You’ve got meetings to attend. Deadlines to meet. Errands to run. It’s hard to grow your career and expand your abilities in the midst of your daily grind, but if you don’t take the initiative, no one’s going to do it for you. Whether you feel like your career development is lagging or you’re chugging along nicely but want to give yourself that extra edge, here are a few steps you can take to make sure your career continues on the path to greatness.
Photo by Dmitriy Shironosov/Shutterstock.
Find a Career Coach, Mentor or Buddy
Aside from the kind of coach who wears the eponymous short shorts, coaches of other sorts get kind of a bum rap. You’ve graduated from high school/university. You have a job. Maybe you’re even the boss now, or at least expert enough in what you do that you don’t need anyone telling you what to do most of the time. Most of us consider ourselves beyond the need for coaching.
In a recent article in The New Yorker, surgeon and writer Atul Gawande examines the notion that you and I might actually benefit from a coach the same way top athletes and musicians do in the course of their careers. Like most of what Gawande writes, it’s an excellent read, and he makes a compelling argument:
Élite performers, researchers say, must engage in “deliberate practice” — sustained, mindful efforts to develop the full range of abilities that success requires. You have to work at what you’re not good at. In theory, people can do this themselves. But most people do not know where to start or how to proceed. Expertise, as the formula goes, requires going from unconscious incompetence to conscious incompetence to conscious competence and finally to unconscious competence. The coach provides the outside eyes and ears, and makes you aware of where you’re falling short. This is tricky. Human beings resist exposure and critique; our brains are well defended. So coaches use a variety of approaches — showing what other, respected colleagues do, for instance, or reviewing videos of the subject’s performance. The most common, however, is just conversation.
Gawande’s article is long but worth a read, and after having read it, you’ll be hard pressed not to remain sceptical that a career coach, mentor or even a peer buddy of some kind couldn’t do you tremendous good.
A career coach doesn’t have to be someone you pay. You could ask a boss, a coworker, someone in your field, or even a friend to lend a second set of eyes and their fresh perspective to what you’re doing and where you want to go. The goal is to find a perspective that can provide sound advice, guidance, and yes, sometimes criticism.
The wrong type of competition in a workplace can turn a high-five work environment into a headbutt workplace, but that doesn’t mean there’s no place for competition at work. As WebWorkerDaily’s Celine Roque points out, friendly workplace competition keeps you on top of your game, helps you find identify your strengths and weaknesses, and can ultimately lead to strong collaboration.
You don’t have to compete with your entire office, but if you’ve got a friendly relationship with a co-worker who might make for a good “competitor”, figure out ways you can set up friendly competitions that can help give both of you an extra edge.
It’s commonly said that there’s no better way to learn than to teach. Apparently this guy may have been the first to say it. I kind of doubt it, though. I’d never heard of him and I know I’ve said it. You’ve probably said it too. We’re all saying it because it’s cliche, and it’s cliche because it contains a lot of truth. You can learn a lot about a subject by reading about it. You can learn more by doing it. But when you go a step further and start teaching others to do it, you can learn more about it than you knew possible.
“It” in this case is pretty broad, and there probably are some “its” to which this doesn’t apply. (You probably won’t learn a lot more about sandwich making by teaching someone else to make a sandwich. Sorry sandwich artists.) But think about your expertise, and who might benefit from what you know. Then teach them. Be someone else’s coach/mentor. Again, a fresh perspective has a lot to do with why this helps. As a teacher, you’re forced to look at something through someone else’s eyes. You’ll get better at what you do, and you’ll look good to your boss while you do it.
Work Outside Your Comfort Zone
If you’re not interested enough in one particular aspect of your expertise to teach, then it’s probably time to branch out. After years at a job, you’re pretty confident that you’re good at what you do. You’ve got habits. You’ve gotten comfortable. You may have even gotten complacent.
Stop doing that. Break out of your comfort zone. Find an area where you could expand and see what you can do there. Hell, try something you’re really bad at. You don’t have to quit your job (though who knows, you may want to), but make an effort to work outside your comfort zone. You may meet new people, you’ll learn new things, and you
Start a Side Project
A side project — whether officially sanctioned or extra curricular — is a perfect way to learn new things, expand your abilities, and, maybe best of all, give you something to show off to current or potential employers. This one ties pretty closely with “work outside your comfort zone”, but the side project doesn’t necessarily need to be that far outside your wheelhouse; it just needs to be a project that gives you the ability to flex your muscles, learn a little and maybe show the world what you’ve got in a way that your normal 9-to-5 doesn’t.
For me, these side projects involve programming. I’m not a programmer by trade, but I’ve written a lot of desktop apps and web apps as side projects, and each has pushed my skills and experience in new directions that allow me to do my job better.
Make a Plan
According to baseball legend Yogi Berra, “If you don’t know where you are going, you will wind up somewhere else.” You don’t want to be too rigid with your career path, but it’s tough to steer your career in the right direction if you don’t know what direction you want to go. Take time to break out of your normal work schedule to look beyond next week into where you want to be next year, five years from now, and even 10 years from now.
In Getting Things Done (a.k.a. GTD), productivity guru David Allen lays out a six-level model for reviewing your work to ensure you’re on the right track:
- 50,000 + feet: Life
- 40,000 feet: Three- to five-year visions
- 30,000 feet: One-to two-year goals
- 20,000 feet: Areas of responsibility
- 10,000 feet: Current projects
- Runway: Current actions
Alan’s GTD productivity system also suggests doing a weekly review in which, among other things, you review your goals to ensure you’re still pointed in the direction you want.
The benefit of frequent examination of your direction: You can more easily identify roadblocks along the way to reaching your goals and also better identify opportunities that align with your goals. It’s a win-win.
How About You?
What have you done that’s helped you continue growing, learning and moving your career in the direction you want? Share what’s been most useful and helpful to you — whether or not it’s discussed above — in the comments.