“Eric Sink”:http://software.ericsink.com/Career_Calculus.html writes a great entry about the value of constant learning in one’s career. Now, he’s talking specifically about finding value in going to a very expensive conference, but his fundamental point is correct — it’s important for individuals to take responsibility for learning about their chosen profession and assigned tasks throughout their career.
Of course one’s employer should help one out in doing this, by financing conferences, books and other learning materials, and giving one the time to network (on-line or in the real world) with other people carrying out similar tasks and pursuing similar careers. But it’s important for individuals to take responsibility for learning above and beyond that absolutely required by one’s manager. Remember, it’s your manager’s job to maximize your ability to do jobs required of you now and in the amount of time they expect you to remain in your job; it’s your job to maximize the skills that will help you now and in your career beyond your current job. There’s a lot of overlap between the two, but enough difference that learning needs to be your responsibility as well as your boss’s.
I do a lot of learning in my daily life. One of the things that I’ve benefitted the most from during the past 5 years (a period during which I’ve been almost exclusively involved in Web design) is e-mail listservs. These beasts allow people from all around the world (I’m on listservs with people from Singapore and Pakistan and Belgium and Germany and, yes, even Pennsylvania) to ask each other questions and learn from each others’ experiences. I receive about 300 e-mails every day from these listservs (in the past, I’ve been on more listservs and have gotten upwards of 600 e-mails), and I read about 85% of them and respond to at least 3 or 4 every day. By reading so many posts, I learn a great deal about things I’m not worrying about today but will have to in the future. Right now, I’m on 7 lists that I consider the most high-value for what I do of all those I’ve been on in the past (over 20, at one time or another):
* “Web405″:http://www.web405.org/, a listserv for Los Angeles-area Web developers. I’ve met a bunch of folks from this list in real life and it’s a useful resource for tech tips, business advice and networking.
* “Evolt’s thelist”:http://lists.evolt.org/mailman/listinfo/thelist. This listserv is one of the more international ones I’m on and has great developers from around the world. Sure answers to all your Web design questions, as well as related topics like server management, databases, copyright, etc.
* “Webdesign-L”:http://www.webdesign-l.com/ is the grandaddy of them all. One of the oldest Web design lists (Web405 may actually be a few months older), it’s had all the big names on it since time immemorial. The quality has gone down lately since the listmom stopped moderating so firmly and since a whole new set of people has joined, but still a valuable resource.
* “ActiveServerPages”:http://www.15seconds.com/listserver.htm is another multinational list, this one dedicated only to Microsoft’s “Active Server Pages”:http://msdn.microsoft.com/asp/ server-side programming environment. That’s what I use to build dynamic Web pages, and I’ve learned countless invaluable tips from this listserv.
* The similarly-named “active-server-pages”:http://groups.yahoo.com/group/active-server-pages/ has pretty much the same focus, just with a different cast of characters. Each of these two lists has some real heavyweights on it, and different questions are best asked in one or the other environment.
* “Mac-Mgrs”:http://mac-mgrs.org/ is your decisive source for information on how to fix whatever’s wrong with your Mac or make it bend to your will in whatever way makes business sense. Ruthlessly moderated, this group has the highest signal-to-noise ratio out there (that is, 0% noise).
* “BBEdit-Talk”:http://www.barebones.com/support/lists/bbedit_talk.shtml is a litserv for the users of “BBEdit”:http://www.barebones.com/products/bbedit/index.shtml, my Web development tool of choice. Hanging out here I learn how to work more productively.
Plus, there’s a ton of Web sites that I try to read every day or every week. They’re too numerous to mention here, but some are in my Links sidebar. Now, this takes a bunch of time (oh, about 3 hours/day), but the payoff is really there — I find I use stuff I learn through these methods several times a week.
At the same time, I see a lot of my colleagues *not* using these resources. These colleagues’ work is stagnant and they’re unable to solve key problems and rise to certain challenges. These are the folks who say “It can’t be done” or “It doesn’t work that way” all the time, and, the worst part of it is, they’re wrong. They’re stuck doing the same old thing, and they will be for a while.
It’s both sad and frustrating to work with these people. Not only does their lack of knowledge hurt the planning process, their decision not to learn harms execution, and the mere fact that they’re not often exposed to different ideas (as I am, about 250 times a day, on the above listservs) makes them more rigid. Or maybe it goes the other way, that people who want to learn and who want to contribute to planning and execution and who are prepared to change their mind seek out opportunities to do so independently. I don’t frankly know, and I’d be surprised if it’s possible to test such a thing (maybe a really long longitudinal study).
Anyway, this is a long post. The important part is this: folks, take time out from your day to learn how to do whatever it is that you do better. It’s rewarding, fun, and, best of all, it means that you’re actually doing work when it just feels like you’re interacting with your colleagues.