Over the years, I’ve met many people who have told me that they’re nothing special, that they’ve never done anything important in their lives, and that they really don’t have anything to offer the world. They’re just ordinary people wondering how they fit in a culture that inordinately values competition, outsized achievement, and fame. You’re either Number One, or you’re a loser. I’m surprised that there hasn’t been a reality TV show called America’s Top Meditator.
One of my favorite quotes is, “I have never met a man so ignorant that I couldn’t learn something from him.” Galileo Galilei said that over 450 years ago—and, like all pearls of wisdom, it’s timeless. Regardless of one’s age, educational level, or breadth of experience, everyone has something unique and valuable to offer. Discovering what one’s gifts are isn’t always easy, though. You’d think it would be, that you’d know what you’re good at, because, well, you’re you. But as Oscar Wilde remarked over 200 years ago, “Only the shallow know themselves.” Much of what we discover about ourselves is reflected back to us by other people. We just need to be open to seeing it.
I used to believe that my gift was that I had the potential to become a world-renowned novelist/filmmaker/songwriter/painter, or some combination thereof. I’ve dabbled in all of the above, and I do have some talent, but I was never able to focus to the degree that I needed to. During college, I worked as a math tutor. Students told me I had a knack for making complicated things simple. After I graduated, I needed to pay the bills until I became a professional Great Artiste, so I supported myself as a software trainer, call-center representative, course developer, and technical writer. Clients and coworkers told me I had a knack for making complicated things simple. It didn’t occur to me until many years later that perhaps this was my gift. Because it came easily to me, it didn’t impress me.
I suspect that’s a reason we often fail to recognize our own gifts: because they come naturally to us, we assume they can’t be important, because anything worthwhile requires persistence and hard work, right? So our culture tells us. It also tells us that we can achieve anything we want to, if we’re willing to work long enough and hard enough at it. That fits in with our American egalitarian ideal. It’s a lie, though. No matter how much or how hard I studied or practiced, I could never become the next Michael Jordan, Steven Spielberg, Luciano Pavarotti, Albert Einstein, William Faulkner, or Eric Clapton. I lack their gifts. On the other hand, most people lack my gifts. That’s not meant to sound boastful. Pam has gifts for empathizing with others, for “being a light” to encourage them, and for reading people. Her sons, Greg and Ross, have gifts for leadership and for serving others—i.e., servant leadership. Everyone we know, in fact, has gifts—gifts for which we and others are grateful.
You have gifts, too. Do you know what they are, or are you still trying to figure them out?