On Superpowers

On Superpowers

September 6, 2022
An Overview:

More being, less doing.

Like meeting the oldest friend you’ve never met.

In recent weeks, there’s one question I’ve taken to asking everyone both in and out of my coaching sessions: What’s your superpower? It might seem a strange question to ask, one that harkens back to the comic book characters of our childhood. But it’s highly relevant for all kinds of situations, whether you’re considering a change of career, looking for an uncommon edge that will help you advance in the one you have, deciding what kind of leader you’re going to be, or assembling a founding team that complements your unique strengths.

It also happens to be a surprisingly difficult question to answer. Incredibly successful people who’ve honed their elevator pitches to perfection and know their resumes like the back of their hands seem curiously at a loss for words when I ask them what their superpower is. Part of the difficulty, I suspect, is that the question requires us to know something about who we are, not just what we’ve done by way of our degrees, awards, titles, and so forth. Which begs the question — how did it come to be that so many of us find it easier to see ourselves in our doing than in our being?

It wasn’t so long ago that I too felt trapped in an endless cycle of doing, growing increasingly alienated from myself even as I achieved more and more of what the world considered success. For as long as I can remember, I’ve wanted desperately to discover my true vocation. Even though the word is today used interchangeably with “job” or “occupation,” it derives from the Latin verb vocare (“to call”), which captures just how much I wanted to be called to do the work I was meant to do, rather than have to figure it out myself —  the way characters in movies discover, by force of prophecy or destiny, the superpowers they ultimately use to save the world.

Of course, my life has turned out to be far more prosaic than that. Even if you’d tried to tell me a decade ago that I’d be doing the work I’m doing today, I would’ve assured you that you’d gotten the wrong person. When I discovered my superpower — the ability to intuit and give language to the unconscious stories that influence our behavior — it felt less like the force of destiny and more like the shock of recognition, like meeting an old friend that I’d known my entire life but had also somehow never met.

It still surprises me every day that what my clients find most helpful comes from the deepest parts of my being, rather than the doing copiously recorded on my resume. In a world where nearly 80% of workers are actively disengaged and unhappy with the work they do, how different things could be if more of us could get in touch with the unique gifts we have to offer! So, while this sense of surprise is still fresh in my mind, I’ve attempted to describe a few of the “unlocks” that had to happen on my journey to discovering my superpower. As always, I hope the words help you find your way.

"In an odd kind of reverse Dunning-Kruger effect, many of us go through life blissfully unaware of our competence in the area of our superpower because it’s simply the water we’ve always swum in."

#1: Try on new vocabularies.

When asked to describe your superpowers, what words come to mind first? Most of us reach for the vocabularies closest to hand — the language of the subjects we studied at school, our college majors, our business functions, titles, and job descriptions. Depending on our current industry or profession, we’re also likely to be steeped in a lexicon developed to describe the skills most relevant to that domain. After my years as a management consultant, for instance, it’s taken me considerable effort to describe my strengths without defaulting to the language of the “leadership development model” that McKinsey uses to evaluate its employees.

Getting good grades in math or being a skilled project manager are nothing to scoff at, but these impoverished labels don’t get nearly close enough to describing the gifts that we have to offer the world. Developed to measure, evaluate, and compare us for purposes that are not our own, these vocabularies are designed to render us fungible, not to describe what makes us unique. For that reason, they are not “fit for purpose,” and using them to discover our superpowers would be akin to attempting to describe the singular beauty of Claude Monet’s Water Lilies using only a numerical scale of 1 to 5, without the language of color, composition, or light.

So how do we access richer vocabularies for describing our gifts? For starters, it’s worth asking others with professional histories and experiences different from our own what words they might use to describe us. There are also helpful tools designed expressly for the purposes of self-inquiry, like the Enneagram, CliftonStrengths, PrinciplesYou, Character Strengths, and others. While none of these alone are likely to reveal your superpower to you in one fell swoop, with the help of a coach they’ll at least provide different vocabularies that can serve as helpful signposts for your onward journey.

#2: Disarm your inner venture capitalist.

Spend any amount of time inquiring into your superpowers, and you’re likely to encounter the internal voice I’ve come to think of as our “inner venture capitalist.” You’ll recognize the voice I’m referring to when it finally appears, because it’ll be the one asking questions like “what’s the addressable market for this skill,” “how are you going to market with this,” “what will your revenue model be” and “is this talent distinctive enough to be a defensible moat?” It’s like if your garden variety inner critic went and got itself an MBA and now insists on asking you all these incredibly difficult but also sensible-sounding questions whenever you start to see a glimmer of what your superpower might be.

Our superpowers being who we are rather than just one venture among many, to inquire into them the way a VC diligences potential investments is to imply that there are conditions under which we’d pass on investing in ourselves. Although the objections of our inner venture capitalist seem eminently rational and pragmatic, what they really are is a sophisticated form of self-aggression. What we discover about ourselves may win us riches and acclaim, or it may not; it may change the lives of billions, or perhaps mainly transform our own; it may lead us to make a change in our careers, or simply enable us to show up at the one we already have with more confidence and ease. Unless we would deny ourselves even this much, what is it that compels us to stand in our own way?

Some of my inner venture capitalist’s objections I had to get past: it’s not scalable, no one will pay for it, it will involve touchy-feely, stereotypically “women’s work” without a hard ROI, and it’s everything that our contemporary obsession with technology disdains. What I’ve learned? Don’t attempt to debate with it, since its arguments are after all simply your own — but instead realize that its function has only ever been to protect you from harm. This voice, and all other voices like it, originate in hard-won strategies we developed at some point in our life to ensure that we would never lack for safety and security. With a great deal of work and self-compassion, you can thank it for its service, and invite it to disarm and stand down.

