Q&AA on Finding a Valuable Skill


Over the next few weeks, I’ll be touring India and then traveling elsewhere in the world. While I’m away, we’ll be publishing a new series of Questions and Attempted Answers (Q&AA) from readers. I’ll share my answer, and you’re invited to share an answer of your own as well.

Today’s question comes from Jan, who writes in from Belgium.

“I understand the importance of focusing on a valuable skill, but I’m not sure that I have any such thing. There are a lot of things I like to do, but nothing I feel especially passionate about or think that I do better than anyone else. I went to university and earned a degree, but I didn’t have any business training. What do I do?”

Great question. Here’s my attempted answer →

A core principle of building a small business in the new economy is that everyone’s good at something that can be transformed into a successful project. If you’re not sure what your specific skills are, there are a couple of approaches you can take.

Approach #1: Focus on the questions that people ask you.

When a lot of people ask you the same kinds of questions, it shows that there is a demand for a topic in which you are a perceived authority. Many businesses are created by people who pay attention to what other people want to learn from them. Being a good listener is important for much of life, and it helps in business too.

Regular readers may be tired of hearing this, but I’ll hammer this point over and over since it is frequently overlooked by aspiring entrepreneurs: You simply MUST focus on the core point of how your skill or passion is useful to other people. This is the lesson of convergence that many lifestyle businesses are built upon.

Approach #2: Once you identify a broad skill, think more about the process of skill transformation.

Just as everyone’s good at something, if you’re good at one thing you’re probably good at something else—and the “something else” may be where the business model lies.

Susannah created a popular photography course that became a full-time project by helping others to explore life through art.

Chandoo (from here in India!) created a highly-profitable business helping people use spreadsheets more effectively in their work.

Mignon created a network of “Quick and Dirty Tips” to help people improve their lives through better writing and language, as well as other topics as the business grew.

Each of these people learned to package their skills in a marketable way while focusing on helping others, and each of these businesses now produces a significant income.

Your Turn: What Would You Suggest?

Feel free to share your advice or experience in the comments. I’ll be speaking at another event in Delhi today, then heading over to Agra for the last of seven cities on the #100startup tour of India.


*Tickets are now available to the AONC Holiday Party! If you’ll be in Portland on December 28, come and celebrate with a fun group of unconventional people.

Image: Mait

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  • Dan Garner says:

    If you aren’t the best at something marketable then shrink your world or specialize until you are the best. Example you are a welder. If you are not the best in the word, maybe you can be the best in your town. If you aren’t the best welder in town then maybe you can be the only one that offers heliarc services.

    Dan Garner

  • Lana says:

    Some of my ideas came when I’d just listen to people complain about something they didn’t know or have, and I thought, “wow, I’m knowledge about this. I could feel this niche.” If you don’t understand business, that’s okay. Start by creating the protect. Then learn how to market the product. recently had a free three week course on getting started marketing. So create something, and then each week focus on a small way to market it. Eventually you will get going.

    Also, bounce off product ideas with friends.

  • Amy Knapp says:

    A doozy, indeed. If you don’t have anything you are particularly passionate about, I say, what is the work that makes you FEEL good? What kind of books really light your fire? How do you want to feel and is the work that will take you there? I’d start with that.

  • Willow says:

    This is a great Q&AA – the question is one I’ve often thought about myself (I’m okay in many areas, but where am I great?). The answer still alludes me a little, because the things I think I have the most passion for are things I don’t have authority in… yet. In a case like this, I suppose it takes time, patience, and putting oneself out there to achieve the authority necessary.

    I think in many cases, there’s room for trial and error. If you aren’t sure, pick something and give it a try. If you don’t feel strongly about it after a while, pick something else. There are probably more possible answers to the question than there may seem, and you just have to be willing to put yourself out there (and perhaps risk a little of your time and effort) to see where things lead.

  • Gregg Rodriguez says:

    When I finally graduate college after 10 years, I didn’t know what I wanted to do or what I was good at. I had excellent writing skills and I knew I wanted to do something creative and make money doing it some day. Unfortunately, I had no business background, so companies were reluctant to hire me. I decided to create a plan to get myself hired by a good company within a year: I read some business books, took a couple of business classes, studied the company, and basically learned the language of business just to get me in the door. I figured I could learn more about business once I got hired–and I did. I think the important thing is to just take action. Start working at any job and let it be a learning adventure–and more importantly be open to where that journey may take you. Ten years later I am a successful consultant to FORTUNE 500 companies–and I get to do some of the creative stuff I love and get paid for it. Bottom line:”Focus on the journey, not the destination.”

  • Joseph Bernard says:

    That sound like a big question as far a how you will shape your life.

