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What magic & alchemy can teach you about pivoting your career

Image source: Vladimir Lis

“Pivot from your comfort zone” is the first topic I wrote about when I started Rising Sideways. It's a tactic about using your inner strengths as a psychological handrail when you make a career transition into uncharted territory.

So while a big part of this project is about career transitions, my chat with Alex Wong - a certified ClifftonStrengths coach, founder of Strengths Alchemy and community founder- made me realise that pivoting is not the starting point of a Rising Sideways journey. Rather you first need to put in the hard work of self-reflection in order to identify what your intuitive strengths are. This is an important step to take if you want to begin the process of detaching your self-worth from your job title or company. In our interview below, we speak about what the world of magic and alchemy can teach us about finding and recombining our talents and strengths in order to make a career change.

Tell me about your journey. What do you do?

I like to call myself a ‘strengths alchemist.’ It was birthed from my love of magic and my interest as a hobbyist magician. Alchemy is about how you break things down into its essence to create something else. I thought this was a brilliant metaphor to explain how people work. I like to look at what people’s strengths and personality are and see how I can break it down into its raw essence and then recombine it and create something new altogether.

But how did this all start? When I was young I came across this book called ‘Strengthsfinder 2.0.’ by Gallup. I saw that it was about focusing on your strengths instead of fixing what’s wrong, which is what most of us are trained to do. I took the test and when the results came out I was blown away because it was so accurate. Unlike MBTI, there’s a customised portion of the report that gives a very specific description of who you are. But at the end of the day the report went to the drawer. It was entertaining and fun at first but it had little impact in the long run.

Fast forward years later and Gallup opened up their first certification program which I eventually became trained in. That’s when I learned that we can try and interpret certain things on our own but in order for us to understand the nuances of our talent themes requires a certain depth of knowledge and constant practice.

It’s so interesting that you’re also a hobbyist magician! Just curious, is there anything about the magical world that people can apply to their career development?

Magic is about directing attention. If I wanted you to look somewhere you will look where I want you to look. In some ways managing your career is like that. You’re managing how people see you. It’s your personal brand.

With magic there’s also a sense of wonder. There’s this feeling of going into a whole new world with its own language, ethos, knowledge and behaviours. Getting to know more about yourself and your strengths is like going into a new world, especially if you start joining communities and meeting people along your journey. For example, if you joined the StrengthsFinder Singapore Network (SFSN), people are going to be talking about strengths left, right and center. If you’re in there for the first time you’re going to be like ‘what the heck are these guys talking about?!”

I love that idea of communities acting like the guides you meet along the way, who welcome you into the world and help you fulfil your career quest. Sorry, I’ve been playing a lot of video games lately!

Video games is another great analogy for StrengthsFinder (now called CliftonStrengths) and career development. If you play a role playing game you realise that you have a party of different characters such as a mage, cleric, healer, etc. And you realise they all have attributes - a speciality, a strength and a weakness. You can craft your character and distribute points across those attributes. What do you think would happen to your character if you try to distribute it equally across everything?

You would probably get killed because you’re not good at anything in particular.

Yes, especially if the attributes that you bump up don't respond to your class. If you were a mage you would bump up intelligence like mad. If you were a fighter you would bump up strength. That’s the essence of what’s strengths-based career philosophy is.

Once you discover that ‘I’m a cleric and these are my talents’, you want to bump up the things that are valuable for that class. And you’ll also discover your weaknesses. For example a mage will be killed easily by a sword in melee combat but they are terrific damage dealers.

Let’s go back to the idea of alchemy. How important is that process of breaking things down and reconfiguring it into unlikely combinations for career development and pivoting?

