Hacks to Keep Your Professional Skills Fresh

Chloe-Estelle McCall • Aug 8, 2017 9:00:00 AM

If you’ve ever wondered if your skillset is up-to-date, you’re certainly not alone. Not a day goes by that we don’t hear about a new technology, an up-and-coming industry, or new unicorn skillset that is all the rage. 

So how can you possibly keep up with the rapid advancements of the workplace and in technology amidst your already busy schedule?

We’ll be honest: it’s not easy, but it is doable. The good news is, you are the owner of your career, and with a little bit of planning, you can acquire and hone in on the skills and experiences you need to get to where you ultimately want to be.

Below are our six tips to keep your professional skillset fresh. At the end, we’ll walk you through a brief planning exercise so that you can put your plan into writing and commit to it for the long-haul.

1. Stay Curious

While you were hired because of a particular skillset you possess, recognizing that there is so much else to learn is what will really set you apart in the workforce. Staying hungry for the “what if’s” in life will not only keep your current skillset fresh, but help you develop new ones.

Let’s say you’re a designer who has been working in the same software and workflow for years. It works, and you’re gainfully employed, so why change it? Well, just because it works doesn’t mean it’s the best way to get something done, or the very best work you could be doing.

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Every day, we challenge you to find one way you can try to do something differently. Whether it’s testing out a new email newsletter style, trying a new design technique to spice up your website, or rethinking your software testing cycle, you can learn a lot just by trying. With more skills under your belt and an energetic, curious mindset, you’ll be attractive to many more employers down the road.

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2. Invest in Ongoing Education 

One of the best ways to learn (and learn fast) is by investing in your own education. Whether it’s brushing up on an existing skillset, learning a new one, or even beginning leadership training, it’s important for remaining relevant and valuable in the workforce today.

These days, there are a number of ways you can do this, and not all cost money. Companies like Coursera have a large library of free courses you can take. We consider these more self-guided studies, but there are other more hands-on classes you can take that are conducted in an in-person or virtual classroom setting. The benefit of these is your instructor can help you to stay on track and accountable for your studies as well as offer personal feedback and guidance during the program to help you apply what you’re learning to your career.

Local resources to check out:

Of course, you could also look into a local university or community college that offers nighttime or weekend courses in an area of interest to you.

Not all companies offer education reimbursement, but some do, so it’s worth checking to see if your employer would be willing to pay for your course. If not, it may still be well worth the investment to pay for it on your own dime as it will make you a more valuable employee now and in the future.

3. Stay Connected

You can learn a lot from the people you surround yourself with. And while you may already work with incredibly talented people at your company, it’s always a good idea to stay connected to the outside world, too.

While you’re able to learn a lot from your leadership team and fellow colleagues about your industry and tasks particular to your job, you don’t want to confine yourself too much. After all, do you foresee yourself staying at that company or in the same role or industry for the rest of your career?

Likely not, which is why you should aim to maintain connections across industries and roles.

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One way you can do this is by staying in touch with former colleagues and bosses. Aim to meet with them once a quarter or so. Look beyond your network, too, by making new connections and identifying other industry leaders you can either meet with or follow along online. These people should hold a position you aspire to be in one day or who possess a skillset you desire. You can learn a lot from them just by following them on social media, subscribing to their blogs, or attending events where they are speaking.

They can give you a fresh outlook on what skills are relevant today, as well as how you can rise in the ranks by gaining those skills.

4. Find A Mentor

Mentors can be a great way to get some more hands-on guidance throughout your career. Especially if you don’t think it’s feasible to meet up with your network often enough (coordinating schedules is no easy task!), finding a mentor can offer a more structured format for learning and networking.

A great mentor is someone who:

  • Is several ranks above you
  • Has a skillset that matches what you desire to have
  • Takes genuine interest in your prosperity

Oftentimes, a mentor is born out of an existing relationship within someone in your rolodex. Other times, it’s a matter of finding someone you admire and reaching out to see if they have interest and time to serve as your mentor. The ask is relatively small:  For them to meet with you monthly for an hour or two to offer feedback and advice that will help you grow. (Pro tip: Offer to buy them coffee, lunch, or dinner in exchange for their time).

A good mentor will help you avoid the mistakes they made, learn new skills (or tell you where you can gain them), motivate and challenge you, and hold you accountable. That last piece is often the most valuable of all. Like we mentioned earlier, it can be all too easy to let your professional development slip by the wayside with an already jam-packed schedule, so knowing someone is counting on you to take the steps you know you should be taking can help you stick to them.

Over time, you’ll learn how to better self-direct yourself as well as prioritize professional development.

5. Attend Local Events and National Conferences

Immersing yourself in on-site training via events, meetups, and conferences is another good way to sharpen your skills and gain new ones. In Boston, for example, not a night goes by without a good meetup or conference happening. You can stay up to date on the top events to attend by checking out the VentureFizz event calendar or subscribing to the BostInno newsletter.

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Your company may also have a program in place where they will pay for you to attend national conferences relevant to your job. Be sure to ask your HR team about those perks and begin pinpointing a few each year that you would like to go to.

Events, whether local or national, are a good way to make new connections, acquire new skills, learn about the latest innovations in your field and/or industry, and identify new leaders you want to follow and learn from.

6. Stretch Your Skills with a Volunteer or Passion Project

There may be some skills you want to learn that don’t apply to your current job but that you think will be valuable later on in your career. To avoid letting them go stale and begin sharpening them now, we suggest finding a volunteer project or starting a side hustle to practice them regularly. In fact, we’ve found that having a side hustle can actually make you a better employee.

Whether there’s a local organization you’d like to get involved in, a committee or advisory board you can join, or an opportunity to mentor someone below you, those can all be great ways to challenge and help yourself grow. By using your skills in a new context, you’ll begin to build on them in new and creative ways, which can help you in your current role as well as in a future one.

Make a Plan and Stick to It

Reading these tips and taking action on them are two very different things. The moment you step away from this post, you could be pulled into a meeting or asked to tackle a new project and it could be another month before you act on what you just learned.

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While the information is fresh in your mind, sketch out your plan in writing:

  • Each day, how will you remind yourself to try something new to advance your skills? (e.g. a sticky note on your computer, a reminder on your phone)
  • Will you invest in continuing education? If so, which programs are you interested in exploring and in what area of study?
  • How frequently do you want to schedule coffee meetings where you can learn from others?
  • Which blogs and social media profiles will you follow?
  • Do you want a mentor? If so, who comes to mind? When will you reach out to them?
  • How often will you go to events and conferences? How will you find out about them?
  • What organizations, committees, or projects could you join to practice and stretch your skills?

With a plan in place, begin working on them one-by-one.

Becoming complacent or comfortable with your current skillsets is the fastest path to obsolescence, especially in today’s competitive and technology-driven workplace.

By following the six steps outlined in this post, you can proactively build and shape your career. That’s something your future self will be thanking you for years down the line. 

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