The developing arena is where we spend most of our time as professionals: getting better at our day-to-day work in some steady way. Here are our suggestions for making this arena effective.
Most people think of learning in the workplace like a traditional school environment: training sessions, workshops, and e-learning courses. It’s all modeled on the industrial education system we grew up with. Learning as consumption. Learning as something "done to the learner". You hear phrases like “consuming content” or “getting trained”.
When it comes to growing as a professional, formal training should be the exception, not the rule. 95% of the “content” you need is right in front of you every day. It's right there on your calendar and todo list. The work you do every day is the best curriculum you could ask for.
You can harness this curriculum and dramatically improve yourself with two simple actions: pause and write.
Every task you complete, every meeting you attend, every project you conquer is a case study to analyze or an experiment to run. Simply pause and write.
Finished writing the copy for that new campaign? Pause. Take 30 seconds and think about it. What did you notice? What did you learn? How do you feel?
Perhaps you tried a new approach to editing that worked well. Or maybe you wrote this in half the time it normally takes and you’re feeling like your copy skills have grown. Or it could be you struggled on this assignment and you’re not sure why.
Whatever you noticed... write it down.
Learning is literally the development of new neural pathways. Being mindful and articulating your thoughts builds stronger pathways faster.
Pause and write.
Here's how to create a Journey: Make a conscious choice to get better at some aspect of your role over the next few months. Then write it down.
Maybe your Journey is to be better at qualifying prospects, or drafting a project plan, or finally mastering InDesign. Creating a Journey adds a conscious focus to your development. It creates “red car syndrome”. You know how when you decide to buy a red car, you start seeing red cars everywhere you turn? That's because we notice what we value. And when you articulate your Journey—when you choose to value your Destination—opportunities for development appear everywhere.
But what does it mean to have an active Journey?
It means you talk about the Journey with a coach, colleague, or mentor. You write reflections about the Journey. You find and study articles, videos, and other resources. You run little experiments to try and improve your effectiveness in this area.
These are all examples of Groove—regular practice. It’s not enough to simply write out a Destination and Victory Conditions, work for a couple months, then reflect on your growth. No. You must be actively developing yourself during these days. The good news is it can take as little as 5 minutes a day or 30 minutes a week.
Dissect your role into its component parts. List the key skills and activities that constitute “doing your job.” (See Defining Roles)
Now look at this list of skills and activities. One of them is the biggest constraint4 on your effectiveness. Identify it. Call it out. Write it down. Now build a Journey around that constraint. Go on that Journey, increase your mastery, and this is no longer "your biggest constraint."
Do this and you will, by definition, increase your capacity to create value. You will be a more effective professional.
Don't let this go unnoticed! Don't wait until an annual review to recognize your growth.
Keep a list of the skills and activities of your role and your competence in each of them. Now is the time to update that. Make note of your growth. And find a way to share that growth with others. Let them know.
First of all, it's satisfying to recognize that you're better. It gives a sense of forward motion. And that energy is what powers you into your next Journey.
Second, recognition from others changes your relationship. People interact with you differently when they understand your true abilities. Don't let people operate on an outdated understanding of you.
Third, when you remove "your biggest constraint", something else is now "your biggest constraint." Find it. Rinse. Repeat.
Each Journey is like unlocking a power-up in a video game. Each power-up helps you gain the next power-up. Chain these together and eventually you level up to the next role. And in addition to a strong set of skills, you develop better intuition and a trusted reputation.
Learning and growth are very much a social phenomenon.
When you explain your ideas to others you must put them into words. You must wrestle them from the abstract into the specific. This brings clarity.
When others respond to your ideas you gain a new perspective. You see your ideas through their eyes and, often, reconsider your position.
Seek out ways to articulate and share your ideas with your teammates and colleagues.
These are simple suggestions. A lot of them look like regular day-to-day work. And they are. Which should tell you how much of our day-to-day work is really about learning and communicating!
There's a secret advantage to all this team learning: not only do people learn faster, they build psychological safety as well. By admitting your vulnerabilities, you develop trust. By pushing each other to learn more, you develop candor. Trust and candor are the foundations of great teams.
Learning is the first thing to get thrown overboard in a crisis. And what is agency life but a string of crises!
When that client deadline gets moved up by a week or the project takes a nosedive and the team needs to rally for the next month... that's when learning seems like a frivolous luxury.
To guard against this, establish a system of practices built around different cadences. Here are some things you might consider doing each...
4 We discuss this more in part 3, but your constraint is the aspect of your work where you have the greatest tension; where work is piling up the most; and usually the aspect of your role you avoid the most.