The Not-So-Secret to Professional Growth: Continuous Learning
Continuous Learning is the Key to Professional Growth
The single, most impactful thing you can do to advance your career is to never. stop. learning.
People tend to get older and they get comfortable, they get complacent. They think they've reached the top and feel like it's time to put things in cruise control and learning turns up in the rear-view mirror.
So, they stop putting in the effort to learn new things. To learn from others who have already done what they're doing; people who made the mistakes you will inevitably make if you don't know to look out for them.
Next thing they know, the world has blazed past them and they're left in the dust.
I Don't Have Time
How could you possibly continue to learn? You don't have the time.
Ha! You don't have the time! You know that's bullshit. I know that's bullshit. Everyone knows. But you continue to tell yourself (and others) this because it makes you feel better about not doing it. You feel like that's an acceptable out. Who would possibly question how busy you really are? Probably no one.
For most of my career I've been doing two things at once. My 'day job' and something else I've found fun, stimulating, and could learn from.
When I was going through grad school, getting my MBA, I was working full-time, going to school in the evenings and also started a side business - a coffee subscription service. I shouldn't have had the time according to other people and their definition of "enough time".
Somehow, I made it work. I learned a TON. I still had a life. Hell, I spent every single Sunday - all Sunday long - watching football in the fall. I completely took an entire day out of the rotation and still had the time to do everything.
My point is, we all have the same amount of time. It's how you prioritize and manage that time is what will ultimately make you successful.
You Can Learn Many Different Ways
Continuous learning doesn't even have to be all about your profession all the time. You can learn from reading fiction. By listening to people's point of views that you may not agree with, but you have to actually listen fully - no selective listening.
It can mean trying something you've never done before. Going somewhere you've never been before.
I've created a podcast. Never done it. Don't really know what I'm doing. I'll look back in a year or two and probably cringe at some of the rookie mistakes I've made. But I'm stepping out of my comfort zone, diving into as much information as I can about how to do it.
At the end of the day, you also have to just do it. You have to learn as you go. You're gonna make mistakes. There's no doubt about that. Figuring out how to fix those mistakes is a huge learning opportunity. Figuring out why they happened and how to prevent them in the future. Huge learning opportunity.
Some people are so afraid to fail that they don't even try. They're missing out on the single, most impactful way to learn. Because they're afraid. Of what? I don't know.
Learning Opens Doors
Let me tell you a quick story. At one point of my career I was entranced with the prestige that went along with working for a company like Microsoft. I lived in Seattle and they were always a company I admired and thought I could build a long career with. I probably interviewed with Microsoft at least five times - for FTE and contract roles. Never got an offer.
Then, when I felt like that 'goal' was dead and I was feeling pretty burnt out and done with recruiting I decided to change careers and get into marketing. I had a MBA in marketing. Paid a lot to get it and thought it was time to put it to use.
This was around 2009. Social media was just starting and was a pretty new thing. I saw a huge opportunity around social and marketing and decided to focus there. I started a consulting business and dove right in. Spent as much time as I could learning.
A couple of years later I decided to give Microsoft another try and put my name in the hat for a contract role. Had the phone interview and got an offer. What changed? My experience with social media was the key that finally opened that door. Who would have thought?!
A Plethora of Ways to Learn
There has probably been no other time in the history of mankind in which it has been as easy as it is not to continuously learn. No matter what profession you're in - or want to be in - there are no shortage of blogs, vlogs, newsletters, Twitter peeps, and more.
Here's a brief list of some of the ways you can plug continuous learning into your life:
As I just mentioned, blogs are a great way to learn. They're always talking about the latest and greatest things, regardless of market. Many times, they are structured as 'how-to' articles and walk you through some of the more tactical aspects of your profession.
It can be a little more difficult nowadays to find valuable webinars since they're more times than not infomercials disguised as webinars. However, occasionally you can find an organization that consistently puts out good, educational webinars. Just be ready to click 'unsubscribe' on the marketing emails you're sure to received daily after the webinar.
I've found that many of the webinars I come across cover very basic, high-level topics and I'm more interested in strategies and deeper dives. But, when I first was starting out basic and high-level was exactly what I needed.
