I don’t know how…

…should be removed from your vocabulary unless it’s followed by the word “yet.” Here are two replacements:

“I haven’t learned that yet.”

“I’m not sure where to start. Can you point me in the right direction?”

“I don’t know how” presents a closed door. The other variations present an open one instead. “I’m not there yet, but show me the path.”

Just like other parts of a growth mindset, self-education is a reaction we can practice. Instead of an insurmountable wall, we can choose to see a challenge meant to be conquered.

It’s hard to find something I’m more passionate about than self-education. There are limitless learning opportunities available to anyone with an internet connection or a public library card. We just have to take advantage of them.

Explore, read, learn, and practice. Then, most importantly, teach someone else.

What skills are worth paying for?

This post on the NY Times from Cal Newport has been circulating around the internet recently. Cal makes a simple argument. “In a capitalist economy, the market rewards things that are rare and valuable. Social media use is decidedly not rare or valuable.”

The kerfuffle normally originates from the second sentence. Let’s focus on the first one instead. What kinds of skills are rare and valuable?

Here’s a non-exhaustive list that came to mind. These are obviously very abstract.

  • The ability to teach yourself. Previously, you could learn one trade and depend on that trade being around for a long time. That’s no longer the case. We now need to be endlessly adaptable. (previously)
  • The ability to coach others. Giving feedback well is absolutely a skill. It’s hard and painful to develop and therefore definitely rare and valuable.
  • The ability to receive feedback and listen. I’m just starting to realize what a skill this is. It’s certainly not easy, and it requires immense self-control.
  • The ability to lead. That’s different than “manage.” Leading is equivalent with saying “Follow me. That is where we’re going and this is the plan to get us there.”
  • The ability to communicate effectively. This includes both text and voice and could manifest in a team meeting or up on stage at a conference.
  • The ability to create a symphony (adapted from Dan Pink). Symphony is the ability to take a bunch of different inputs and create an output. It’s the ability to think strategically and consider how decisions will impact the future.

As I start to think about growth opportunities for 2017, these skills are top of mind. What would you add to the list?

Previously with Cal. If this post struck a chord with you, I would recommend reading A Whole New Mind by Daniel Pink, which expands on many ideas listed above.

Practical Thoughts on Career Progression

Here's a step-by-step guide on approaching career progressions

In the past, I’ve written about how I think about my career. In short, I look at three elements—Learn, Improve, and Impact. Provided those three boxes are checked, I’m moving in the right direction.

I’ve been thinking about this more and more over the past several weeks after talking with a colleague. The prevailing view in many companies is that a career progression involves things like changing job titles and work responsibilities.

What do you do if you want to change jobs or move into another area of the company?

As someone actively interested in doing this at the moment, here’s how I think about the problem from start to finish. Keep in mind that when I use “you” throughout this post, I’m talking to myself in many ways.

Continue reading “Practical Thoughts on Career Progression”

Build a Better Signal

Students walking along a path.

Isaac Morehouse on Medium:

Not long ago a degree may have been the best signal most people could get. There weren’t many ways to demonstrate your value to the market, so a degree was one of the better bets. Things have changed dramatically. Technology has opened up the world. The tools available to you now have lowered search and information costs, and you can create signals of your own that are far more powerful than a degree.

I’ve tried to articulate this in the past with articles in self-learning, but Morehouse knocked it out of the park in his article on building a better signal.

There’s nothing wrong with getting a degree. I spent enough time in the classroom to get both a Bachelor’s and a Master’s. Degrees can be valuable, but they don’t set you apart as they did 10 years ago. There’s a clear path to getting a degree that’s relatively easy to navigate. The steps from start to finish are pretty clear.

Continue reading “Build a Better Signal”

Take a Regular Learning Vacation

For the past three months, I’ve focused on one thing – learning JavaScript. I put aside all freelance work and committed to at least 30 minutes per day. I called it my “learning vacation”. I might have started at (just above) ground zero knowledge-wise, but by golly, I was going to make some progress.

How did I do? I completed the Treehouse Front End Web Development course, which covered JavaScript and jQuery. I hacked away on a GitHub project and managed to get everything working (still some improvements I want to make). I’m not ready to lead a development team, but I have a better idea of how JavaScript works and can fumble my way around a project.

There were some frustrating nights and mornings spent staring at a computer screen hoping an answer would pop out at me. I read more StackOverflow threads than I would care to admit, and my Google searches grew more and more desperate. I wanted to quit more than a handful of times.

Continue reading “Take a Regular Learning Vacation”

Closing The Expert Gap

Since it’s just you and me here, I’ll admit a secret: I really hate being terrible at something.

When I try to pick-up a new skill, I take a look around at people that have been doing that “thing” for years, and I immediately want to be on their level. I want the instant gratification of being excellent instead of slogging through years of being terrible.

For the better part of the past three months, I’ve focused all of my free time on one thing – learning front-end web development, specifically JavaScript. I enrolled in a front-end course on Treehouse. I subbed out fiction before bed for Eloquent JavaScript so I could dream in for loops and if statements.I stopped writing blog posts and told all of my freelance clients I was busy.

