How to Future Proof Your Career

Faster, Better, Smarter:
How to Future Proof Your Career

This past December, I took ski lessons. I wanted to gain the techniques that I hoped might enable me to brave the scary, single-seater “pizza box” chairlift and expert slopes at the summit. Each morning we learned about how to shift our weight to our inside or outside foot, where our body should go in short vs long turns and how to crush the steepest, most mogul filled slopes. After the third day I felt frustrated that I hadn’t improved much and still didn’t feel like I could go up to the top of the mountain and ski down in style.

Pizza-box Lift, Niseko, Japan (photo: Akiro Ogasawara)

When I mentioned my disappointment to the ski instructor, he looked me in the eye and said, “We learn to ski by skiing!” I had spent most of the afternoons teaching our youngest child to ski down the bunny slope. I hadn’t been skiing at my level or using the information and feedback I’d been given in lessons. That afternoon I left the kids with my husband and relentlessly drilled the techniques I had learned. Moreover, I just had a blast skiing down the slopes. By the end of the day I had made a marked improvement.  

In order for us to future-proof our careers, we need to become faster, smarter, better and stronger by investing in perpetual improvement. We need to learn how to learn.

Learn By Doing

Like my skiing, many of us learn by doing. When I served on the board of a robotics education company, I remember watching the kids at the center calculate the circumference of a robot’s wheel, code an instruction for the robot to roll across the play-mat and then run back to the screen to try a new sequence of codes if they failed. They were learning geometry but also learning how to learn – what worked, what didn’t, how to recognize patterns and improve their speed and accuracy. It reminded me of a lesson from my childhood riding horses — stay close when walking behind a horse because if you walk near to the arc of his outstretched leg, you’re likely to get kicked in the head. Both examples required a bit of math  but also how developed our judgement and perseverance.

Take Small Bets

The hardest part of learning a new skill or even perfecting and old one is starting. We want to have a Big Hairy Audacious Goal or have exponential growth to look back on by year end.

The reality is that most of us are better off starting with little bets; small, achievable, affordable actions that you can take to get you started. Pulitzer-winning writer, Charles Duhigg, calls these ‘keystone’ actions and is second only to your mother in suggesting that making the bed in the morning is “a process that, over time, transforms everything”. And if it doesn’t, at least the bed is made.

Include Tight Feedback Loops 

Of course, practice without feedback is fairly useless if you’re looking to get better at something, according to Ulrich Boser, author of Learn Better.  You can play basketball with little to no improvement, as he did, for weeks on end. Or you can hire a coach to show you small adjustments to the way you are playing which you can practice for success. If you don’t want to hire a coach, basketball or otherwise, you can still observe and reflect on your performance. The Financial Times Non-Executive Directors Diploma requires people to actively reflect on their board-related behavior, how effective it has been in terms of accomplishing an objective (eg increasing strategic discussion around the board table) and what changes might be made based on that experience.

Start with a small change or action that sets you in the right direction, gather information from your “experiment” and use the experience to inform the next step to progress toward your goal.

Learn How to Learn

In our desire to acquire badges, diplomas or a particular skill, we can overlook the fact that learning is not an event, it is a practice. We can create exponential growth over a lifetime of learning by developing and improving an ongoing learning practice. 

“When you’re not sure where to invest, invest in understanding how you learn.”

Have you ever thought about whether or not you are learning as well as you could be? Most of us learn by studying at school and then learn by doing at work. In an age of lifelong learning, it is worth investing in specific practices to enhance how you learn for exponential long-term gain. You can, in the words of musicians, Daft Punk: Work it harder, Make it better, Do it faster, Makes us stronger. 

Know the Brain Hacks for Learning

Professor of Engineering, Dr. Barbara Oakley, has created one of the most popular online courses in the world, the“Learning How to Learn” course. In it, she recommends a few tips:

  • Focus and then don’t: the brain has two modes of thinking – a ‘focus’ mode which, like my ski instruction, allows us to concentrate on materials; the second a more diffuse neural resting state where consolidation of information occurs.
  • Taking regular breaks: in the land of productivity, the Pomodoro technique is king. Set a timer for 25-minutes and reward yourself with a break. It helps overcome procrastination and allows for that diffuse learning to kick in.
  • Practice: Developing a neural pattern that can be reactivated when needed accelerates your learning. Remember the times tables in math (3×1=3, 3×2=6, 3×3=9…)? Despite being rote memorization, having the ability to quickly recall the answers to these simple equations is a core building block for future learning.  The ability to call upon well-rehearsed neural chunks and add to them in number and complexity leads to greater procedural fluency and flow.
  • Know your own learning style: people learn differently and knowing your own learning style (are you a hiker or a rocket?) can ensure you adapt to the pace that suits you.

You may decide to learn to code, improve your Spanish or run a marathon this year but understanding how you learn will make the process faster, better, stronger and more successful.

From Learn Digital to Learn Better

There is a frenzy of fear over improving digital skills for ourselves and our children, despite the fact that softer skills like judgement, sense-making, teamwork and influencing have been suggested by everyone from AI expert Robert Shank to the World Economic Forum. We’ll be grappling with such tensions on a digital skills panel at the Future of Work Conference and at the AI & Education Summit this month and my book, Future Proof: Reinventing Work in an Age of Acceleration is chock full of ideas for lifelong learning.

Martin Lau, President of Tencent, one of the largest internet and gaming companies in the world, said at last year’s Yidan Prize Summit,  

“Learning to learn is the key to success. It’s the deal breaker. It’s the one thing you need to have.”

Digital skills are key and it is a necessity to understand them and how they fit in to how we work today and in the future. But learning how to learn faster, better, strong? That will never become obsolete.

What learning could you invest in today that will never become obsolete?