Prior to 2008 (when I made the decision to write for a living so that I could have a much more flexible schedule for my family), I held a job in a research lab where I was involved with the processing and sharing of large quantities of scientific data. This required both computer programming skills and scientific skills – not only did I have to know how to manipulate the data, I had to know why I was manipulating it and what answers people would seek.
I was reasonably successful in that position. I received a few professional honors and consistently had stellar employee reviews. I even served on a couple of professional committees that, in all honesty, were probably above my pay grade. I would look around the table and be stunned at the caliber of people who were also there.
My exit from this job was entirely of my own choosing. I’m pretty sure I would still be at that job (or a very similar job) if I didn’t make a personal choice to change direction.
Along the way, I had a handful of wonderful mentors. One was a jovial older gentleman who loved to close his office door near the end of the day, open his window, and enjoy his pipe. Another was a quiet but incredibly thoughtful man from Germany, one of those people who might only say two or three things during a long meeting but each of those things would be insightful and thoughtful. Yet another was an incredibly friendly staff member who enabled my first big career opportunity.
All of them suggested one key thing that I should do during my professional career that would not only secure my job, but would secure almost every job I might want to get. It’s something really simple, too.
They told me to spend at least one hour a day focusing on learning something new related to my job. If I could possibly carve out an hour during a workday, I should spend that hour actively learning a new skill or studying a relevant topic. They also recommended trying to apply those skills to my own side projects that might bear fruit for something relevant to my job.
I really took that idea to heart. During the course of my career, I taught myself several programming languages and worked on several small projects on my own, including writing some great AJAX software near the end of my time there. I extensively studied genetics and read a small mountain of scientific papers. I learned the deep inner workings of several different database systems, even though my job didn’t involve database management. I studied a bunch of techniques for managing different data types and experimented with them, eventually implementing some of those ideas in my main work.
I spent at least an hour per day doing this whenever I possibly could (there were crunch times where that didn’t work, of course).
In the short term, this approach really wasn’t helpful. I would often have this long list of things that I needed to get done and by spending an hour or two learning something new, I wasn’t getting anything checked off of that list.
Over time, though, it became more and more and more useful. I found that by teaching myself different approaches and studying new ideas, I understood the tasks that I was responsible for on a much deeper level. Rather than just applying the same old techniques to a given task, I’d understand it differently from a scientific perspective or I’d know a new algorithm that I could apply to the problem.
I was able to solve these problems faster… but I was also able to solve them better. This made me drastically more efficient at work and people noticed. There were actually jokes about how I would have a “rough” implementation of a solution to a problem in place by the end of a conference call, simply because I had a lot of tools at my disposal. I had invested the time to learn new tools and new information and that learning consistently paid off.
This made me more valuable in the workplace. It also helped me to build a resume, as I was able to contribute and even take the lead on projects that I wouldn’t have been able to contribute to when I first started. I received raises, professional recognition, and other little perks as a result.
The key to this, without a doubt, was to simply spend an hour each day learning new skills and knowledge related to my job. It did not help me in the short term. It was purely a long term investment, but after a year or two, I saw that investment paying off almost every single day.
It doesn’t matter what your job is. There are always things to learn. There are always skills to build. There are always efficiencies you can improve. If you do it consistently, it will be noticed, and when it comes time to ask for a raise or take on a professional change, those efforts will reward you greatly.