#3: Look to how you pay attention.

I used to imagine that my superpower would involve some impressive way of acting on the world. It was disheartening to take stock of my life and fail to rustle up much evidence of my having caused anything all that remarkable to happen, outside of what was recorded in my performance reviews at work. But looking for evidence of our superpowers in outcomes is a distraction, because there are as many ways to achieve an outcome as there are unique individuals. As a consultant, I worked with partners who could problem-solve at the speed of light, and who walked into meetings having mentally simulated every possible scenario beforehand. I’ve also worked with partners who didn’t put much stock in knowing the answer to much, but could always charm even the most antagonistic clients into wanting the one answer that we happened to have prepared.

Just looking at their outcomes — a wildly successful consulting career with happy clients — you’d never have guessed the unique gifts they brought to the job. Instead of looking to how we act on the world, we can discover more about our superpowers by reflecting on how we move through it. How do you pay attention? How do you make sense of the world? When you first walk into a room, where does your focus go? Our ability to answer these questions requires what educators call meta-cognition, which simply refers to an awareness of how we think. This can be especially challenging when it comes to our superpowers, which are superpowers precisely because we use them by default to make our way through the world, and we do this so quickly and so naturally that it usually occurs without us noticing at all.

When my colleagues first started asking me how I knew what a client wanted before they’d spelled it out, or how I’d known just what to say to appease a demanding partner, I didn’t understand the question. I would attempt to explain how it was obvious that person A was beginning to get frustrated with us and needed to be placated, or that person B was clearly signaling what they wanted from us, until I realized that I wasn’t able to point to anything specific that would’ve enabled anyone else to draw the same conclusions. Unbeknownst to me at the time, I was receiving far more non-verbal data than my colleagues about what was going on with others internally — sort of like being able to see colors beyond the visible light spectrum.

In an odd kind of reverse Dunning-Kruger effect, many of us go through life blissfully unaware of our competence in the area of our superpower because it’s simply the water we’ve always swum in. If you’re looking for something impressive and monumental, realize that your superpower may very well strike you today as something terribly mundane and banal. But with feedback from trusted others and a great deal of reflection, not just on how we act on the world but how we experience it, we can begin to master and take ownership of what now merely happens by default.

#4: Look to your places of pain.

For most of my life, what I’ve come to consider my superpower felt a lot more like a curse than a gift. If the whole point of coaching is to shepherd others in their own process of deep self-inquiry, I spent most of my early life trying to get as far away from other people as I could. While I didn’t think of myself as shy or socially anxious, I began to accept those labels because it pained me so much to be with more than 3 or 4 people at a time. I didn’t have the words for it then, but in the company of others I would experience an intense state of overwhelm from registering all the non-verbal signals others seemed to be throwing off about what was going on inside them. I went through phases of thinking I was crazy because surely everyone saw what I was seeing but strangely didn’t seem to mind, then thinking I was crazy because surely I was making all of these stories up about other people in my head that weren’t actually true, and finally just avoiding people entirely because it was all too exhausting to figure out.

Many of us imagine that using our gifts will feel joyful, like the effortless exercise of a powerful faculty. And it can indeed feel that way — but that’s not always how it starts out. Our superpowers can also originate in our places of pain, taking shape in the unique adaptations we developed in response to stressors in our early life. Intuiting what was going on with the people around me before they knew it themselves was how I navigated my chaotic childhood. But as an adult, this flood of information became incredibly painful, so I began disconnecting from the source of this intuition, and indeed from feeling much of anything at all. It’s taken me many years of work on boundaries, trust, and self-acceptance to reconnect with this gift that for so long felt like an intolerable burden.

You may have a gift for knowing what everyone else needs, but it’s currently drowning out your sense of your own needs. You may have a gift for making others feel seen, but this only happens right now at the expense of your own visibility. You may have a genius for seeing all possible sides to a situation, but you’ve put it to work in avoiding taking a stand of your own. Our superpowers are sometimes lying in plain sight but don’t feel at all like gifts, because they’re currently being used unconsciously, in the service of dysfunction, and wrapped up in a history of pain. If this describes you, then the work we do of reconnecting with these gifts requires nothing less than the healing of our own places of pain, which is why it will be among the most  difficult work we can do in our lifetime, but also the most profoundly meaningful.

Postscript: Allow your containers to change.

While writing the list of unlocks above, I had the reflection that there’s one more — a meta-unlock, if you will — that runs through all the others, which concerns our willingness to let change happen. Given the many zigs and zags in my career, I often get asked whether I miss being an academic, or how I knew that I was done being a consultant, and so forth. I think of this line of inquiry as the “inertia question,” because its basic premise is that if you’ve gone in one direction for any significant period of time, then the mere thought of changing directions starts to feel costly and painful. In response, I usually answer that in retrospect, when change has presented itself in my career, it’s shown up in rather painless and unmistakeable ways, but it’s always been my resistance to the change, my disbelief, and my wishing that it not be so that ends up being what’s painful.

I bring this up because what the unlocks I describe above all have in common is that they invite us to hold a bit more lightly our ideas of who we are and who we aren’t, and to allow ourselves to be surprised by what we find on our journey inwards. My first Buddhist teacher Tenzin Chogkyi used a beautiful metaphor for this recently, when she described how it can be necessary to let go of the “container” for our path when it clearly no longer fits us. Wherever you are in your inquiry into your superpower — whether you’re still growing into your current container, starting to bristle against its form, or are fully ready to seek out a new one —  I wish you much more being, and a lot less doing.

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