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How To Drive Your Professional Development With A Self-Directed Learning Program
Being a peak performer often requires you to design your own learning program. Cath Duncan shows how to put that plan together.
In our high-change world, those who are most successful in their work are the people who are committed to developing themselves by giving themselves goals or new levels of mastery to reach for.
Successful employees don't wait for their annual performance review and their boss to tell them where they need to grow - they're committed to life-long self-directed learning and they're deciding and driving their own development directions. And it's a given that, as an entrepreneur, no matter how good your mastermind or business coach is, it's ultimately up to you to take responsibility for your own personal and professional development.
Here's how you can drive your own career with a self-directed learning plan:
1) Discover Your Natural Strengths and Interests
You'll learn fastest, enjoy your work the most and make the most progress if you're learning and working in the areas of your natural strengths and interests, so base your self-directed learning program on your natural strengths and interests.
Start by thinking of the times when you’re so involved in what you’re doing that you lose track of time. What are you doing when you feel that way? Think about the activities at work that give you the flow experience, and then think of activities outside of work where you get that flow experience. These are the activities that you innately love doing, so they’ll be the areas where you’ll do best to invest your time and energy when it comes to developing mastery. A variety of personality profiling tools can also be really helpful for discovering your natural strengths and interests.
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2) Get Clear On Your Vision
We're all learning and growing all the time - we can't not learn. The difference that creates success is deciding and directing your learning direction. If you don't know what you want your work to look like in 1 or 2 years from now, you'll be likely to have your career direction determined by other people or circumstances, rather than your personal values and desires, so get clear on the picture of work you're aiming for.
What activities would you ideally spend your day doing? Who are your ideal clients? What does an ideal work week's schedule look like? What kind of impact do you want to be making through your work? What are the values you want to express and affirm through your work? (Here's an exercise to discover your values.)
3) Look for the Gaps
When you know what picture you're aiming for, you can come back to where you are right now and notice where the gaps are between where you are now and where you want to be. This provides the focus for your learning program.
What's missing in your work right now? What do you want more of and what do you want less of? How much more/ less do you want? How will you know when you have it?
4) Set Your Learning Goals
Considering the gaps you've identified, set yourself learning goals that will enable you to bridge those gaps. Remember to check your learning goals against your strengths and interests. If it's not in the arena of your strengths or interests, can you rather outsource or insource help and get someone else to bridge that gap for you?
A key to successful self-directed learning is in setting the right mastery goals. Csikszentmihalyi studied the flow experience - that space where you're "in the zone" and it feels like you're able to perform accurately, easily and effortlessly without much conscious thought. He found that one of the factors that created flow was when people were tackling learning goals that were within a sweet zone where the challenge was not too easy and not too hard, but “just right.”
So if you want to trigger flow experiences, feel naturally motivated and perform your best, then set yourself learning goals that challenge you just enough to trigger both anxiety and excitement. And then, as you make progress, to keep hitting that sweet spot, keep adjusting those goals to challenge yourself a little further all the time.
5) Design Your Plan
Design a self-directed learning plan for yourself by deciding what sources you’ll learn from, what programs or classes you might wish to sign up for, who you’d like to be mentored by, and what other sources of social support and accountability you’ll build into your learning program, in order to achieve your learning goals. As you design your program, remember that you’ll learn best if you create a program that allows you to learn on three levels:
Learning from other people who are ahead of you. This helps you to stay inspired of the possibilities and to discover more about the territory you're heading into before you get there.
Learning with other people who are at a similar level of development. This helps to normalize your fears and ensures that your learning is highly relevant and meets you where you're at.
Teaching other people who are just beginning. This helps to reinforce the foundational basics and to remind you how far you've come. Plus it has the added bonus of growing your leadership and influence and motivating you through the good feeling of giving back.
Want to avoid getting suckered into buying every new program, overwhelming yourself and never using any of it? Just go back to your self-directed learning plan and check - does this offering fit with my learning goals?
6) Schedule regular reviews
Decide some parameters for tracking and measuring your progress and mark your calendar with an appointment with yourself or your coach to review your progress regularly. Schedule reviews as often as once a month, because the review and feedback loop is fundamental to learning. You might wish to gather feedback from others, record performance statistics, or just reflect and record your own judgement of your performance and progress.
What we measure is what we focus on and what we focus on is what we grow, so be sure to find quantitative or qualitative ways of measuring your progress and focusing your growth.