To be successful in todays work environment you need to become really really good at what you do. If you are not already there, you need to set your sights on moving into the top 10% of your field.
In his book Outliers, Malcom Gladwell proposes that it takes roughly 10,000 hours of practice to achieve mastery in a given field. Gladwell arrives at this conclusion after studying the lives of extremely successful people to find out how they achieved success.
In a world filled with short cuts, distractions and instant gratification how does anyone invest over 10,000 hours in a given topic? The answer: A strong learning plan.
A strong learning plan will:
- leverage your natural strengths and abilities
- make you smarter within a specific area of knowledge
- identify the skills that need to improve
- develop consistent habits on improving these skills
- provide you with feedback when you make mistakes
- give you an opportunity to push outside of your comfort zone
- all within a safe and supportive learning environment
Here are a few tips to follow to develop your learning plan:
1) Start Where You Are
Getting started is more important than getting it right. Don’t get bogged down in trying to figure out the perfect solution. Just look around and notice where you are today. You want to find something about your current work that you enjoy. When you think about your work, what part of it do you enjoy? Start there.
For me, it was coding. I was a Junior programmer and I really enjoyed working with computers and building applications that helped solve a problem. It was an obvious place to start.
2) Go Really Really Deep (aka T-Skill Distribution)
Now it’s time to go deep. Once you’ve identified where you’re going to start, you need to work on mastering a set of skills. My recommendation is to choose one specific skill and become an expert in that area.
Think of it like the letter T, where you have all the skills related to your field of interest listed along the top (the horizontal line in the letter T). You will want to develop general knowledge of all of these areas. However there is one skill (the vertical line in the letter T) where you are going to go really really deep.
In my case there were a lot of skills that I could focus on within my field of interest of coding. I had the choice of a number of popular computer programming languages and operating systems. I had the choice of going deep within user interface design, object oriented development, agile programming or database design.
3) Create a Breakable Toy
A breakable toy is a personal learning project. It’s an outcome you set for yourself with the intention of skill development. It’s called a breakable toy because learning happens on the edges of your current abilities. When you play on the edges, you make mistakes. When you make mistakes you learn! That’s the whole point of the breakable toy, to make learning fun by exploring the edges. If it breaks, you step back, notice what you learned and start again.
My breakable toy was to build a library of reusable code that would allow me to create useful computer applications in a short amount of time. I spent hundreds of hours coding, testing and refining my skills. I learned a lot in a very short amount of time because I immersed myself in the project.
4) Rinse and Repeat
Once you get through your first breakable toy you will want to start again. You will want to build on the momentum that you developed from the first go around and let it carry over into your next project. It’s ok to take a little time to enjoy the feeling of accomplishment. I encourage you to pause and reflect on what you learned about the way that you learn. This will be a great benefit to you choose your next breakable toy as you continue stretch your abilities by going even deeper.
When I think back on my learning journey, I can see how each breakable toy pushed me in ways that was unexpected. As I went deeper things became clearer. I noticed that I was actually getting smarter as I was able to make finer and finer distinctions within each area of knowledge. There were also some changes in direction; the most notable being that I started out with the intention to figure out how computers work and, later in my career, this shifted toward learning how people work.
Developing your learning plan will be one of the most challenging and rewarding things that you will ever do. Taking ownership of my learning was probably the smartest career decision that I ever made. I encourage you to do the same.