The Challenge of Sustained Professional Growth: Which Trajectory are You On?

blue-growth-chartDavid Brooks, in Tuesday’s edition of the New York times (6/17/2014), posted an Op Ed piece entitled, The Structures of Growth: Learning Is No Easy Task. His discussion on accurately understanding one’s growth as algorithmic or exponential rather than linear was excellent. It made me reflect on my own trajectory of professional growth and development. I would invite you to consider where you find yourself in this brief conversation.

Is my growth algorithmic, that is, while I experienced quick results and gains initially, the new gains (ongoing professional growth and deepening and expanding competencies) have been exceedingly more difficult and incremental. Has my own acquired expertise become a significant obstruction to extended development? To me this means that it is extremely difficult to stay relevant the longer I live with the habits and tendencies born from using existing knowledge that generated growth in the first place. To get better, sharper, to stay relevant, and remain effective requires more, not less, work and effort and, moreover, the return on that investment over time may, in fact, be smaller. The bottom line is that I have to work harder to acquire additional knowledge and insight which then allows me to stay on the “cutting edge.” There is no rest for one who wants to continue to make a contribution. Acquired credentials, degrees, recognitions, or accomplishments do not equal relevance.

On the other hand, if my growth is exponential, I may end up quitting too early due to the staggering amounts of time I spend slogging, digging, sweating in obscurity (and perhaps discouragement), and finding only “small wins,” along the way. The reality is that I may quit too soon due to my own lack of resilience and professional stamina and miss the growth and impact that lay just ahead.

Truth be told, I find myself in both camps. On one hand I have become comfortable with what I know and so ensconced in my habits of using existing knowledge that the thought of prying myself out of my lethargy to stay fresh, current, and global requires great effort and discipline. On the other hand, the sheer effort, time, and hard work involved in developing a powerful and transformational craft seems endless and, at times, a “bridge too far.” Getting exceptionally good at a skill seems to be the unobtainable goal.

Strangely though, I am encouraged. It is clear to me that being good and getting better at my craft and trade and then continuing to work hard for those small gains is worth the effort. Staying the course, working hard, and, as David Zweig notes in his new book, The Invisibles: The Power of Anonymous Work in an Age of Relentless Self-Promotion, being willing to bring excellence and quality even in obscurity is what seems most valuable to me at the end of the day. Indeed, bring on the success and notoriety but may both be earned by ongoing work and effort and the rock-solid value one brings to others rather than by the noise generated by one’s own self-advancement.

Finally, I am reminded of how many professionals seek to advance their craft and trade based on yesterday’s knowledge. How easy it is to cloak ourselves in the garb of relevance when we essentially have little to offer that can positively augment people and organizations given today’s current realities. How much harder do we need to work to stay “in the game” and to keep bringing fresh ideas and value-added impact to the table?

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