A few months ago I was cleaning out my house when I found a pile of my husband’s old math textbooks. “Can we get rid of these?” I asked him, assuming the answer was “of course.” To be completely honest, having already moved them into the “giveaway” pile, I was just asking to be polite.
“No,” he told me. Turns out he was still using the calculus textbook. He had quietly been working his way through it, cover to cover, and solving the problems by writing his equations in Python, his second coding language.
“Oh, do you need Python for a project at work?” I asked him. Nope. Actually, he hadn’t even mentioned it at work, where they usually work in another language called R. He had been practicing just for the sake of teaching himself something new.
It got me thinking about the true meaning of “professional development.” It’s a term that so many people talk about but which so few people get right. In theory, it’s the practice of upskilling yourself, closing your knowledge gaps, and exploring new challenges. In practice, however, it can often quickly devolve into something much more transactional. Something, in my experience, that looks like a checklist of things you need to accomplish or improve to secure that next raise or promotion. When you ditch the checklist, however, authentic professional development can be a powerful tool for developing confidence, inspiring creativity, and learning new skills.
Not feeling inspired to crack open a textbook? I wasn’t either, but our conversation did lead me to rethink my own professional development. Here are three ways to practice non-transactional professional development—with no calculus required:
Seek new skills not accolades. My husband, Benjy, is a data scientist and a consultant for IBM. Many people assume he has a computer science degree. Actually, he does have a background in coding—it’s just not the kind you’d imagine: Benjy was born with a coding and sequencing learning disability. Even after he overcame it in his childhood with help from a great occupational therapist, he told himself a story that he was really bad at math. Worse, he believed that story for nearly 30 years. That’s how he almost missed out on going to business school where he discovered he actually loves math. In “missing math” post-MBA (a feeling I will never know), Benjy taught himself to code. He was after new skills, not a gold star. In fact, given his stringent billing requirements and “utilization targets” (which anybody who works in big law or consulting knows all too well) he should have been disincentivized from pursuing this exercise. Yet he managed to create a virtuous cycle: as he learned new skills, he could complete his deliverables more efficiently, and make each billable hour more impactful.
2. Find peer mentors. One of the hottest topics in the workplace today is about the role of mentors and sponsors… and it’s an important one. Especially for women who are too frequently over-mentored and under-sponsored. I’ve had some incredible relationships with managers who mentored me and sponsored my development. Some of the most impactful relationships I continue to have, however, are with my peer mentors. My peer mentors are my go-to resource when I need to brainstorm a problem, ask a question, or think through an opportunity. It’s not just that I respect them or that they “get me.” They’re people I can truly be raw and vulnerable with, who I trust to give it to me straight, and who can help me figure out how to course correct when I’ve made a mistake… or am about to make one. They won’t be the people who approve my next promotion or raise, but I know they are making me better at my job. If you don’t have one, start thinking about cultivating your peer mentors now.
3. Pursue professional passions even when they mean “extra work” without “extra credit.” While I don’t believe careers have to be our lives’ passion, sometimes we find things in our career that we feel passionate about and it’s important to pursue them when you do. Take my best friend, Mer, or as many other people know her Dr. Meredith Kapner, OBGYN. Throughout medical school and residency Meredith knew she wanted to practice obstetrics and gynecology but she was also really passionate about midwifery. It meant extra work on top of class, rounding, studying, and charting. Nonetheless she carved out time to read, shadow, take extra classes, and attend conferences. Fast forward to her private practice and Meredith’s passion for midwifery has become the bedrock of her medical philosophy: today in her private practice, her patient satisfaction scores are off the charts and she can barely accommodate adding new patients.
It’s okay if you don’t want to read a math textbook or if you’re not sure what you’re passionate about. The most important thing you can do is ask yourself two questions about where you’re investing your time: am I pursuing things I’m genuinely interested in and am I cultivating relationships with people I genuinely respect?
Leaning into that authenticity is what’s going to clarify your goals and help you actually achieve them. That’s why the great irony (and beauty) of doubling down on your non-transactional professional development is that it actually gets you to your more transactional goals--like a raise, a career switch, or a promotion--faster. So throw away the “checklist” model… just don’t put Benjy’s calculus textbook in the “giveaway” pile.