how to be gifted ( + why your gift is not always obvious)




You have a gift. If you’re lucky, you already know what it is because someone helped you identify it at a young age.

When we think of gifts we think of obvious things – painting, music, sports, math – and it’s as if they get delivered alongside the baby, like a toy tucked into her bassinet or one of those HELLO MY NAME IS stickers taped to her breastbone.

(Hello, My Name is Emma! I am gifted at VIOLIN. Worship me!)

In truth, our natural talents are things that come so easily to us that we don’t think anything of them. We assume that everybody can do “it”, if we recognize “it” as an ability at all.

I have a friend who has a talent for bringing people together. She throws dinner parties and dance parties. She hosts events in her home for artists and filmmakers. Not only that, but people just tend to gather around her, whether it’s the deck of her house in Los Angeles or the condo she rents for a weekend in San Francisco. And she doesn’t think anything of it. When I first pointed this out to her – years ago – she laughed it off. “Oh, that stuff is easy,” she said. “It’s nothing.”

“For you,” I said.

I have another friend who is one of the most gifted organizers that I’ve ever seen. Whenever I bring this up in conversation with her – usually along the lines of You should start your own event-planning company — she will dismiss or downplay it. “Oh, that’s nothing.” “That’a nothing special.” “Everybody can do that.”

“I can’t,” I said.

(And every single person who knows me would agree.)

I had my own experience with this when I took the STRENGTHSFINDER test and discovered that my number one strength is something called Input.

To quote from the book and website:

People who are especially talented in the Input theme have a craving to know more…

Driven by your talents, you yearn to increase your knowledge by being kept in the information loop. This explains why you gravitate to people who converse about ideas at a deeper and more thoughtful level than most individuals are capable of doing. “Making small talk” — that is, engaging in idle conversation — probably seems like a waste of time to you.

By nature, you are comfortable offering suggestions to people who regularly seek your counsel — that is, recommendations about a decision or course of action they are considering. These individuals usually feel deep affection for you. You are likely to spend time together socializing as well as working or studying…”

That, I thought, is a talent? I knew I could obsess more and drill deeper than the average bear, reading every book and article on whatever intrigues me at the time, and I definitely like to put ideas together and tell people what they should – I mean, offer people gentle suggestions as to their general life direction, but —

That stuff is easy.

It’s nothing.

I thought my talent, should I have one, was for writing. Because I was one of the lucky ones: parents and teachers picked up on what I was doing for fun at six, eight, ten years old. They rewarded and encouraged me until the pleasure and process of writing became motivation in itself. By the time I graduated high school, I was so self-identified as a writer that nobody could talk any sense into me.

What I’ve since realized: a ‘gift’ has different dimensions, not one strength but many realized over time as you become more self-aware (click to tweet) and figure out how to relate or combine them so that they build on each other. I can take my talent for input and fold it into my writing – not just as a blogger, but a fiction writer. I can thoroughly research my subject matter, my storyworlds. I can lead readers through them in a way that educates as well as entertains.

A gift is also composed of elements that are both innate and practiced. Maybe I never had to ‘work’ at Input – I have it the way I have blue eyes, or fair skin that burns easily and never tans at all. But I have to work my ass off at my writing, and the need for that kind of effort and practice never stops unless I do.


Often what we think of as giftedness turns out to be a certain kind of precociousness. A lot of child prodigies come to mind. They can do amazing stuff very early and very well, but that kind of gift fades out over time as more people catch up to them and if they don’t find an effective way to apply their intelligence in the world in a way that serves people.

Which is another element of giftedness that we don’t talk much about. A gift not only has to be identified, developed and mastered, it has to be put to use in the world. While your gift may be timeless and universal, it has to answer a call of your time and place. click to tweet

When these things come together in spectacular fashion, we think of this person as a genius: gifted enough to leave a deep soulprint on the world.

(I’m sure a lot of people are just as bright and innovative as Steve Jobs, with a similar range of interests. But Jobs could focus and apply his abilities in a way that served other people. A lot of other people. )

If anything, child prodigies might have a real disadvantage here. What they learn growing up – what all children learn – is how to please the people in their lives in order to get what they need to survive.

But pleasing people isn’t the same thing as serving them. You please people in order to get what you need (attention; approval). You serve people in order to give them what they need – whether or not they even know that they need it. You can do this because you’ve mastered your gift so well that you’ve transcended both knowledge and technique; they’ve become an extension of you, the Force to your Jedi Knight; you’re no longer imitating what’s already out there but manifesting some aspect of your soul. You are creating something new, whether it’s a company, a solution or a work of art.

You solve a problem.

You show people something new.

(Or reframe something old so that it’s new again.)

You open up the world. You educate, entertain, enlighten.

You create an experience. You move people to awe.


What we often think of as an independent unit, a gift, is actually a bundle of things: a convergence of certain traits, qualities, abilities, and knowledge, innate and learned, natural and practiced, present at birth and acquired slowly over time. It is then fitted to the world like a key into a lock.

You have to find the key.

And then you have to find the lock.

Nov 11, 2013

6 comments · Add Yours

Wow. I have enjoyed your emails since subscribing. But this one really hit me hard, as a girl who took on the identity of GREAT WRITER easily but has struggled to figure out why jobs that do use my writing skills still don’t seem to be going deep enough. Thank you for making me think! And see through new eyes.


Your distinction between pleasing people and serving people is so deep, and so right. There’s so much personal history that I can unpack in just that observation. Thank you.


ah, justine, this especially resonates:

“In truth, our natural talents are things that come so easily to us that we don’t think anything of them. We assume that everybody can do “it”, if we recognize “it” as an ability at all.”

thank you for this.



Justine, this is some of the best thinking on talent, giftedness, and calling I have read in a long time.

“But pleasing people isn’t the same thing as serving them.”

Holy cow, how that truth by itself might change the way we decide what we are going to say to the world, if we thought more about what we can say that might actually challenge people toward growth as opposed to worrying about whether they are going to be happy with us for saying it.

Awesome post. Thank you!


Justine…I’m am forever grateful to the journey that led me to find you and your art. I sat down about 3 hours ago to read a post or two on your blog and found myself lost in a world of ideas, inspiration & perspective I thought only I had. I can’t wait to dive even deeper into your work.

Just like those before me, I really related to your “pleasing” versus “serving” idea.

Its been a long journey, but I myself have just recently discovered the difference between the two and how to transition myself into a “people server” versus a “people pleaser”. Before reading this post, I would have never thought my often overwhelming desire to help others as such a desired trait (maybe even skill). I used to refer to myself as a “people pleaser” and did so in the form of it being a fault of mine. Now I can grow even more comfortable with that side of me as long as I remember I am there to serve them and not necessarily make them happy and like me.

About a month ago, I started ensuring each new client relationship with the same statement. A warning if you will…

“I don’t always say what you want to hear, but I’ll always say what I believe you need to hear”.

And while the execution of that statement/warning isn’t always easy to follow through with and is forever a work in progress, it has apparently; based on direct feedback as well as murmurs from the peanut gallery; become an asset for which people have sought me out.

Thank you for putting into words a personal experience & life lesson that has changed my way of thinking and provided me with the confidence needed to deliver at the level others have come to expect from me. Not to mention the level I expect from myself.

Again, thank you for “going there”. I have a feeling this won’t be the first and only time you springboard a reaction and response from me.

Keep creating!



Wow! I really like how you point out that a gift is a collection of things. I just had this realization recently and wrote a post about it. I thought I wasn’t good at something and it turns out I am naturally gifted at it.


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