I hear this question a lot from people facing career change.

Sometimes the people asking this question are somewhat early on in their careers and only have experience in one field. Other times they have lots of experience but the change they want to make feels like a drastic one. The idea of going back to school can be intimidating or just not feasible for some. Or there may not be a school for the particular role they’re pursuing.

Other times people ask because they find that the things they do most frequently in their jobs, often what they’re hired or receive the most praise for, leave them feeling unfulfilled and unhappy. They want to make a change, but they worry that if this is what they’re good at, how can they get a job doing anything else?

I want to begin with a distinction that I find is key to shedding light on the answer.

Strengths vs Skills

Though we tend to conflate them, there’s actually a difference between our skills and strengths.

I define strengths as our inherent abilities and talents. We don’t have to take a class to learn them; they’re a part of who we are and how we approach the world. We bring them to everything we do, and we usually apply them without even trying.

Skills, on the other hand, are acquired abilities. We learn them through instruction and practice, and they may or may not align with our natural strengths.

So, to help clarify the difference:

  • Being able to create visual beauty is a strength. Interior design is a skill.
  • Having a great sense of humor is a strength. Delivering a stand-up comedy set is a skill.
  • Understanding other people is a strength. Counseling is a skill.
  • Being able to visualize things in 3 dimensions is a strength. Engineering is a skill.
  • Curiosity and inquiry are strengths. Academic research is a skill.

Putting strengths to work

The fact that you have both strengths and skills is good news for career changers for a few reasons.

First of all, you can bet on the fact that you have a set of strengths that are unique to you, that nobody else has or expresses in precisely the same way, and that can help you no matter what you do.

Your strengths can point you towards work that you’ll be good at and likely find fulfilling. If you don’t already have the skills for a particular position, if it’s aligned with your strengths, you’ll learn relatively easily and have a good chance at mastery.

Even if you go into a field entirely unrelated to some of your strengths, they can still help you. Being an academic, for example, with a strong sense of humor, or an engineer with a great understanding of people would make you unique and add to your value in many environments.

The great thing about strengths is that you’ve been applying them your whole life, probably without realizing it. So even if you don’t have experience in a particular field, as long as it draws on your inherent strengths, you’ll have plenty of stories and evidence to demonstrate your capabilities (there’s no reason to limit yourself to talking only about what you’ve done at work).

What to do about skills

So what do you do if you don’t have the skills required for a particular position?

Well, there’s good news and bad news here. The good news is, you can acquire skills, so there’s always hope. You can take classes, find an internship, volunteer, or get an entry level position that will allow you to develop the skills you need.

That’s actually the bad news as well. It does take time to develop new skills, so you may need to plan on some transition time before moving into your dream job.

Just keep in mind that you always have options. If school is too expensive, you can get experience instead (or use one of the very cheap or free online learning communities out there).

If the process takes too long and you’re too miserable in your current position to wait, consider finding a meantime-job that pays the bills and allows you to develop the skills you want.

And if none of that works for you, you can always go back and get super clear on what you want in your next job and then look for other ideas that draw on your strengths and existing experience. There are many ways your calling can express itself, and many of my clients have found that they don’t need to make a drastic change to find satisfaction and fulfillment in what they do.

The real reason we ask this question

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, we don’t really ask this question because we don’t have enough skills or abilities.

In my experience, we ask this question because we’re trying to stall.

This is especially true if you’re wondering if you have enough talent or experience before you’re even clear on what you want to do next. It’s virtually impossible to answer “Is what I have enough?” if you aren’t yet sure “Enough for what, exactly?”

But even if you do know what you want to transition into, this question still often suggests an ulterior motive.

When we’re considering making a major change in our lives, and likely putting some important things at risk—things like comfort, security, what other people think of us, our entire identity, etc.—part of us longs for change and actualization, and part of us desperately wants to cling to the status quo. The latter part gets pretty good at distracting us with worry and doubt and unanswerable questions to keep us from taking any real action.

While this is an understandable response, it also keeps us stuck. So the next time you feel tempted to ask: What if I don’t have the right skills or experience? Or, are my capabilities good enough to do the job I want to do? Stop yourself and see if this line of inquiry is helping you.

If not, you might try some different questions instead. Such as:

  • What are my strengths and superpowers?
  • How well does this role align with those?
  • What would I need to learn in order to do this job, and how do I feel about learning it?
  • Can I find any evidence in my past experience that I could succeed in this role?
  • What other roles sound good to me that would tap into my greatest strengths?

Remember that some questions are devised to keep us stuck, while others are more likely to help us move forward.

Get help to take action

If you’re not sure what your strengths are or would like more confidence in your abilities as you navigate a change, Pathfinders Group Coaching can help. Click here to find out more or to schedule a complimentary 1:1 consultation with me to discuss this program, which is one of the most powerful and cost effective services I offer. Combining the benefits of coaching with the power of community, Pathfinders is all about helping you get the clarity and confidence you need to take meaningful action towards work you love.