Videos, like blogs, can take many different formats. It's so easy to create videos with really good production value on a small budget that more and more organizations are able to create good video content for learning.
Just go to YouTube and search for whatever profession you're interested in and a whole host of options will pop up.
More traditional learning platforms like Coursera and Udemy usually have a cost and require more of a commitment on a weekly basis to get the most out of it. Regardless, both are great for learning new skills. I've taken analytics courses, negotiation courses, time management courses, and content writing courses on both platforms. They're great but it's been very difficult to stick with them for the amount of time needed to really benefit from them.
You may or may not have ever heard the term 'stretch assignment'. I don't think I had heard of it until I worked at Microsoft. It's essentially working on an assignment, project, or task as part of another team or group within your company that is outside of your current role and responsibility. At a company like Microsoft, for example, when I was a recruiter but wanted to gain experience in program management or marketing, I could have reached out to another team and helped out on a project in one of those areas to gain some cross-functional experience. That is if your manager will agree to it. Not always the case and it's disappointing that it's not always an option. But I guess that's why I don't work for a large corporation right now. Not saying that I never will again, but right now I enjoy getting my hands dirty in a lot of different areas and I feel like you're more likely to get pigeon-holed at a large company. That's just been my experience.
I would highly recommend that everyone work with and get to know a mentor. They can be an extremely valuable resource to learn from. They could someone in a role you aspire to be in, or they could be a peer who has been really successful. If you're stuck on a project you can ask if they've run into a similar situation and how they got around it.
It's often easier to be more transparent and open with a mentor than it could be with your current manager or peers because you never know how they will interpret your questions. You can also ask questions you would never ask your manager or peers and get honest feedback.
Good, Old Fashioned Books
Ah. Good, old books. I'm always buying and reading books. My wife gets pretty annoyed, but I've loved books for as long as I could remember. As a kid, one of my favorite places to go was the Shelby County Library in my hometown of Shelbyville, IN. LOVED that place!
Now, 40-some years later, not a damn thing has changed. I actually went to a Barnes and Noble last week for the first time in a long time and I could have spent hours. If it weren't for my wife saying "OK, we've been here long enough and it's time to go" I would have stayed there for hours.
Similar to online course platforms like Coursera, books require a decent time commitment. Unless they're more of a reference-type material that you skim and flip from section to section based on the info you need.
Memberships and Organizations
Finally, there are memberships and organizations. Memberships usually include some kind of printed magazine or content along with email newsletters and online communities of professionals that you can learn from and network with.
Local organizations are also a great thing to be a part of because you can make meaningful connections in your city that could lead your career down paths that you never considered or expected. I've noticed throughout the years that good things always happen when you're just visible. By visible I mean getting out and meeting people. There are other ways to be visible and I plan on creating a blog and podcast on that topic alone. Stay tuned!
Change or Die
People who are also continuous learners, also deal with change easier. In fact, I would venture to guess that they also enact change when it's needed because they're more aware of the environment they're in - both economically and competitively. And we all know the old saying in business - "change or die."
So, get out there and start reading blogs. Sign up for webinars. Watch videos. Sign up for a Coursera or Udemy course. Take on a stretch assignment at work (or personally) that takes you outside of your comfort zone. Something you will inevitably make mistakes doing. And absolutely, positively, no matter what….DON'T BE AFRAID TO FAIL.
So, I've already mentioned that 'not enough time' should never be an excuse or reason for not being able to learn new things or build upon what you already know. In one of my upcoming blog posts/podcast episodes I'm going to share some time-management hacks that will permanently erase this bullshit, sub-conscious excuse from your vocabulary.
As I also mentioned, I'll also talk about being 'visible' in yet another post and podcast. Lots of good topics on tap - not to mention upcoming interviews.
Let's Stay Connected
Until next time. Keep it real and keep on learning.
I want to hear your questions or recommendations for upcoming topics you'd like me to cover in future podcasts. Hop on board and let's make this the best damn career growth and professional development podcast on the planet - well, at least in North America.