Why and how communicators should be lifelong learners

You are your own greatest asset. Don’t let your mind lie fallow; cultivate your brain and talents for career advancement and personal fulfillment.

As my co-worker, Laura Petrolino, recently wrote, professional development and keeping your skills fresh through ongoing learning are essential for today’s communicator.

I have a friend who, at 4 p.m. every day, shuts down what she is working on and opens some sort of learning.

It may be a course on Coursera or Lynda. It could be an article she’s been meaning to read. It might be a webinar she downloaded but hasn’t been able to watch yet. Or it could be some sort of hands-on training that helps her do her job more efficiently.

It’s for only 30 minutes, but she does this every single day. She has an appointment in her calendar and nothing—and I mean nothing—prevents her from “attending” that meeting.

Though it’s only half an hour a day, I’ve watched her grow in many ways because of it.

Here’s the other thing about her: She’s the leader of a very successful, multi-billion-dollar company. From the outside perspective, you’d think she has it made. She doesn’t have to keep learning. She’s already where most of us yearn to be and never get.

Still, she has learned to program. She has learned another language. She has become a much better writer. She has begun painting. And she has become a whiz at the types of data her company should analyze for future growth.

All things she has people to do, and yet she thinks it’s important to keep learning.

It’s a different level of respect

I once read that Jason Fried, a founder of 37Signals, was learning Ruby on Rails (the programming language that his co-founder created) so he could more efficiently lead his team of programmers.

Does the CEO of a multi-million-dollar company need to do that? Absolutely not.

Does it make him a much better leader? For sure. (Not to mention the level of respect he gains from his team.)

The downside of success

Bill Gates, in his book, The Road Ahead, wrote:

Success is a lousy teacher. It seduces smart people into thinking they can’t lose.

Think about that for a second; now think about my friend and about Jason Fried.

They’re both extremely successful people. They both have built organizations that have teams of people to do the things they have taught themselves to do. There is no reason on earth they need to do this.

Yet success has taught them they absolutely have to keep learning—for themselves, for their teams, for their customers, for their families.

Invest in yourself through learning

Forbes recently picked up on the idea that we all must keep learning. It looked at how the most successful leaders “push themselves to grow and challenge conventional wisdom.”

They found they do three things:

  1. They learn from experience.
  2. They learn from objective mentors.
  3. They learn from their clients.

So, how do you invest in yourself through learning?

  1. What are you studying? I often extol the benefits of daily exercise. It’s like brushing your teeth—it’s just something you have to do every day. I feel the same about professional development and continual learning. If you’re the sort who won’t do something unless it’s on your calendar, make an appointment with yourself every day. Start taking classes. At first, it will seem like you’re taking away from your job to do this, but you’ll quickly find you’re much more efficient when you do this.
  2. Who gives you advice? Laura’s blog post recommended the same thing: Find a mentor. In my case, I’ve hired a mentor, Randy Hall. You might work with the person, you might have a casual relationship in which you have a monthly phone call, or you might hire professional mentorship. Find a mentor, and maintain an ongoing relationship with him or her.
  3. Stay ahead of the trends in your industry. Attend conferences and trade shows. Read blogs. Find the tech startup scene in your city, and attend events there. This will give you access to the brains of young innovators and make you think about things differently. Read books beyond your normal scope. One of the best books I’ve read that helped me expand my business is What Would Google Do? That book prompted me to jot down notes and ideas that have become full-on services for us.

One crucial thing you can do is to conduct a candid analysis of your own weaknesses. If you can figure those out, you can invest in yourself through learning and becoming strong in those areas.

It won’t happen overnight, but it will happen, I promise.

A version of this article originally appeared on Spin Sucks.

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