How to (start to) identify your skills

My career counselling process began by going back to the basics. My coach and I started by reviewing stories from my life, called my “Life Experiences List”. I was told to come up with 10-20 events throughout the course of my life that gave me great joy when I thought about them. These could be virtually anything from my earliest memories to things that happened within the same year. Some examples I was given were winning a baseball game at age 10, or helping a family member complete a task.

This exercise gets at the heart of the things we enjoy doing. It doesn’t ask us: What did you learn in school? What is your degree? or other questions that leave us feeling tethered to the education we obtained. As we do more paid employment, volunteer work, and schooling, we can begin to only equate our skills with what we’ve learned in these settings. However, our natural talents can be more innate to who we are, and for finding a job we will enjoy, this knowledge is so important

Truly understanding ourselves including what brings us joy is a lifelong process, but deeply related to finding meaningful work.

When I thought back over my life to the events that truly gave me joy, I started by making a rough list of times in my life I thought were pretty awesome. Here were some things I wrote down:

  • created and executed my undergraduate thesis to completion for three clients
  • led a roundtable discussion with university peers discussing climate change
  • performed in a play in high school
  • was an orientation leader for three years at Waterloo
  • created a voting awareness campaign for classes at UofW
  • increased employee participation in my workplace’s Clean Air Commute
  • designed and organized Waste Awareness Days at LoyaltyOne
  • working on the High school yearbook – I took photographs, wrote and designed content for several pages on my own
  • lived with ten people from various backgrounds and languages in one house
  • moved to France in a city I knew no one to learn the language
  • wrote a briefing note that went to the leader of the Liberal Party
  • created a video compilation of my time living in London and posted it on YouTube

After I created this list (this is a shortened version of my original one), I was told to prioritize these events in order of importance to me. The ultimate goal was to create a list of 10 experiences and expand on them in writing. Once I did that, I told these stories aloud to my coach.

As I did this, he was looking for a few things: what skills I demonstrated in these events and whether I seemed excited while I told the stories, especially my tone of voice, eye contact, and other facial expressions. I was surprised to know that my non-verbal communication said a lot about how I actually felt about these life events. I also remember noting that it was an incredible skill that he was able to decipher the skills I had from these ‘personal’ events. For instance, I had always viewed moving to France as a fun personal challenge. But I’d never considered that in it lay my key skills and traits: ability to tackle challenge and uncertainty, commitment to learning new skills, and willingness to meet new people and create relationships.

What emerged from this part of the process was a two page document of my skills! When you are unemployed, this may potentially be the greatest gift someone can give you. A validation that you have *actual* skills to market to the world. It can be easy to forget all the wonderful things you know how to do when all you feel you have to show for yourself is a degree and some short-term work experience. Rob (my coach) simply reminded me that I possessed all these qualities.

I’d recommend this activity to anyone feeling lost, stuck, unsure of their next career move or simply looking for their first. Make a list of your key life experiences, make it only for yourself, and don’t write down things that you think other people would expect you to write. Get honest with yourself about what you really enjoy doing. Go back to the basics. 

Since this is a longer process than this one step, I’ll be expanding on the skills identification process in upcoming posts. 


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