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The Importance of Learning New Career Skills for Building a Career You Love

career advancement purposeful living scott young skills Aug 07, 2017
man and sky

by Scott Young

image by Adobe

Being able to learn new skills quickly has always been useful. But, increasingly, it has become a necessity.

In this essay, I'd like to outline some of the evidence that the economy is shifting in ways that are going to make being able to teach yourself hard skills an imperative. I'd like to argue why developing a skills-based perspective towards your career is the key to fulfillment and satisfaction. Finally, I'd like to tell you how you can develop the ability to learn hard things faster.

How the Work is Changing

Average is over. At least, according to the book written by George Mason economics professor, Tyler Cowen. In his book with the same title, he argues persuasively, drawing upon data from many different sections of the economy to the conclusion that we're going to see a hollowing out of the middle in terms of income and career success.

In other words, the future will be increasingly a place where a few earn large incomes and command market power and many on the bottom. Average, the middle-class lifestyle many of us have come to expect, will be diminished increasingly in favor of the two extremes.

A big part of the reason for this trend is automation and technology. As computers and robots are able to handle more and more work, many of the medium-to-low skill knowledge working jobs are being replaced. Travel agents, filing clerks and many other jobs have already fallen victim to algorithms and spreadsheets.

This wave of automation doesn't necessarily lead to fewer jobs. As new technologies have developed, there have always been new jobs created in their wake. However, the new jobs created are often more complex and intellectually demanding than those they replaced. The result is that many workers, provided they can't learn new skills, may be permanently displaced.

A second, related factor has also come from inequalities in productivity for knowledge work. Compare a factory worker to a computer programmer. The most industrious factory employee might produce twice as many widgets as the average, but beyond that and there are physical limitations to how quickly he can correctly perform the same tasks.

A programmer, in contrast, might easily be ten times as productive as average. Superior knowledge of the craft might allow a superstar coder to do more work, with less effort, and more importantly, fewer bugs. Knowledge work often can't be divided into mechanical components like assembly-line labor, so there's an added bonus for hiring one programmer who can do the work of a few colleagues, and thus saving on the costs of coordinating their respective activities.

This higher variability in knowledge work doesn't merely put the burden on learning new skills, but on honing your existing skills to the pinnacle of their craft.

Automation and productivity inequality are just two of several trends contributing to the increasing need to be able to teach yourself hard skills quickly.

Is Learning the Key to Having Work You Love?

Learning has a utilitarian purpose, but it might also be the key to enjoying your work more as well.

Standard career advice involves soul-searching to find your passion, and then having the courage to pursue it. However, such advice may be misguided, as professor and author Cal Newport argues in his book, So Good They Can't Ignore You.

Instead, Newport argues that career satisfaction isn't primarily driven by the fit between pre-existing passions and work type. Those pre-existing passions may not even exist. And when people do really enjoy their work, it is often the result of having acquired significant career capital which they can use to negotiate more desirable jobs.

Learning rare and valuable skills is one of the principle ways of developing this career capital, so, in this view, the ability to learn well and having a career you love are intimately connected.

Learning, when you know how to do it well, can also be an intrinsically rewarding task. We aren't designed to be passive creatures. Using our brains fully, provided we have a way to work through frustrations and achieve competence, is more enjoyable than monotony.

In this view, learning new career skills is important for surviving and thriving in the current world of work. Learning career skills is essential for building a career you love. Finally, learning career skills can be intrinsically rewarding, provided you know how to do it well.

So how can you learn better?

A Guide to Learning Career Skills Better

There are two parts to learning career skills more effectively, quickly and with less frustration:

  1. Finding out which skills need to be mastered.
  2. Developing systems for learning those skills.

The first part isn't as trivial as it sounds. I've worked with thousands of professionals in my course on building career skills, and one of the surprising things I discovered when first building the curriculum was how many people chose skills to develop that likely had only a weak impact on their actual job skills.

People wanted to read books about an esoteric idea or work on a fun project that would teach themselves something interesting. Unfortunately, if these are not the drivers of what differentiates success in your field, then those are just hobby projects, not real professional development.

While I have nothing against hobby projects, it can be disappointing later if you expected rapid career growth, yet failed to achieve it because you were learning a skill that doesn't matter too much.

So how do you avoid this, and focus on skills that truly matter?

The answer is to go to the source. Interview people in your field who are performing at a level 2-3 steps ahead of where you are now. Importantly, don't just ask them “what skills do I need to master?” or you might end up with vague non-answers like “communication skills” or “work ethic.”

Develop a Skill-Learning System

The second step is to always have a skill-building project. Make five hours of your weekly life be perpetually devoted to some kind of skill-improvement project.

Yes, I know that's another thing you have to do that you don't really have time for. And in the short-term, you might be right. But, over the long-term, the systematic increase in career capital may make those five hours more important for your future career than the forty hours you spend on the job.

I recommend learning skills as discrete projects which have short milestones and clear deliverables.

Let's use a simple example: you spoke to some people ahead of you and it looks like they're really good at project management which allows them to get results for their teams, which leads to promotions. How could you get good at this skill?

Likely there are many ways, but a really straightforward way would be to take a course. Take an online course in project management, giving you new theoretical tools you can implement in behavior. That might take you a couple months and give you a short boost.

Your project management skills might not be ready at this point, so let's drive it a little further. Now you could start a new 2-3 month project, where you angle to get yourself made the leader of some team at work. From there you make the effort to use the principles you learned deliberately in the project, tracking the outcomes of those theories to your work.

Now you've completed something concrete and your boss might decide to give you more opportunities for practice so you can keep developing. Alternatively you might discover that now the skill deficiency hold you back is giving effective presentations, so you spend a couple months going to Toastmasters to develop effective public speaking skills. And so on…

There's a couple things to note with this procedure:

  1. All the projects are short, concrete and have a very specific method for getting better. That could be a course, a work project to implement ideas or some kind of side-practice.
  2. Opportunities come through micro-improvements in a skill. You might not have gotten that initial team-leading position if you hadn't demonstrated to your boss that you had the right stuff by taking the project management course. Many skill-building opportunities are only achieved once you've completed the earlier levels.
  3. This requires extra work. However, the extra work is creating career capital. This capital can later be used to negotiate better job conditions and opportunities as employers don't want you to leave for another firm. Think of it like saving some of the money you could spend now and putting it in a high-interest investment account. In the short-term you have less money to spend, but in the long-term you are far richer.

Also keep in mind that these two steps—career research and career development—aren't to be done sequentially. Ideally you do both simultaneously. You do some research to give you an inkling as to which skills are truly valuable, then you invest a few months in working on that skill. Then you go back and research some more.

Trying to do all your research perfectly before developing those skills is a recipe for procrastination. But trying to work on skills blindly without doing any research will likely lead you down many dead-ends as you improve skills that don't matter much.

Ultimately both research and development form a virtuous cycle where you acquire more career capital, you get better job opportunities and position yourself for jobs that you truly love.

This guest essay is brought to you by Scott Young, the author of four books, including Learn More, Study Less which also comes in a course. He is also the instructor of the popular online courses Top Performer (with bestselling author Cal Newport) and Rapid Learner. 


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