Here we are at the end of three months of full immersion and guess what? I’m nowhere near where I thought I would be.

Continue reading “Closing The Expert Gap”

The Importance of Self-Learning and 5 Key Steps to Put Into Practice

Genius is the ability to independently arrive at and understand concepts that would normally have to be taught by another person.

― Immanuel Kant

We’re born as self-learners. As children, we rely heavily on our ability to learn from our surroundings and the actions of others. As adults, however, it’s easier to pass the buck onto others and ask for help rather than to spend the frustrating hours, days, or weeks learning ourselves. Our innate ability to learn and adapt becomes dull.

When I posted my “Day in the Life of a Happiness Engineer” post, I had quite a few friends reach out asking how they could score the same type of job. Many of these individuals came from a completely non-technical background so landing a job in the tech industry seemed like a long shot. They didn’t have experience in tech, and it didn’t seem like something you could just “pick up.”

That, of course, isn’t true.

Regardless of your background, it’s completely possible to learn a new career field. Hell, it’s possible to learn anything. Perhaps more importantly, it’s possible without going back to school. Heading back to formal education is a knee-jerk reaction and isn’t necessary unless your intended career field has some sort of required credentials.

If formal education isn’t necessary, what exactly is the secret sauce to self-learning? Here are five keys I’ve put into practice myself.

Continue reading “The Importance of Self-Learning and 5 Key Steps to Put Into Practice”

Your Glass Ceiling

Francis Galton was a man who truly believed in natural talents and an upper ceiling for success and achievement. Take the following quotes, which were borrowed from Talent is Overrated by Geoffrey Colvin.

His maximum performance becomes a rigidly determinate quality.

He is no longer tormented into hopeless efforts by the fallacious promptings of overweening vanity…” He discards the foolish notion that he can ever do better, makes peace with the idea that he’s as good as he’ll ever be, and “finds true moral repose in an honest conviction that he is engaged in as much good work as his nature has rendered him capable of performing.”

Galton believed that each of us was born with a specific set of abilities and a predisposition to perform well at a certain type of work. After engaging in that level of work for awhile, Galton believed we would all hit a true ceiling, a level at which we could no longer improve.

I’ve certainly felt this way. Haven’t you? I would pick up a new hobby (playing guitar comes to mind), try to mimic professionals, and then give up when I fell terribly short after only a few days of practice. After sulking in frustration, I’d blame “natural talent”; it was the perfect scapegoat.

The “natural ability” blame game reminds me of Carol Dweck, who describes two different mindsets – a fixed mindset and a growth mindset.

Dweck distinguishes between people with a fixed mindset — they tend to agree with statements such as “You have a certain amount of intelligence and cannot do much to change it” — and those with a growth mindset, who believe that we can get better at almost anything, provided we invest the necessary time and energy. While people with a fixed mindset see mistakes as a dismal failure — a sign that we aren’t talented enough for the task in question — those with a growth mindset see mistakes as an essential precursor of knowledge, the engine of education.

Galton more closely related to the fixed mindset model rather than the growth mindset. In today’s society, I think quite a few people inadvertently are hopping on the fixed mindset as well. They hear stories of famous entrepreneurs and chalk the results up to circumstances outside of their control. Musicians and professional athletes must have had something that separates them from the rest of us. While being born to parents on the wrong way of six foot puts you at a disadvantage on the courts, it’s probably not the only reason you’re watching games from the stadium seats instead of playing it first-hand.

The fixed mindset offers the easy way out, an explanation for failure at new pursuits. On the other hand, a growth mindset, one that chooses to disregard limits, promises years of frustration. After picking up a new hobby or interest, you’ll likely spend months just trying to get good enough to enjoy it. You’ll have days where you truly just want to give up. Your initial output truly will suck. You’ll probably feel embarrassed and want to draw back into your safety cocoon and just work on things you’re good at.

But, that’s part of the growth process.

You have to see how terrible you are in the beginning in order to appreciate how far you go in the end. To quote Ira Glass:

Nobody tells this to people who are beginners, I wish someone told me. All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase, they quit. Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this. We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this. And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know its normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week you will finish one story. It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions. And I took longer to figure out how to do this than anyone I’ve ever met. It’s gonna take awhile. It’s normal to take a while. You’ve just gotta fight your way through.

During the growth period, you learn an incredible amount about yourself. What makes you tick? How do you learn best? How hard can you push yourself? Those are the fun questions to answer. If you skipped straight to the fun part (being proficient or better yet, good), you wouldn’t truly appreciate your success.

So, take some time to work at one skill you’re truly passionate about. Aim to master your own craft. Ignore shortcuts and suffer through the days when you just want to quit. When you think you’ve reached your potential, look for other ways to improve. Change up your practice style or look to shadow someone with a slightly different perspective. No matter what domain you work in, there’s always room for improvement. There may be a ceiling on ability level, but it’s a false cap that lures most of us into laziness offering the perfect “out” from hard work.