The One Thing I Wish I Knew Earlier In My Career

Learn to work harder on yourself than you do on your job.

Working harder on yourself than you do on your job is not an original idea. Motivational speaker, Jim Rohn, first said it, but it’s worth repeating especially during a season like this with race relations at an abysmally low point, thousands of families without loved ones, and millions of people jobless in one of the worst times in US history — the whole experience is like being stuck in a bad dream.

If you feel like hitting a hard reset on 2020, just know you’re not alone. Still, there are opportunities in crisis. Some of the greatest innovations came from the worst economic times. Now is not the time to throw your arms up in hopelessness but instead see those events as calls to action to become more human and better versions of ourselves.

Working harder on yourself will not armor you from the impacts of a pandemic or other economic crises. To say otherwise is plainly peddling false narrative. But an acute attentiveness to self development could put your skills and knowledge ahead of the job market — helping you to survive turbulent times and creating serendipity when you have to dust off your resume and hit the old job search trail.

“The learning curve is the earning curve,” and “today learning is part of economic survival for most of us.” – Josh Bersin

Employers prefer to hire people who are fast learners but are more inclined to give the job to the candidate who demonstrates she is able to contribute on the first day. Harvard Business School Professor Theodore Levitt said “People don’t want to buy a quarter-inch drill. They want a quarter-inch hole.” Therefore, you will likely come out on top if you are able to emphasize your past wins and your domain knowledge relative to the most pressing problems the organization is trying to solve.

Working harder on yourself than you do on your job paradoxically makes you better at your current job. And as self-promoting as the idea may appear on the surface, in plain english, it really translates to outlearning your job and being so good that you can’t be ignored. The corollary of that is your shine makes others around you glow.

Honing skills and developing your domain knowledge helps you to stockpile an arsenal of deployable skills, armed and ready to take on whatever the job throws at you. Basically, you become the Swiss army knife of any team fortunate enough to have you in their back pocket. Key contributors who also display a high propensity for learning are usually fast track to more visible management and leadership roles.

The reporting structure of an organization is supposedly based on specific domain knowledge and experience. Still, there are some employees who display higher competence than the people they report to. Great managers embrace that idea because they know their superpower is not in knowing more than the people who report to them, instead it’s in coaching them, and organizing and deploying their team’s sets of skills in a consistent and efficient way to meet company objectives.

The problem is many people hold the idea that intelligence is fixed and they are as good as they will ever be – self-imposing a governor on their abilities. More and more research on neurogenesis and neuroplasticity confirms that our brains remain malleable throughout our adult life and continue to develop with the right nourishment and regimen. Deliberate learning is one of the ways to regenerate the brain’s capacity to stay sharp and rapidly acquire new information.

There’s no cap on the amount of information you can acquire. Neither does knowledge acquisition follow a set of canonical rules. Becoming proficient at Y does not require a specific X amount of time contrary to Gladwell’s ten-thousand-hour rule. Instead becoming good at Y is predicated more on the consistency and intensity of the effort to acquire that knowledge than a standard duration of time itself. To Gladwell’s credit, he clarified in a follow-up piece in the New Yorker, Complexity and the Ten-Thousand-Hour Rule “that it is also a mistake to assume that the ten-thousand-hour idea applies to every domain.”

The point is learning exclusively on the job between the hours of 9 am and 5 pm might be a limiting factor especially if the homogeneous makeup of the organization causes a lack of cognitive diversity.

The workplace provides tons of opportunities to learn but everything you need to learn will not happen on the job because there are simply things your employer does not know and will also need to learn. The deliberate learner identifies those competency gaps and fills them by bringing those knowledge and skills acquired outside back into the organization.

Knowledge is an organization’s greatest asset. It’s from knowledge that all breakthrough products and ideas come to life. Your knowledge determines your place and value in the workplace. Economist, Thomas Picketty, stated that “over more than 300 years of history, the only predictable factor that drives individual earnings potential is “skills and knowledge.”

But all knowledge is not created equal. Nowadays, organizations capture knowledge by leveraging both humans and machines. And while machines have their own sets of limitations, “a new automated machine learning system can analyze data and come up with a solution 100x faster than humans,” according to research from MIT and Michigan State University. Organizations are hiring products like IBM Watson that can sift through hundreds of scenarios in the time it takes to pull your trousers leg over your left heel.

Still, today, four decades after a period known as the Great Acceleration, “machines are only as good as the information fed into them.” MIT economics professor Richard Bookstaber put it this way in his book “The End of Theory”: “No man is better than a machine, and no machine is better than a man with a machine.”

Knowledge is gold and organizations are willing to pay a premium to capture and retain it. Therefore, the only way to increase your value and indispensability in the workplace is to take your learning into your own hands and continuously outlearn the job you were hired to do. Here are a few ways to do that.

Self-directed learning

Take your learning into your own hands. Evaluate where you are. Set realistic goals. Take baby steps. Nominate people to hold you accountable. Find the right tools that match your unique learning style. There are hundreds of free MOOCs, podcasts, and books in different formats. If you can’t afford to buy the books you need, find a library or a bookstore and read them for free.

Create the routine that works for you. Be consistent. Don’t take days off in the first 60-days, take reduced days if you have to, so if you read for 30 minutes per day for 5 days per week, read for 10 minutes on the 6th and 7th day. Consistent and deliberate practice helps you form long lasting habits and accelerate learning. Daniel Coyle talks about deep practice and its consequent neural activity in his book, Talent Code.

Deliberate practice

Author of Atomic Habits, James Clear, defines deliberate practice this way, “deliberate practice refers to a special type of practice that is purposeful and systematic. While regular practice might include mindless repetitions, deliberate practice requires focused attention and is conducted with the specific goal of improving performance.”

It requires shutting down your devices and removing all forms of distractions. Most of us saunter through our day with a trio of Apple devices tethered to our fingertips. Nir Eyal’s Hooked, discusses how these devices and apps are designed to create addictive behaviors such as the compulsion to click and scroll every few minutes.

Deliberate learning requires concentration. Psychologist Mihaly Csikszenmihalyi’s book, Flow, introduces us to the concept of optimal experience, a phenomenon where we get into a genuine satisfying state of consciousness. Getting into flow state allows us to learn and produce more efficiently. Cal Newport also touches on this in Deep Work which shares ideas to achieve intense concentration that leads to powerful learning and performance.

Finally, have a daily to-do list. Some people do them the night before or first thing in the morning.

As I write this, I’m staring at a bunch of Post-it notes on the window next to where I work which also serves as an extension of my whiteboard. I’ve tried to-do lists, they never work for me. I was good at writing down my to-dos but my notepad would get buried under whatever project ambushed my desk that day. I find posting my daily to-dos where I can’t miss them an effective hack.

Now that my kids are a permanent part of my work life, I have included them in my Post-It routine for their daily activities. Because if I make it to dinnertime without clearing my side of the window I will never hear the end of it. They aren’t the sweetest reminderers but they keep me on my toes and honest.

When you work harder on yourself than you do on your job everybody wins. You win. Your family wins. Your company wins. The idea is counterintuitive and seems self-promoting but it is the best thing you could ever do for yourself and your career.

“Learn to work harder on yourself than you do on your job. If you work hard on your job you can make a living, but if you work hard on yourself you’ll make a fortune.”
– Jim Rohn

Greg Lewin is a co-founder of Canduit, a career access (SaaS) platform that allows university students and recent graduates from underserved groups to demonstrate job readiness competencies through employer-sponsored project-based engagements. Canduit provides the coordinates that allow black, brown, and first-generation college students to safely and successfully land their first job.