Little by little...

Little by little...

Friday, February 26, 2016

How Much Should I Invest In Myself?

A few years ago, I was invited to a unique experience called Consultants’ Camp. It’s an annual, week-long event focused on the joys and challenges of being a consultant. (Ask me if you want more info.)

At the time, I was struggling with the question of, “How do I know how much to spend on my own professional development?” This encompassed not just budgeting dollars, but my time and effort as well. Since going independent, I saw opportunities everywhere, in every direction, and everything sounded fun and interesting. I couldn’t practically say, ‘yes,’ to everything but the FOMO was strong with me!

So what I proposed at Consultants’ Camp was what we call a reverse session. I posed my question and gathered ideas and thoughts from the attendees. I learned many nuggets of gold that helped me create decision filters for evaluating new opportunities. I share this advice in hopes that it will help you as much as it’s helped me.

Do you know where you’re going?
This is a good starting question. Do you have a direction? An area of focus? A bourgeoning passion? If you do, you’re ahead of a lot of us. It’s still a good idea to create guardrails for your decisions related to pursuing that existing interest. Think of it like driving down the highway at night. You know where you’re headed and guardrails help to keep you from veering off the road.

And it’s okay if you answered, “no.” In fact, most of this advice is geared toward you since that was my answer at the time. I was direction-less. I had years of experience as a business analyst, lots of exposure to agile development and a newfound excitement about coaching. Those were intersecting, but not completely overlapping areas. In which direction should I proceed?

What is your unfair advantage?
One camper asked me that question and received a blank look. Unfair advantage? I knew of elevator pitches – and dreaded creating mine, but this was a new term for me. He explained that given the unique nature of people, coupled with the unique history, experiences and competencies of our individual lives, we each have something to offer that gives us an unfair advantage over others.

Sometimes this can be easy to see about yourself. For example, I recognized from my years as an agile BA, that this group of people is underserved in the industry. Much of what’s out there for BAs is pretty traditional ‘all requirements up front’ material. I knew I could fill that gap. (I applied this decision filter a few months later by saying ‘yes’ to an opportunity to speak at BA World Atlanta.)

Other times, your unfair advantage can be situational and harder to see. For example, I don’t want to work full-time and I never thought that would be an advantage.  It turns out that some consultancies need people who only want part-time work. Win-win-FTW.

Your advantage can also be economic. Because I maintain six-months income in the bank, I can be selective in the work & opportunities I take. I started that reserve account as security for leaving corporate America. But now, if I didn’t have that safety net, I would feel pressure to take less than ideal work. I might also pass up great volunteer opportunities or situations where I have to pay my own expenses.

Why are you investing in yourself?
I know Simon says to ‘Start With Why,’ but he’ll forgive me for making it third. ;) So what are your goals for professional development? What is worthy of your time, money and effort? Sometimes goals are directly tied to business interests. You want to become a certified trainer for X so you can host classes. Many times na├»ve executives and HR departments will even give you more money if you have letters after your name. I’m not sure I would want to work with folks who use that logic, but it’s a real thing.

Sometimes, motivation to pursue professional development is fuzzier. We may like learning, and it has no direct connection to revenue. If it brings you joy, do it anyway! (As long as you can afford it.) We make better decisions when we are happy and we are happiest when we are doing what we love. For example, that winter after Camp, I took a photography class – just for fun. Now I use my own photos for my blog and Green Jeans Consulting site. I didn’t anticipate that, but find it very gratifying.

I can’t present at a conference - can I?
Other than signing up for a training class, how can you learn? Everyone knows conferences provide perfect places for networking. Sometimes we forget that they also have great content by talented speakers!

What is also not as obvious to some is the unique opportunity that conferences provide for ANYONE to give a talk. Yes, even you. A great way to become an expert on a topic is to know that you are going to present on the topic. Instant pressure!

Preparing for a talk forces me to refine my own thinking and to consider different ways to articulate my ideas to others. It can be a big time commitment to submit a proposal, craft a talk & travel to present. And many conferences do not reimburse for travel expenses. But the impacts to my life have been priceless. I believe attending and presenting have been the most influential activities in my professional life. I'm so glad I overcame my fear.

One sidenote on networking: it is not a four-letter word that sleazy people do over drinks while exchanging business cards. To me, it means meeting folks who share similar interests. Occasionally, a few of those folks stand out as kindred spirits whom I would like to know better and maybe even work with. The quality of the connections is much more important than the quantity of them.

My reverse session also touched on writing which is an entire other blog post of ideas for another time. For now, be reminded that posting blogs or submitting articles is a great way to invest time in yourself and your professional development. But you already knew that. J

The main takeaways from my reverse session were:
  • Decide which doors to NOT walk through: It can be just as helpful to know when to say, ‘no,’ as when to say, ‘yes.’ Sometimes I need to trust my gut…and so do you.
  • Learn from past experiences: If you tried something and didn’t enjoy it, take note. Don’t pursue something if you don’t LOVE it. Be picky about how you spend your time, effort and money.
  • Experiment: While trying something out, reduce the time to say “uh oh.” Try something and listen to your gut. If you treat experiences as experiments, you’ll always learn. Don’t be afraid to pull the plug on something that you decide is not for you.
Perhaps the biggest thing that I learned is that there is more potential for increasing value than reducing costs. You can try to skimp and save on your professional development. But you risk missing out on the tremendous value that may come from pursuing what you love or exploring what interests you.

In the past, I have viewed being directionless as a stress; now I view it as an adventure. It invites investigation, discovery and opportunities to connect with other adventurers. Consultants’ Camp was the perfect place to be reminded that my journey is just beginning and that I’m in the driver’s seat.

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