In the modern world, making progress in your career is seldom a straightforward matter. You might experience rapid growth, then witness your professional development grind to a stop. No one will explain why; you have to pick the lock yourself, finding your way over and around various obstacles all the time.
Even the transition from school to work can take you in unexpected directions from the outset. More than ever, it seems that our education isn’t providing us with the skills we need for the jobs of tomorrow. The only reliable way to go further in your career is to take ownership of your continued education and become a dedicated learner.
But depending on your early experiences, embracing that requirement can be difficult. Parents and teachers might have placed you under unreasonable pressure to do well in school. Does learning always have to be so serious? How can you make it fun and effective at the same time?
In search of range
Through the internet, we now have unprecedented access to information. And this has helped to create a level playing field for job seekers and employees. But the power of information works both ways. Employers can easily look for specific attributes and quickly filter out candidates that don’t fit the bill.
As the most vital needs of companies grow more specialized, competition for the best jobs is even more intense than before. Small margins could end up being the difference between getting hired and missing out.
You might think that getting a head start in your field, learning a lot while you’re young, and putting in those now-proverbial 10,000 hours is what guarantees success. Yet in fact, that’s only true of a few specific careers. Classical musicians, chess players, and golfers, for example, benefit greatly from exclusive dedication to their chosen discipline.
For most of us, what’s far more crucial is a quality that author David Epstein refers to as range. It comprises the depth and breadth of knowledge of a person. Most careers aren’t isolated from other fields; they overlap.
What sort of path are you pursuing? Chances are, you’ll benefit from adding range instead of single-minded focus. And this will determine your approach to learning.
Letting interest guide your learning
If you aspire to succeed in a career that requires intense specialization but haven’t enjoyed the same head start that, say, a child prodigy might have, it will take time. You need to catch up and start putting in the hard work of serious study right now.
But if that’s not what you’re after, you can definitely go about learning with a more relaxed attitude. In fact, you’ll make the most of your learning efforts by having fun.
Think about how kids learn best in preschool; they don’t get overwhelmed with books, lesson plans, study sessions, and exams. Playtime is their way of learning, without even realizing it.
Range requires breadth as well as depth. And early in your career, you might not be decided on where to go deep. So allow yourself to dabble and acquire a broad knowledge of different skills.
Don’t feel guilty if your efforts seem to lack direction. Play and experiment; attempt fun projects. Read on sub-topics that stimulate you while ignoring the rest of the standard curriculum. Follow what sparks your interest, even if it seems to be something that’s totally unrelated to your current skills and background.
In the process of dabbling and acquiring a breadth of knowledge, you’ll eventually find something that resonates with you. It could be a skill you really love practicing and getting better at. Or maybe there’s a field of study that really sparks your curiosity.
When you find this area, you might want to dig deeper. This is where you can begin to specialize and build your career. Within this discipline, you have to take a deliberate, focused approach. At this point, learning can resemble the rigors of formal education.
Unlike when you were dabbling to acquire range, you’re now seeking career mastery. It’s unlikely you can get there through a series of online tutorials or courses; such materials are supplementary at best.
You need to seek out challenges with the right mindset, gain practical knowledge, and get feedback from experienced mentors. And if you can’t get those opportunities at your current job, you might need to take your career in a different direction, perhaps even a step back, to prioritize growth.
Remember that in the long run, this combination of specialization in one area plus a diversity of interests is what fosters creativity. You can make those connections that others miss and adapt to whatever the future holds. And that’s what will get you on track to career success.