This week on Twitter, the writer Nicole Cliffe launched a curious, enthralling conversation about personal “superpowers.”
It was sparked by a tweet in which Cliffe explained that she reads much faster than most people, because she absorbs the words paragraph by paragraph, not line by line. The words, she said, “all go in my brain together and it sorts them out for me almost instantly.”
Then, feeling self-conscious after publicizing her “visual glitch,” she asked that others share their own odd, rare ability. The responses were fantastic, displaying the breadth of quirky sensory and perception talents that—despite their specificity— were rarely unique to one person.
Cliffe’s paragraph absorption is obviously a handy tool in her writing career, as is journalist Stephanie Nolen’s ability to follow discussions people around her are having, even as she fully participates in another, direct conversation.
For most of us, our “superpowers” are divided between different categories: the party trick (like guessing the time with staggering accuracy, sensing when a phone is about to ring, or eyeballing a car trunk and knowing immediately how much stuff you can pack into it, among the other responses to Cliffe’s call for talents) and the one extraordinary strength that has a more significant impact on your life (like having total recall of faces or names). The latter has probably helped define your relationships, and propel, or protect, your career.
Both are worth understanding as a way to deepen your self-awareness, and your relationship to work itself.
As it happens, Donald Glover described his career-boosting skill in a recently published New Yorker profile. The multitalented actor and musician, who created the critically acclaimed television drama Atlanta, says his gift is an ability to decode reality, which he sees as simply “a program” to master.
“I learn fast—I figured out the algorithm,” he tells writer Tad Friend, adding that he learned this about himself at age 10:
I realized, if I want to be good at P.E., I have to be good at basketball. So I went home and shot baskets in our driveway for six hours, until my mother called me in. The next day, I was good enough that you wouldn’t notice I was bad. And I realized my superpower.
Glover does seem to work at superhero pace, with phenomenal success, writing for TV, doing stand-up comedy, acting, directing, and making music as Childish Gambino. All of it appears to come naturally to him, say friends interviewed for the story, but there is a learning curve, as Glover himself admits.
To explain why he accepted an insignificant role in last year’s Spider-Man: Homecoming, given his stardom and opportunities, Glover replies, “I learn so much. I learn how Marvel movies work, how to handle guest stars, how to make execs happy when they come on set. I gain some of your power.”
To be sure, Glover’s intense, determined way of teaching himself to do something is a superpower shared by other high achievers, including athletes, musicians, and writers. It’s probably also of particular use to someone who is perpetually viewed as an outsider, whether because of race, class, or gender, for instance. It can be a way of forcing oneself into an exclusive club, like mainstream network TV, when institutions are not exactly inviting you in. (Glover says he got the green light for Atlanta by “trojan-ing” FX. He sold it as a buddy comedy.)
Your “superpower” on the job also might have been honed through your way of responding to a situation or family dynamic, according to psychologists who have studied the connection between early family life and how we operate as adults in the workplace. Whatever your talent is—gracefully navigating group discussions, being comfortable or productive with solitude and quiet, or predicting exactly how someone will respond to a piece of news—it just might stem from something you gained in a specific set of circumstances, or modeled after someone else. And it might affect what role you pursue in an organization or how you go about building your career.
In The New Yorker piece, Glover, who cites Elon Musk as the only person he looks up to, speaks of himself as a Jesus figure. The rest of us don’t need to go that far. But, hokey as it may sound, there is something powerful about understanding what your superpower is and naming it—even if only to yourself.