Congratulations on graduation. You now have a degree signifying your hard work and the knowledge you gained. For some, you are now able to pursue your career as the degree was necessary to obtain a license. For others, you now have the knowledge needed to be successful.
Or do you?
We certainly learn a substantial amount in school, or at least temporarily memorize a substantial amount long enough to pass a test. But you have only scratched the surface. It didn’t take long for me to realize the learning had truly begun after finishing graduate school. To build a successful career, you need to become a lifelong learner. Here are 6 keys to fulfilling the lifelong learner role:
1. Find a Mentor…a real one
"Mentorship in two sentences: I have high expectations for you and I know you can meet them. So, try this new challenge and if you fail, I'll help you recovery." – The Power of Moments by Chip and Dan Heath
By “a real one” I mean a mentor that will willingly invest in you, not an assigned colleague who is “available to answer any questions.” That is not a mentor. A mentor is someone who cares about your growth and development.
A good mentor can teach you more than the top universities in the world. There are two primary reasons for this. First, the mentor can individualize education. You are able to seek out the perfect match, whereas, in school, you are limited to the teachers currently on staff. Second, the level of personal investment is greater than you will find in schools.
How do you find a mentor? Ask. You have to do the work and seek a mentor out. Remember, it is a two-way relationship so you will need to invest in it as well.
"A great mentor instills an overall love of learning, and teaches a protege how to think and reason in any kind of situation - the greatest skill of all” – Mastery by Robert Greene
2. Read, read, read
Develop into a lifelong self-learner through voracious reading; cultivate curiosity and strive to become a little wiser every day.” – Charlie Munger
Learning and growth are all about perspective. If we only rely on our personal experiences, it is challenging to expand our perspective. Reading provides perspective from the mind of the reader and the interviews they conduct in their books. Reading expands our viewpoints, our beliefs, and our knowledge. It allows us to sample a variety of topics and tailor our learning to our unique circumstances and style.
“I work at it, I always advise my people to read outside your field, everyday something. And most people say, ‘well I don’t have time to read outside my field.’ I say, ‘no, you do have time, it’s far more important.’ Your world becomes a bigger world, and maybe there’s a moment in which you make connections.” – Arturo Casadevall
3. Learn how to write…then write, write, write
Rule #17 “Omit needless words" – Elements of Style by William Strunk and E.B. White
This is where many of you likely cock you head to the side expressing “you lost me.” Outside of careers in journalism and publishing books, writing isn’t valued. Yet, bad writing can limit any career potential.
Few things are more powerful than a well-written, hand-written thank you note. Want to elevate the note to the next level? Write it in cursive. When drafting an email, proposal, or companywide statement, writing in the same manner you would a Tweet will hamper your credibility and diminish the message. Good writing is not reserved for professionals who publish their material. It is a skill to be learned and used by all professionals, in any field. But it takes effort.
First, as William Zissner wrote in his book On Writing Well, you "learn to write by reading the men and women who are doing the kind of writing you want to do and figure out how they did it." The best teacher of writing is books. Yes, you can benefit from formal education on writing, but you need to read to establish a foundation to build upon.
Reading also allows you to refine your craft as you expand your vocabulary and understanding of various literary tools. In her book Bird by Bird: Some instructions of Writing and Life, author Anne Lamott wrote, "To be a good writer, you not only have to write a great deal but you have to care." It takes time and it takes effort, but you will be able to progress your career in a way no other tool can facilitate.
Writing is a skill that allows you to extract ideas and convey a message in a way speaking never will. It is a skill that can foster personal and professional development and set you apart from the pack.
"We don't have time to waste not writing because we are afraid we won't be good enough at it." – Anne Lamot
4. Develop Range
"Highly credentialed experts can become so narrow-minded that they actually get worse with experience, even while becoming more confident - a dangerous combination."
– Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World by David Epstein
Range is obtaining a variety of skills and experiences, even if they may not be directly part of a given field. I’ll use physical therapy as an example. Traditional skills include exercise prescription, manual therapy, musculoskeletal assessments, and educating patients on why they experience pain. Here are some of the most valuable skills I have developed that were not part of my physical therapy education: writing, sales, formal speaking, bias and heuristics, economics, management, finances, and statistics (barely touched on this in school). In many instances, the second group of skills has proved more valuable than the former.
