For the first two decades of our lives, everyone around us emphasizes learning. We grow and learn on a fixed calendar at that age; people ask us what grade we’re in and where we go to school. But after college, when school can be permanently out for summer, a lot of us tend to eschew continual learning for career advancement—often ignoring the fact that the two are inextricably linked.
It’s easy to get caught up in the day-to-day work of our jobs without thinking about how we can level up or grow within our roles. Sometimes that stagnation develops into a full-blown fear of learning curves. It’s important to realize that it’s never too late to find the motivation to get started on self-improvement and/or career development. In many cases, the steeper the learning curve, the bigger the rewards, so you owe it to yourself to maximize your potential.
The hardest part is just getting started. As we all look to embrace this new stage of post-pandemic life, now is the perfect time to also amp up a professional skill. But the first step is to do your homework.
1. Determine what skills you want to learn and why.
As we get older, we tend to lament that we didn’t get to learn certain software, travel to exotic locations, meet famous people, or experience particular events. That’s a lame lament, though, because it depletes your incentives and your motivation. Don’t talk yourself into believing that there’s an expiration date on experience. As long as you keep opening the doors to professional development, you’ll have opportunities to continue advancing. Start by choosing wisely. What would give your career a major boost?
Make a list of the proficiencies and knowledge that would deliver the greatest return on investment for you (not just in terms of salary but also in terms of your sense of self-worth), and then enlist some help from mentors and online thought leaders to help flesh it out. Perhaps you work in marketing and want a better grasp of search engine optimization. Maybe you work in finance and want to understand all the complexities around cryptocurrencies. Soft skills matter too: Become a better leader, become a better listener. Those small steps of research often lead to big professional leaps.
Your bubble of pandemic friends can be helpful too. “If you have trouble determining your strongest skills, consider turning to those who know you best. Go to your friends, family, or co-workers and ask them to help you figure out your strengths,” says Anthony Hartzog, co-founder of the personal finance site The Hartrimony. “You can also look at your previous experience. What is a question that people always come to you with? For us, it was paying off debt … so we built an online course for paying off debt.”
2. Set SMART goals to help keep track of your progress.
Your goals might be lofty or simple in nature, but they must be SMART: specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, and timebound. Avoid the temptation to set finish lines that are too far off in the future; it’s better to break a process into smaller chunks and evaluate progress in, say, quarterly or even weekly intervals in order to stay on track and pivot as necessary.
The more maintenance you perform during these professional development sessions, the more successful they will be. Regular check-ins with yourself and any stakeholders keep you motivated and hold you accountable. Chart your progress and always be thinking about ways to make it more efficient. But make sure to be gracious with yourself along the way.
“Have a midday check-in,” advises L’areal Lipkins, author of A Woman with Vision. “Around noon, assess your thoughts and any anxiety you may be feeling. Stay on track by picturing what your life would be like if you already were where you want to be. What beliefs and behaviors would you need to have? Then do those things now.”
3. Explore using emerging technologies to learn new skills.
New tools and technologies can be your best friends as you work on exercising your professional muscles, and it helps you double up on professional development because mastering the learning delivery system is itself a chance to build skills. The business world spins faster than ever, and nascent technologies are a big part of that rapid evolution.
“Emerging technologies such as AR and VR systems can remove the distance between employees and create an immersive environment that lets them collaborate, experiment, train and work with products without ever being near one another,” says Saagar Govil, chairman and CEO of AR and VR technology company Cemtrex. “The potential for advanced technologies to improve productivity is major, as long as leaders are willing to give them a try.”
Whether at your company or within your LinkedIn network, reach out and ask about mentorship opportunities. This is an old-fashioned business best practice that will never go out of style: Experienced workers pass on institutional knowledge and career advice to those on their way up the ladder. It’s how society pushes forward; if those before us didn’t outline how things really worked, we would have fizzled out of existence long ago.
Before you put yourself in apprentice mode, make sure you’re approaching a mentor who has not only achieved a professional goal that you’re aspiring to but who also shares your values, with a personality that will enhance your enthusiasm for learning. Don’t be nervous about asking respected colleagues about being your mentor; they’ll probably be honored and flattered, and more than likely incredibly excited about sharing what they know with an eager listener. If not, there’s no harm done; at least you’ve communicated your eagerness to grow.
“Traditional one-on-one mentoring is more personal, with intimate and in-depth conversations, but this type of mentoring may not be right for every situation,” says Kathie Patterson, chief human resources officer at Ally Financial in Detroit. “It depends on what you need and what you’re working toward.”
Even if you told yourself school was out when you received your diploma, your opportunities to learn new career skills have never been more abundant. Strong personal brands make learning a life-long habit. Remember, knowledge is power—accumulate both and work toward some new professional rewards for the rest of 2021. The longer you wait, the steeper the curve, so integrate it into your continual career management plan.