Sharpening Your Skills: Why Honing a Craft is More Vital Than Ever
June 19, 2013

By Kristen Forbes
Gone are the days when simply going to school and earning a degree was enough. Whether it’s mastering social media, honing in on lessons specific to our fields, or just accepting the idea that learning is a lifelong process, we now live in an era that requires us to continually sharpen our skills.

Susan Nero, PhD, chair of the graduate management programs at AULA, thinks the idea of skill renewal is a given in today’s society. She says the question we shouldn’t be asking is why the practice is valuable, but how to sharpen our skills in a meaningful way. “I don’t think people have a choice about this,” she says. “We no longer live in a culture that’s based on traditions. We live in a culture where change – rather than stability – is what people have to adapt to. Consequently, whether we like it or not, we’re always being forced to learn new things, even if it’s something like how to open a new Twitter account.”

The good news is that rewards often come to those who seek out new learning opportunities. Dani L., a financial education director in Seattle, credits her job success with the continual steps she takes to renew her skills. Dani (whose last name is withheld due to her company’s privacy policy) says, “I took on positions within leadership and senior management groups from a young age, and was always the first to be promoted. I truly accredit it to a continuing interest in improving my skills within my field through education and mentorship.”

Extra Credit
James Ducat, a 2012 graduate of AULA’s MFA program, works as a high school teacher in Redlands, California. He’s gone above and beyond the required trainings his school site provides to pursue additional educational opportunities, often at his own expense – including earning two master’s degrees. Ducat says he considers the network he acquired from his graduate schools “to be an ad hoc continuing education workshop.”

As Ducat explains it, the main roles of a teacher are preparing students for what comes next (whether that’s continuing education or work), and encouraging “thoughtful civic participation.” When Ducat learns new skills, he engages in the same critical thinking his students experience. Particularly when learning more difficult skills (like technology and pedagogical strategies), he can then present his knowledge to students in a direct, meaningful way. This benefits him, as well. “When I engage with the world in new ways about new subjects,” he says, “I rejuvenate my practice, which can otherwise become stale and repetitive.”

Rejuvenation is important for a number of reasons, from preventing burnout to increasing productivity. Sharpening our skills can seem boring if we’re merely following a path of requirements. These days, most fields require skill renewal, and many companies encourage and facilitate continued learning.

For Brendan Hutchins, owner of Rockstar Remodel and journeyman electrician in Portland, Oregon, it’s often the unrequired courses that provide the greatest satisfaction. “The required classes often just focus on the licenses and not actual practices. It’s the optional classes that really help me. Perhaps people cannot be forced to learn. There needs to be passion or some other drive.”

Susan Nero encourages thinking beyond perimeters when it comes to continued learning. Being less reactive and more proactive fosters learning that’s both beneficial and fun. As she points out, “We have a lot of ways to learn now. People do this by sitting at their computers for hours every day and reading journals they never would have looked at in the library and going to specialized websites and blogs. A lot of people have become a lot more autodidactic because of the new technology.”

Plugging In
Technology has allowed for new and more accessible modes of education. Learning doesn’t always come in the form of a big, expensive, off-site conference or workshop. Learning can be a daily process, like spending time on the computers we’re often using anyway. And while we’re there, we may want to learn more about new technologies and social media. Regardless of the field, these are becoming more universally essential skills.

“Social media is exploding,” says Robert Stapp, director of Human Resources at Antioch University. “It changes every day.” Stapp notes the differences between the last five or so years, citing a time when those in his field were encouraged to not even look at social media. Now the opposite is true. Stapp knows of recruiters who say candidates without social media accounts won’t even be considered by some companies.

Art, Adapted
Gaining news skills can be important even in traditionally solitary, low-tech fields. For this writer, my writing stalled for a year after earning my MFA. I assumed that my master’s degree marked some sort of, well, mastery. I didn’t need another writing group. I didn’t need to figure out this whole Twitter/Tumblr/WordPress/LinkedIn thing. I didn’t need to sign myself up for readings, or seek out people to talk to about the books I read, or find a workshop to help me figure out why my latest manuscript wasn’t working.

In reality, I needed all these things. After embracing the idea of continued learning and skill renewal, seeking advice from more established writers helped me revive dead projects. Participating in public readings forced me to keep my material fresh. Learning how the heck to use Twitter – an ongoing process for someone as technologically inept as me – exposed me to a broader network of people and ideas. Taking the time to sharpen my skills improved my writing, and it can improve any craft in any field.

As long as the passion is there, there’s nothing dull about that. –KF

  1. Great tips! I have to try this out!

Add Comment Register

Leave a reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.