My favorite quote of all time is, “It’s never too late to be what you might have been.” I even have it tattooed on my forearm—not kidding (see pic below). But here’s the thing: This adage applies only to those who have the fortitude and foresight to constantly develop themselves for what’s next.
Humans are procrastinators. We are very talented at putting off investments that cost us time today but don’t pay off until long into the future, especially when the payoff seems abstract. There is no place I see this more than in people’s neglect of their own training, development, and professional growth.
Our nature keeps us from putting aside time every day for our own learning and holds us back from reaching our potential—and let me tell you, I’ve seen this mistake come back to haunt many a senior professional. They haven’t kept up on the latest technologies, they’re uncomfortable with digital and social media, they haven’t read a new business book in years, they just skim the occasional article, they let their professional connections languish, they make excuses for why they can’t get to local networking events, and they don’t reserve time for creative reflection and learning. They probably aren’t reading LinkedIn Pulse blogs (ha ha). Then they wonder why the best jobs seem out of reach, why their salaries are headed in the wrong direction, and why their self-esteem is in the dumps.
I’m begging—please don’t fall into this trap. Be more relevant the longer you stay in your career, not less. Be a role model and an inspirational lifelong learner whose ideas and skill sets are in demand.
Here are some fun, affordable ways to keep your mind sharp and give your future self a leg up:
- Join a business book club. If you live in a well-populated area and don’t have a book club available to you, start one. If you live and work more remotely, join a Goodreads virtual book club with a discussion board. If you’re based in Seattle, join the Yesler/Projectline Book Club (it’s free!). You may not be able to commit to reading a book every single month, but I’ll bet you could find a way to read 5–8 each year on topics relevant to your work, career, passions, and skills. The best part is that you’re more likely to retain what you learn when you discuss it with others. New information is stickier when you make connections and synthesize it with other bits you’ve read over the years. And if the club is worth its weight, there will likely be snacks and wine. I’ve been a member of our book club for almost seven years and it is a joy to attend, even if I haven’t finished the book. I get more from the 90-minute gathering than I would from a dozen research articles. Not a reader? Join Audible and make the most of your commute.
- Learn a new technology each quarter. Pick one application, platform, or emerging technology that you are unfamiliar with and become more familiar. You don’t have to be a master, but you should be able to learn enough in a quarter to know what it means for you and your business. You could choose to increase your skill at a particular software function (e.g., Excel PowerPivot) or get the lay of the land on a technology set, such as comparing customer engagement management cloud providers. You could bone up on a social media platform that you don’t normally use, and learn its strengths, weakness, and ideal applications firsthand. No matter what you choose, make technology your friend and a tool you can wield, not a mystery that’s best left to professional technologists.
- Join Toastmasters. Yes, that goofy nonprofit public-speaking club is still around, and it is still one of the most useful and affordable ways to work on yourself. You don’t have to dream of giving your own TED Talk to know that speaking skills can set you apart from the crowd, whether you are working with clients, interviewing for your next dream position, running a meeting, or trying to participate successfully in any group setting. Coming up with small speeches to share twice a month will help you think about what is meaningful, consider your audience, and, most importantly, hone your storytelling skills (maybe The Moth is more your aim—I know it’s mine!). You can’t join our Toastmasters group because it is private for Yesler and Projectline employees, but wherever you are, there’s one near you. And the more you dig in, the more leadership opportunities you’ll find there.
- Try Coursera or similar online learning. Most of you know that you can take full quarter-long classes in just about any academic topic, but did you know that Coursera offers relevant certificate courses too? For instance, “Reasoning, Data Analysis, and Writing Specialization,” where you take three online courses followed by a Capstone project that uses all three skills in a more real-world way. There are courses in negotiation, learning to learn, app development, languages, branding, problem solving—the list goes on. If not Coursera, then Lynda.com or Khan Academy, among others. You don’t have to be a full-time student to carve out some time to keep your brain humming. Don’t think of it as work or an obligation, but instead as a gift you are giving your present and future self.
- Write a blog. If you don’t already write for a living, this is important. You don’t have to own a blog space or platform—you can use LinkedIn Pulse (like I did for this post) or Medium, or you can write a guest post for someone else’s blog. You’ll work on not only your writing skills, but also your thinking skills. If you set up a schedule and commit to it, a blog will challenge you to document your ideas, thoughts, predictions, advice, and assessment of the world around you. Make it a habit so that writing a blog is both a joy and a means of building your discipline muscles. Pick a topic that you care about and that you already think about. Don’t wait until your writing is flawless to publish it, or you’ll drive yourself insane—better yet, find someone to edit your work so you get even better. Favor action over perfection.
I know that there are dozens more ways to work on self-development without going back to school, but the challenge for most people is making it a priority in the long list of things that gobble up our time. My plea is that you put this type of activity before weeknight TV and Instagram, but after time with family and friends. What holds you back? What non-priority things get in the way? Facebook? Saying yes at the wrong times? Your commute?
If you struggle with investing in yourself, check out this talk by Daniel Goldstein on how you can change your relationship with your future self without relying on commitment devices. My advice is also to make sure that no matter what type of learning you choose, you desire the expected outcome and like the method. Learning should not feel like punishment.
Treat your future self with care, enthusiasm, and heaps of support. Don’t leave yourself behind.