    Two ideas:
    What causes you expand, open up, makes you feel alive? When the body opens, the energy flows, that is an indicator of what has potential to be worth exploring. The opposite would be what causes you to close down or contract. Move towards what feels like Yes, what has heart for you.

    When you get quiet and listen inward beyond the busy noise of the mind what does your soul/higher nature have to say when you ask it – what should I do with my life or what is my purpose? Your inner wisdom is always there waiting if you take the time to be quiet and become aware.

    We all need you to do you as best you can. It will be an awesome journey.

  • Antonia Lo Giudice says:

    Hi Jan, Chris’ first approach is a very important and useful one. I have seen this one over and over again…Let me share an example: A friend of mine had been working for a very well respected corporate company. Although she had a pretty healthy salary and benefits, she was miserable. For years, she kept wondering what she could do, what skill she had that people had a need for. While she working at that company, she had helped another friend plan her wedding. She LOVED doing it. At the wedding, guests asked who the bride’s wedding planner was. From this wedding, she received 3 other requests to help plan their weddings. Can you believe, she never saw this an opportunity, thinking that it was just a hobby!! Anyway, after many long talks, she finally decided to give it a shot. She started off slow, as a side thing, giving business cards. Today, this is her business. Furthermore, she is making more money than she did at that company.

  • Art B. says:

    I like Dan’s comment. I would recommend being good at two things, one that few want to be, like a plumber or window cleaner or tree surgeon or mechanic, in a situation where you can be self employed and maximize your time to money ratios.
    The other, to be an artist. Everyone is an artist so you will have to be your self in the most personal profound way. Whether you make music or visual art or poetry or something which has no label, you must do it with all your heart. Then you must do with your creation the bravest thing, you must share it. Peace!

  • ASJ says:

    I’m going to piggy-back on what Lana said above:
    Go ahead and create projects you like a lot. But then look at each one and see which one(s) might serve a particular market. See if any project could be an answer to a market’s need. Do a little research and find out if your project appears in special magazines and/or articles. If it does, you might be onto something. Of course, then your real work and marketing will begin……

  • Wyman Crane says:

    I have a free newsletter with four topics I know a lot about but far from being an expert. I am forming a small mastermind and will have each member specialize in one of the topics. We can all learn from the deeper resource each does.

    Working together we can share the profits of any products we create or have seperate incomes from our own specialty.

    The mastermind can also help you find a topic of passion.

  • Carla Wiersema says:

    I experience this exact same thing myself. Having transitioned careers from chemist to microbiologist to business improvement manager to economic development adviser to product marketing manager to starting my own company.

    As a result of never being the expert of anything, I’ve become an expert on asking the right questions and depending on the creativity of others to solve problems.

    There’s value in not being an expert because you can bring information and ideas out of others that they never knew they were capable of.

  • Casey Berman says:

    Great post Chris. When I work with unsatisfied attorneys in leaving the law to pursue more satisfying careers, I usually point to the three following questions as a good structure to really identify those skills and strengths that can inform their personal and professional pursuits.

    1. What are you already doing (or would you do) for free to help people? This points to what you enjoy. These activities you do for free can shed light on what the skills are you like. You are doing them pro bono – you likely enjoy them and are fairly proficient (if not great) at them.

    2. For what type of advice do people come to you? This speaks to what comes naturally to you and what people value. Think about right now, about back wit your family, in high school, college, graduate school, professionally. What do people come to you for? This can provide insight into what you inherently do well and the value people think you bring to them when they have a problem to solve.

    3. What do people compliment you on? This points to your strengths. When you list and explore some of your positive traits this lets you actually internalize what it is you are good at and act upon this.

    Hope this helps.

  • Cynthia Wylie says:

    Answer these four questions:
    1. How have I made the most money in my life?
    2. In what way would I like to give back to society?
    3. Where do I think the market/economy/future is going and how can I best take advantage of that?
    4. What do I do where I lose track of time?

    Try to find the thing or couple things where these overlap.

  • Marti DeMoss says:

    Buy a small journal and begin exploring. At least once each week, go somewhere new (could be an art store or gallery, a retail shop, a coffee bar… probably NOT the mall, but could be). The idea is to keep track of what excites you. What stimulates your brain? What are you drawn to and what kind of people are you drawn to. These are your peeps, and for starters, you need to start hanging with them!

  • Morringhan says:

    I just sort of always thought “one should do many things, and none of them well”.
    Never even occurred to me to focus on one specific skill.

  • Kashif says:

    I have learned it from you (rather you helped bringing that information from deep down my subconscious to concious level) that every persona has a skill. Even the most mundane and lazy ones have a skill or two which they keep well hidden. Its up to us, as individuals, to seek and sharpen those skills – for benefit of ourselves as well as the general community.

