You’re learning a lot, but is it valuable?

Over the years I’ve realised that one of the strongest things that motivates me is learning new things. Learning is so important for work, but I’ve been taking a long look at how valuable some it is in the longer term.

I think many of us feel like as long as we’re learning, we are achieving something useful. Learning new things, dealing with new situations, it’s what keeps things interesting. Learning gives us a sense of achievement too. Simply feeling like we understand better or can do more feels like a win. And the learning can make us better equipped for future situations. We can do more than we could before, or we can do it quicker or more efficiently. We just understand things better. It makes us feel like we are progressing.

I know this isn’t the case for everyone, but I have been fortunate to do a whole string of jobs that have a large amount of uncertainty or ambiguity. Making sense of what needs to be done, and devising and executing new ways to do it inherently involves learning. I’d wager that a large proportion of jobs that can’t be automated are like this. Problem solving is learning.

I find learning inherently interesting and rewarding. I’m fascinated by the world and learning about new bits of it.

But with so much to learn, and so many opportunities to do it, I’ve found myself wondering at various points in my career whether I am really learning the most valuable or interesting things that I could be.

I’ve worked in some great teams, and some quite dysfunctional ones. Even in the dysfunctional situations I found myself learning all the time, and feeling that sense of achievement at doing so.

Finally getting a new project through an arcane approvals process. Working out how to convince someone obstructive to accept a way of trying to solve a problem. Figuring out how much information to share to make people feel like they were informed enough about your work to leave you to it without interfering.

This is all learning. It brings with it that sense of achievement, both at having solved a problem and having learned another approach to put in the toolkit.

But is it all valuable?

There’s definitely been times when I’ve realised that much of what I have been learning is just about getting things done in a particular dysfunctional team or organisation.

At the most charitable, this might stand me in good stead in another future dysfunctional team. Although when I come to look at leveraging all the skills I’ve learned into a future role, will I want that to guide me towards further dysfunction?

At the least charitable, this kind of learning learning something so particular to a context that it’s probably not going to be useful again.

How to get X particular thing done in Y unusual and very particular team is of limited value.

You can spend a lot of time learning, and getting the good feelings from doing so, even if what you are learning is of limited value beyond the current situation.

There’s a saying that’s flown past me a few times on social media feeds. It states that at any point in your career you should either be ‘learning’ or ‘earning’.

Not matter what my situation is at any time, I’ve always seen myself as learning.

I’ve learned though to step back, and ask whether the ‘learning’ going on at any time is really of value. If you’re a really learning focused person like me, then I think it can be easy to kid yourself about its value.

The more you’re learning is about discovering how to function in a dysfunctional situation, the more wedded your skillset is to those types of situations.

The more you focus on learning that is transferable and valuable, the better off you will be.

Things I’m paying attention to this week

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4 responses to “You’re learning a lot, but is it valuable?”

  1. Tony Parkin Avatar
    Tony Parkin

    Don’t worry, Oliver. There is enough dysfunction out there to make ALL that learning transferable and useful! Becoming good at it doesn’t limit your toolset, it just allows you to hone it and improve its transferability. The other tools in your armoury don’t rust, as dealing with dysfunction inevitably calls them all into play.
    Trust me, been there, done that, got the scars and the t-shirt! 😀

    1. Oliver Quinlan Avatar
      Oliver Quinlan

      Thanks Tony, that made me smile! I think I was reflecting more on whether it pushes you towards a certain specialisation in your skills that could just draw you to even more dysfunction.

      1. Tony Parkin Avatar
        Tony Parkin

        It certainly does. When I started work with the Inner London Education Authority I was put in a school that needed turning round, then a college that needed the same. An adviser came to me one day to inform me of another upcoming vacancy. He said, ‘It needs turning round, and that’s what you do!’ That’s how I ended up at ILECC. 😄

  2. Aaron Avatar

    Thinking about my current work, I wonder if learning to live through dysfunction is simply the first step towards more productive learning? Something of a foundation for deeper work maybe? I think that although these activities in fixing up problematic workflows or clunky technology may not seem ‘transferable’ as a set of skills to be listed on LinkedIn, what I do think is transferable is the mindset in how I approach these situations. I am not sure if it is related, but this has me thinking about the Solo Taxonomy, but maybe that is different. Not sure.

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