yourself to, and you will definitely ignore their weaker skills. These are the perils of the Land of Imposter Syndrome.

If you don’t find something to shake a skill out of this category, it will atrophy. Deep down, this may be what you actually want to have happen. It is less uncomfortable to let this happen than opposed to struggle to shake this skill out of the Land of Imposter Syndrome. Keep in mind if you choose not to shake the skill out and choose to let it atrophy, then you may close off future opportunities. Said differently, the harder path, the less comfortable path, the one in which you use this skill, will pay benefits.

Things to Consider

There’s a few things to keep in mind about this model. First off, you can use it to evaluate technical and non-technical skills, professional and personal ones.

Second, You will have skills in every box. Which is to say that no one has all their skills in the Attractors box… no one.

Third, it is just fine to leave alone weaker skills; keeping your strong skills sharp is more beneficial than devoting too much time and energy into unrealistically trying to move weak ones. Remember, we form groups for a reason.

Lastly, your skills and strengths will move between categories over time. Rumors of Potential can move to Land of Imposter Syndrome or become Interests. Potentials can become Amaze-ers or Attractors, but often spend a little time in the Land of Imposter Syndrome to get there. And skills in the Land of Imposter Syndrome often become Interests or even Passions. They can even become Attractors, but the journey is difficult.


A Passion of mine is martial arts. I have taken many meta-lessons away from it. But one of the biggest is that you have to be truly honest with yourself about skills you have and skills you don’t. You need feedback.

Feedback is on the way

Why am I smiling in this photo? Because I know exactly how screwed I am. I have done at least three things wrong to get into this predicament. My teacher has me dead to rights and there’s nothing much I can do about it. Feedback will ensue in the form of a 3 pound wooden sword to my head.

There is no feedback like a 3 pound wooden sword to the noggin. Trust me on this one. Although getting smacked in the head with a 3 pound sword is an amazing feedback mechanism, it is not always the most appropriate feedback mechanism for most professional settings – so please, choose your feedback methods wisely.

So why was this such a difficult presentation to put together? Well because of this:As I worked on this methodology, I realize that it would be unfair to the reader or the audience for me to present it but not use it on myself. As I built this, I evaluated myself. I cannot tell you the number of changes I made to my own evaluation. I kept putting skills in the bottom row, and I would stop, attempt to be honest with myself, and then place the skills where they rightfully belong.

Working in groups, leading teams, founding IDPro all have helped me evaluate my skills and get crucially needed feedback. Although I don’t necessarily admit it, I’m okay when it comes to negotiating and marketing. I am aggressively meh when it comes identity federation technologies and techniques. And, being truly honest with myself, I am pretty good when it comes to identity governance and administration (IGA). But it wasn’t always like this.

When I first started out as an analyst for the Burton Group, one of my first research tasks was to write a report on access review and certification. I talked to dozens of organizations: vendors, implementers, enterprises. The report went through the peer review process and came out relatively unscathed. The report published and people seemed to like it.

Then they started calling; they wanted to speak to the “expert.” And that’s when I had my freakout. I panicked every time such a call came in. I was deathly afraid I was going to do a call with a customer and at the end of which they’d say, “I didn’t learn a thing from this” or “I already knew all that.” I was afraid to be found to be a fraud.

My good friend Lori took me aside shook me, saying, “No one has done as much research on this as you have. No one has talked to as many people as you have. You know more than 90% of the people out there, and for that remaining 10% you are a peer and an important sounding board. The last thing you are is a fraud.” And with that… a skill was shaken loose from the Land of Imposter Syndrome.

Now the most important part of the story is not that I had a mentor and friend whose feedback helped me move a skill out of the Land of Imposter Syndrome. It’s that she has to give me that speech every time I took on a new topic, every time I developed a new skill. Every. Single. Time.

Just because you have a skill in the Attractor box, doesn’t mean it’ll be easy to get another one there.

Putting this to use

Whether you use this method to evaluate your own skills or find another, it doesn’t really matter. What does matter is taking the time to honestly evaluate yourself. What does matter is getting feedback to keep your self-evaluations honest.

So here’s what I recommend, take this matrix and fill it out for yourself. Take time. Be honest with yourself. Then hide the results. A few weeks later, fill it out again. Share the results with a peer, a boss, a mentor, or a new acquaintance at a meetup. Talk about where you placed your skills and talk about the process of placing them there. Get feedback. Listen to that feedback. Because with that feedback you can see what others see in you, even if you cannot or will not do so. And that, that is how you find a secret strength.

And finally, for those of you who want to see this talk in action:

[This post stems from a talk I gave a few times this year. It came from the need I had to contextualize the results a skills survey that IDPro ran in early 2018. Many thanks to the people who helped me with this, especially Andi Hindle! This was the hardest presentation I have yet to put together and it was the hardest I have ever had to deliver. Now, truth be told, I did this to myself. Not only did this presentation require a very public display of self-reflection but, when I gave it at Identiverse, my parents were sitting in the front row. For those of you who like to challenge yourself with your presentations, I highly recommend putting a family member up front in the audience, but before you ask, I will not soon do it again.

  • IG 12/27/2018]

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.