    If I can add to it, I would say that to me, a passion can easily be nurtured and transformed into a skill. For example, if I love Biryani (a spicy rice based delicacy from the South Asia), I can transform that affection into a skill and become an expert on how to cook Biryani, review various flavours, share recipes and generally guide people about that. But if I am not passionate about the subject, I may not become a skilled user of it, and could not help others out.

  • Judith says:

    Great post and truly interesting comments! Maybe one addition because I am just finding out about that myself: Even when you do something you love, making money with it might require doing things you love less. I love my job but I am not happy when I have to discuss prices or approach new customers. Still, it’s like learning an instrument. It will be tedious at times but the music makes it all worthwhile! My point is: When you find something you really like to do and then you find out there are aspects that you find tiresome, don’t give up at once. It doesn’t automatically mean you’re on the wrong track. If you are doing the right thing, you won’t mind the less pleasant bits after a while.

  • Pete Worrell says:

    Chris: You are hitting on a subject that I have passionately studied for over twenty five years. We all have what Dan Sullivan calls Unique Ability. It is without a doubt one of the most important pieces of self knowledge we can gain. It relates to what Mike Czikszentmihalyi calls “FLOW”. How can you allocate your personal energy most effectively to bring value to others or to create Flow in your life if you do not know what your Unique Ability is? It may be the thing that you always do that other people say “wow, you are so good at that”, and you think to yourself “that was easy”. You will want to spend serious time (months, even years) making sure you understand your UA, because once you understand, it will influence the work you are called to do, the career you choose, the organization you choose to work with. You can assess your own UA by using some of the Kolbe tests on line, and Tom Rath’s work with StrengthsFinder– hell you can do what I did 15 years ago which was to write an email to 24 of my closest professional friends and ask them what they thought was my UA and also what they thought I was incompetent at! Fun responses; very confirming of my own thoughts.


  • Sarah Russell says:

    Not sure if this is the case with the question’s author, but I think a lot of people get bogged down in thinking that their valuable skill needs to be something that they’re absolutely stupendous at doing. And that if there isn’t anything that they feel they’ve attained (or have the potential to attain) this level of mastery with, then they’re doomed to a life of mediocrity.

    In my case, I make a living as a writer. I’m a good writer, but not a great one – and I certainly don’t see writing as some kind of “life calling.” It’s a skill that I have that people are willing to pay for, so for me, writing became the route through which I could escape the corporate lifestyle.

    I guess what I’m saying is, don’t overthink things. We all have things that we’re good at, and finding the intersection of these skills, what we enjoy doing and what people are willing to pay for doesn’t necessarily require expert-level status – just some self-exploration and experimentation 🙂

  • Tonya Keitt Kalule says:

    What worked for me after years and years of conditioning, was to look at my life and find the things that were consistent. What has always been a part of my life. For me it was writing and photography, then I had to be creative in how I wanted to use those skills. Sometimes when you find those consistencies you really have to find the skill-set and perfect it, and see if you ignite that passion.

  • Tom McCallum says:

    This is very dear to my heart. One area I specialise in as a Business Coach is helping people and businesses identify their core assets.

    To give just a couple of ideas, ask yourselves these two questions that can help you on the process of identifying your assets :
    – What I am I brilliant at ?
    – What do I find easy that others find difficult ?

  • Kimberly says:

    I have two suggestions for finding “the skill,” and these overlaps with what some commenters have already said:

    1. Focus not on what you love, but what you are obsessed with. What do you read/think/talk about when no one in paying you to do so? Indeed, what have you pursued when others thought it odd or weird or didn’t see the use of it? That doesn’t mean you’ll make a living with that skill, but you’ll be more likely to work on it.

    2. What do people compliment you on? I don’t mean looks (unless you want to be a supermodel); I mean, do you find you get the most positive feedback from others you respect when you give a talk? Write a paper? Solve a problem? Organize a party? Fix a car? Give someone advice? Whatever it is, I find that’s a good reality check for your skills and a way to carve out a niche that you can definitely make money with, because you’re doing something well in a way that others perceive the value of it.

  • Louisa says:

    maybe you make it too easy: I am often asked for dogsitting and kid sitting just because my best friends are single mums, I often give away strategic advice to friends and collegues which I should not do to often because it does not correspond to my personality and completely drains me out like teaching which should correspond to my personality….so I am only left with more question marks than before

  • Tonia says:

    Talk to most people gainfully employed and they will tell you they are using their skills (at least some of them) . . . and yet they are unhappy doing so for something they care nothing about, something for which they have no passion. So let’s not settle for using only the skills we’ve developed when we create our vision. Oftentimes what we are skilled at does not make our heart sing. What makes our heart sing is passion and purpose. While the origin of the notion of life’s purpose dates back to the 9th century BCE, nothing prepares us to find it today, not our school counselors or our degrees. But it is likely that finding our life’s purpose is the KEY to creating the life we really want. Our purpose is a calling, an accumulation of the gifts and talents we are hard-pressed to discover coupled with what matters, drives and inspires us. When we find it we are taken over by a powerful urge to create and achieve. When we do it we create a blur between work and play. But courage, introspection and tenacity are required to identify our calling. Given fear of failing, feelings of unworthiness, sometimes a lack of patience, it’s easier to settle for the comfort of a portfolio of skill.