As Epstein wrote in the quote above, failing to build range creates a narrow mindset. Even our depth of understanding a given topic is hindered by a lack of range. Range provides perspective and nuances needed to refine a specialty.
Taking on tasks outside your wheelhouse can certainly be a frustrating challenge. Yet, it is the repeated failure and subsequent refinement that will foster greater professional growth and development. It is the range of skillsets that will allow you to pivot in a career elevate past the competition.
Take on projects that make you uncomfortable. Expand your options, your relationships, and your experiences that can be drawn upon in the future. Shifting career directions is easier in the beginning. Expanding your range will not hinder your ability to specialize, should you choose a specific route. Instead, it will allow you to reach depths in your specialty those with a narrow focus could never hope to achieve.
"Don't commit to anything in the future, but just look at the options available now, and choose those that will give you the most promising range of options afterwards." – David Epstein
5. Build your network and platform
Only recently have I learned the power of having a strong network. Like selling, networking can be viewed as a bad word. It is an action that is grounded in selfish promotion. We network to build contacts that will serve us in the future. Sure, this is a common goal of networking and the primary reason people shy away from the term. But networking is about more than finding people who can do you a solid.
Building my network has allowed me to expand my understanding and professional growth within a position. I don’t rifle through a list of names searching for the individual with the right connections for a gig I want, instead, I rifle through the names seeking a mentor and someone who can provide perspective. My network provides a wealth of knowledge and resources to further my education. For example:
· Bringing to light new research studies and articles of interest
· Engaging in discussions on social media groups and pages
· Providing feedback on recent articles I publish
· Helping expand my message of critical thinking in healthcare to more people
Yes, my network serves personal and professional goals, but not through selfish promotion and a one-way relationship. Instead, my network amplifies my growth and development by providing a tribe of likeminded people. We help each other.
Building a platform is a similar endeavor to building a network. The network can be seen as the personal connections you develop while the platform is letting the outside world know what you stand for. Having a substantial social media following allows you to gain additional insights and spread your message further. It also allows you to keep a pulse on your given field and interests as well.
“Once you’ve found the people in your target audience and begun learning about their problems—and most importantly, how they talk about those problems—you’ll be setting yourself up to connect with that audience authentically and effectively for as long as you’re in business.” – Superfans: The Easy Way to Stand Out, Grow Your Tribe, and Build a Successful Business by Pat Flynn
6. Don’t worry about more formal schooling
"Believe whatever you believe by day, but at night, argue against the propositions you hold most dear." - How Not to Be Wrong: The Power of Mathematical Thinking by Jordan Ellenberg
Ask yourself this question before pursuing additional formal education: is it a requirement for the job I seek? For me to become a physical therapist, I had to attend PT school. Without my Doctor of Physical Therapy degree, I could not have sat for boards and obtained my license. A degree is not needed for many professions, however.
Much of the information learned in higher education can be obtained through voracious reading, strong mentorship, and curated experiences. Instead of racking up more debt and further delaying your career, ask yourself what you are trying to gain from the formal education, and build your own unofficial degree.
The foundation of learning
As you develop your ability to obtain and learn new information, there are two key concepts that is vital to all professionals, regardless of their career: doubt and uncertainty. As Richard Feynman said, "It is our capacity to doubt that will determine the future of civilization." Doubt and uncertainty are what fuels learning. We never have it all figured out.
"We absolutely must leave room for doubt or there is no progress and there is no learning. There is no learning without having to pose a question. And a question requires doubt." Feynman challenges us to ask more questions. To seek understanding. Scientific curiosity is far more valuable than scientific knowledge. If we focus on what we know rather than what we don’t know, we become intellectually lazy. Our progression stalls and we instead rely on past success and experience. This is dangerous.
"Scientific knowledge is a body of statements of varying degrees of uncertainty/certainty - some most unsure, some nearly sure, none absolutely certain." Feynman warns us about complacency and believing we have it figured out. School provides a great starting point, but it is only that, a starting point. Once you graduate, the real learning begins.
"The world in our heads is not a precise replica of reality; our expectations about the frequency of events are distorted by the prevalence and emotional intensity of the messages to which we are exposed." –Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman
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