When you learn how to dissect and break down the processes that you have internally, it helps you to manage that intrapersonal conflict better. I was in a workshop and this young girl came up to me and said “hey Alex, sometimes instead of getting things moving I want to lean back, relax and let things go with the flow,” which is totally the opposite of her main talent theme of being an ‘Activator.’ So I looked down her top 5 list of themes and pointed out that she also had the Adaptability talent theme. That’s when she started to realise that it wasn’t that the report did not describe her, but it was describing two aspects about her that she couldn’t reconcile simultaneously.

Recognising that she had these two talent themes is the breaking down part of alchemy. Once she could break it down, she started understanding how these talent themes impacts how she behaves. And now she realises she has a choice of talent theme to apply depending on the context. Now she has clarity of why she behaves in a certain way and now she can create the decision and behaviour matrix of how she makes these decisions. With CliftonStrengths, she now has the language and a way to articulate her behaviour to her peers.

A lot of people I've spoken to have talked about this conflict. How do you resolve that? Is there such a thing as conflicting parts of your personality or strengths?

I wouldn't call them conflicting. I would say that there are different parts of you that you may not necessarily have learnt how to use well. In CliftonStrengths, talent themes are basically your recurring patterns of thinking, feeling and behaving. If you’re unclear about it, then you get somewhat pulled in different directions until you know how to resolve it. If you are clear, then you have the ability to flex consciously.

Similar to video games, are there skills you can only unlock later in the game after you gain certain skills and experience?

The equation for strength is talent x investment (time spent practising skills and knowledge) = strength. For a lot of people what's missing is that they never found out what kind of skills or knowledge complements their talents really well. The sudden jump that you’re talking about is in acquiring new skills and knowledge that creates new type of strengths.

How can people who want to change or pivot their careers use this equation?

Once you know what your strengths and talents are, it gives you a different reference point. When you recognise what your talents are (which does not change), you can always acquire new skills and knowledge to get new strengths - this is what helps you pivot.

The other thing that’s important is knowing what your passions are. Your ‘gifts’ determine what you do, but a passion determines where you apply it. For example, a person can be gifted in singing, but he could be singing to children, to prison mates, on a concert stage.In careers you can have a gift as a great collaborator, coach, analyst, etc but you can apply that to anything depending on your passions. If you are able to piece your passion and talents together, you can begin to explore what options are there for you to pivot.

Knowing what your talents are also gives you the confidence required to pivot. When you have been doing something for a long period of time, your identity becomes attached to it. So it becomes difficult to do something else until you can take a step back to recognise that that role in of itself doesn’t define you but it’s your ability. This helps you to detach from the role and make your skills more generic. Now that you have a broader picture of your talents and skills you can start asking where else can you use this. That’s when you can have different permutations of what you would like to try.

Going back to the alchemy metaphor. Breaking things down into its essence gives you a spectrum of talents and skills so that you can put things together in new ways that’s not your current job, but can be something else that’s intuitive to who you are as a person. It gives you an opportunity to recognise gaps that you can still acquire that allows you to pivot.

When people think about their gaps, it makes them feel like they’re not good enough. How do we reframe that feeling?

When we talk about gaps, we need to be careful to start from identification of talent, rather than focusing on weakness. We always focus on talent, and manage around weaknesses.

At the end of the day every job requires competence. You need to be good at something. I might love working with people but I have no idea how to develop training material. That’s a gap. But that’s a skills gap that I can start developing a competency that is valued in the industry that I want. But be careful of diving into a skills and knowledge that doesn’t compliment your talent theme.

There’s also such a thing as a fatal flaw. There are certain things in a career that you must be able to do to a certain standard in order to survive and not get fired. If not the whole thing crumbles.You don’t need to get 100 but you need to pass. Then in everything else you should be about focusing on your strengths.

What does ‘Rising Sideways’ mean to you?

It’s about learning what you love to do outside of your main job and start doing it. I have a full time job and simultaneously I have a side job of facilitating and coaching. I believe that all of us have at least a number of interests. By rising sideways, it also means to dive into these different interests, build them as skill sets and eventually, if something does fail, you have something else to fall back on. You’re not a one trick pony.

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