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Future Proof Your Career [PART 1]: Lifelong Learning in a Smart Way

Updated: Jan 7, 2020

A simple drawing of a man wearing a student hat gazing through a telescope
What skills and knowledge will be the best investment for the future ahead?

One thing is for sure. Whatever job you’re in today, in the years to come you’ll need to reinvent yourself a lot. I'm sure you've heard the predictions, some more, some less apocalyptic, about the robots taking over. Technology in advancing, the way businesses work is changing and we’re moving towards much longer working lives. This makes the “learn once, then climb the ladder" model obsolete.

How are you going to keep upgrading yourself on this path? The choice is yours: you can ride the wave of disruption or become the disrupted.

It can be a transition you feel in the driving seat of, making the most out of the opportunities that the changes bring. Or it can be a change that feels out of your control.

I spend a lot of time thinking about career transitions as I help my clients to see through the fog of immediate pressures and create a career that’s not only aligned with their ambitions now, but also future proof.

One of the fundamental pillars of how to make this happen has to do with learning.

The old model vs. the new model

In the current work model starting a new job means you're able to rely on formal education and past work experience. In the age of exponential change, this becomes less of a given. If you want to be successful, the onus is on you to access the knowledge and build the skills that you need.

You may think - hold on, surely it’s not just on me - the system will change to reflect that. You may be right: universities are definitely thinking about it. Stanford 2025 is about rethinking higher education. Rather than front loading your years at uni, they will be spread over the lifetime, with a possibility to return for a career pivot.

Big organisations are also thinking about it. Accounting firm PwC has recently announced an investment of $3bn in training to stay ahead in the game. Countries like Singapore are introducing learning credits that citizens can draw on throughout their working lives.

If you’re employed by a giant firm with a big budget or if you’re yet to go through your formal education you might be able to get some handholding through this transition.

The rest of us are on our own.

What do I actually mean by learning?

Love of learning is like the sense of humour - most people will think they have it. Learning is energising, satisfying and opens new possibilities.

But there may be a big difference between our perception and our actual ability to engage in the type of learning that will help us reinvent ourselves professionally.

Future proof learning is about knowing how to learn fast and apply this knowledge to solve problems. It’s not about passive acquisition of new information - you can do this with an internet search, even today.

Rather, it’s about building a habit of perpetual learning and refreshing your knowledge, adapting it to the fast changing world, watching what's on the horizon and being open to challenging prior assumptions. This type of learning will serve you through various career transformations.

Here are my 5 tips on how to do this in a smart way:

1. Be intentional about what you want to learn

When it comes to the future of work there are two learning areas worth taking a close look at.

First has to do with technology and science, in particular any “hard” topics you’d want to educate yourself in as an investment in your future career.

Second (and equally important) has to do with human skills that will be most essential in the years to come. These include creativity, idea generation, people skills, emotional intelligence, flexibility and the ability to reinvent yourself.

If you’re not sure where to set your learning objectives, here are a couple of thoughts that can help you brainstorm:

- What changes are happening in your industry?

Knowing what’s on the horizon can help you continuously reassess your skillset. Take a job of a GP as an example. Once the bulk of the diagnosis is handled by technology, other aspects of the job are likely to come to the fore. These can be: people skills, intuition, team management. What could be a parallel scenario in your profession? What do you want to get better at to thrive in it?

- What are the disruptors in your industry doing?

They are often at the periphery of what you do and a relatively easy stretch. For example, if you’re in Financial Services, you may want to get under the skin of FinTech and the technology those firms use, if you’re an Actuary - you may want to stay current with data science, or become an expert in data visualisation.

- What topics that you're passionate fit into the future?

With so much transition ahead there is no better time to start thinking about a career change. Perhaps you've been thinking about doing something different for a while? Why not understand how your interests fit into the future world of work? Even if it's not something you'd want to pursue immediately, you can create a future vision of your best work self and start taking small steps to get there.

Your hobbies have a role to play too: even something seemingly unrelated like taking improv classes can help you hone a few really helpful skills like creativity, collaboration and courage.