  • Bobby Galvan says:

    It’s amazing how the Internet has lowered the entry-barriers for sustainable businesses to be built around anything at all that provides value to others. It always seemed as if one had to train and learn a particular skill to make an income. Now one can market their ability to empathize, connect others, tell stories, provide laughs, inspire or motivate. What a cool world we live in.

  • Maria says:

    Hi Chris,

    Your post was great, though I’d like to suggest another way you can identify marketable skills: instead of looking at the questions people ask you, take stock of what you do during the day/week/month. People would ask me questions, but they would be about something like, “What’s the probability of XYZ doing this?” But I found that other people would tell me about so and so who just died, and they’re really upset about it. So now I’m looking at counseling as a career option.

  • Ton Bil says:

    To all Jans who can’t chose that one thing to do passionately or super-skillfully, but who need to earn a living.

    First: do not sit still. Go to do some work and sustain yourself.

    Next, find out with whom you like to work most. Is it “anyone interested in unconventional living”, like Chris here does? (Read his essay 279 Days.) Is it kids aged 16 to 18? Or is it human rights defenders? …

    Your “affinity” will lead you to the discovery of whom you will serve, with one or more of the things you are skilled at. By targeting this group, you will love your work for as long as you sympathize with these people. You’ll become specialized, engaged, satisfied and appreciated for your work. Good luck to you all!

  • Teodora says:

    I never thought like this to focus on what people are asking me 🙂 For me this was inspiring, as I am trying to establish what my online business should be about. I was doing an intense search in my mind to see what my main skills are and I was a bit scared that I have to many skills or interests. The answer came to me after I read this and I know now that my main skill is that I am a great listener and I will try to make it some how my new business.

  • Orrin says:

    Heya Chris,

    just finished reading your 279 days book – thank for sharing it. I’m hoping to really be able to build an audience for myself over the next few years and I got a lot out of the advice you shared.

    It’s interesting you talk about finding a valuable skill for when you haven’t identified one yet. I sometimes feel I’m at the other end of that spectrum. I know I’ve got a whole bunch of valuable skills and I can’t quite decide which one I’m most passionate about pursuing… or which one would be most worthwhile to pursue.

  • Dot Olonovich says:

    This is a very common problem. Someone I’m close with has this problem because of negativity from his parents when he was growing up. In the past he stopped himself from experiencing life fully since it’s so uncomfortable for him to be happy and enthusiastic!

    He didn’t know what he was interested in. So, he went out and tried doing a whole bunch of things he thought might be possibilities. It was uncomfortable. And liberating. He found some things he disliked. And he did find some things that made his heart come alive. He’s happy!

    Trial and error is the basis of most good decisions. Just start trying things out – go where other people are and listen and talk. When you find the thing that sets your heart on fire, keep going back, take a year or two and become the expert and build your relationships. Then you don’t have to go looking for opportunities. They come find you.

  • Ann Söderblom says:

    I recently discovered a highly profitable and fun skill that I have now built a business around: Corporate graphic design and start-up consultation. I think the most important filter to apply when looking for a profitable skill is the fun level and how much it excites you.

    If you love to create design, write, blog, develop or some other work it will show and your customer will be attracted to your enthusiasm. Also, when you get a few clients and eventually get into the rhythm, its better to actually enjoy doing those things on a regular basis. Not sure how clear that was :o)
    Thanks for a great blog! keep up the good work.

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    If you are able to figure out what you are good at, then nothing can stop you becoming the no. 1 in that things. PERIOD
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  • Susan says:

    Jan, I wonder if there is something you would love to do but aren’t letting yourself embrace it. Maybe you are concerned you’ll commit to something you’re spectacular at because you think you’ll get bored. My advice is don’t get bogged down in the perfect idea, pick something, anything that interests you or that you would like to share and use it as an experiment. See what feels right and what needs to change, then change it! Then do it again!

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  • Hayley White says:

    When we find our true passion, its the one that we need to follow, otherwise, in the long run, we just feel disappointed and regretful. I just think that your approach is a great and unique one. Really like the idea that we should think what people ask us the most. Nice thinking. Thank you for sharing friend.


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