Once you know the trajectory, articulate the outcomes you’d like to achieve suitable for your job, seniority and future ambitions. Make them realistic - the demands of work and personal life often push learning down the priority list. Make your learning fit your busy schedule.

2. Go outside of traditional education

Going back to school might not always be your best strategy. Don’t get me wrong - I find the idea of pursuing another degree immensely appealing. There are also countless benefits of doing so - including the social capital that you build.

But it’s worth broadening your idea of education.

Here’s why: Needless to say, formal education can be a significant investment of time and money. Yet the knowledge you gain, even if current at the time you do your course, might become out of date pretty soon.

It also boils down to this question: can you rely on your chosen school to deliver the most up to date knowledge? The quality of any training will depend on how future focussed the school is.

I know leadership training providers who year on year keep rolling out management concepts from the 70s. Of course - some of them are universal and there is value in analysing the history. But modern organisational cultures need more than that to thrive in the new world.

3. Quality information has never been cheaper or more accessible.

Regardless of whether you want to master design thinking or retile your bathroom, there is online content waiting for you to help you do this.

You can watch lectures from the most prominent universities online completely for free. You can listen to podcasts hosted by the sharpest minds on this planet. Online education is also booming with Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) allowing students around the globe to learn from some of the world’s most brilliant people.

In his book "Ultralearning", author Scott Young went into detail on how he learnt the entire 4-year MIT curriculum for computer science. He's done it without taking any classes, based solely on the information publicly available on the university’s website.

Online lectures remain some of my favourite alternatives to Netflix.

4. Expand your view

One of the most effective ways to make your learning future proof is to expose yourself to a range of diverse ways of thinking.

Spending years in one industry and with the same peer group can keep you stuck. Instead, look for a diverse range of role models. They may expose you to fresh ideas that you can bring to your industry. Another advantage is that they can open your eyes to brand new ways in which your career can develop.

If you don’t have these type of people in your network - I encourage you to build it. And while you do, social media in a great way to access the thoughts of people who can extend your knowledge into other worlds and markets that are not in directly accessible to you (yet).

5. Experiment

Making any sort of transition is rarely a passive experience. With that in mind, find opportunities for learning that go beyond classrooms and textbooks - the ones that put you right into action.

This can be about accepting a new project at work, staring a business on the side, getting involved in initiatives that will force you to apply new knowledge. This can also be as small as having informational interviews or conversations.

There are three benefits of this:

First, this is what sets you apart. In the age of the internet the new knowledge is not about what you know, but about what you have achieved or experienced using it. It’s about the wisdom, intuition and insight you have accumulated that will make you a great asset.

Second, if you are building human, or "soft" skills, the only way to do this is out in the real world.

Third, experimentation is a great way to develop self knowledge. The conventional way of thinking about career choices, that has been hard coded within us from early childhood, is fundamentally flawed. We are expected to know what career choices would make us happy based on a mere idea or an imagined image of us in the job. We then spend years getting educated in a chosen field, and only once we’re done we get to find out if we like being a lawyer, a doctor or an accountant.

Professional experimentation is something I’ll never tire of talking about. It gives you another layer of situational knowledge, or real world data. This will not only hone your skills but also help you understand what type of work is best for you. The more unfamiliar the opportunities you’re exploring, the more necessary it becomes to learn about them through experimenting rather than planning in your head. Once you get moving you’ll see that a completely new set of ideas, insights and information will emerge.

Lastly, follow your discomfort

It’s tempting to keep building on our existing knowledge where it feels relatively easy and comfortable. And don’t get me wrong - it can be really beneficial, helping you become a true expert in your field.

But make sure you go into unfamiliar areas every now and again too. It can help you become more accepting of your own discomfort and more confident in your ability to navigate unfamiliar situations. This in turns builds the “transformation muscle” - and you can prove to yourself that you can overcome the challenge of ambiguity.

I was in a meeting recently where the idea of using a simple but new piece of technology generated a lot of resistance. This really got me thinking. The fact that we understand the importance of learning and continuously flexing our ways doesn’t mean that it’s easy.

After all, our brains will always favour the status quo.

With that in mind, I encourage going against your discomfort every now and again and see what treasure you find on the other side.



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