Want to Reach Your Potential? Be a Learner

UPDATED: September 13, 2022
PUBLISHED: September 13, 2022
Want to Reach Your Potential? Be a Learner

Other family members were playing pingpong. They were reading novels, doing crosswords and giggling over a game of Bananagrams. But on a breezy night in the middle of summer vacation, my 10-year-old daughter and I sat hunched over laptops, muttering about the kitten from hell.

Our mission, set forth by an online course: Write lines of code that would put the creature’s fluffy, deceptively innocent picture on a webpage and let users click on it, zipping them to Wikipedia’s “kitten” entry.

“I have no way to figure this out!” Lily groaned from her end of the dining table. “It doesn’t make sense! This is impossible!”

“I’m sure we’ll find a way,” I lied.

And we returned for the umpteenth time to our laptops, to our muttering, and (in my case) to thoughts that this showdown with the evil feline was probably inevitable.

We’re living in the Age of Expertise, after all. Never have more people believed—with more reason—that success hinges on reading, workshopping, boot-camping, seminar-ing, and otherwise launching yourself into new realms of skill or knowledge.

It’s the most practical take on personal development yet.

Early bibles of the field (Napoleon Hill’s Think and Grow Rich, Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People) urged workers to grow philosophically, to build qualities such as confidence and self-discipline. Leading business authors have focused on matters of character ever since, from the emotional intelligence of Daniel Goleman to the ambition of Jim Rohn to the “leaning in” and “playing big” of Sheryl Sandberg and Tara Mohr.

But while those books remain brisk sellers, there’s another bible in town. Make that an explosion of mini-bibles that promise mastery of almost any topic or technique you can name. The granddaddy of how-to guides, Wiley’s For Dummies series, has published over 2,500 titles on topics ranging from hacking to carpentry to forensic psychology to running a food truck. 

Extension classes abound at colleges and universities. Slews of podcasts and tutorials (some free, some not) go online every day. Meanwhile, web-based academies like Udemy and Coursera, which collectively bill themselves as having offered more than 200,000 courses to millions of students, peddle instruction in everything from abstract math to abstract painting.

“In a world of unprecedented change, employees have to be able to adapt to succeed,” says Dave Ulrich, who has written and co-written over 30 books on human resources and leadership, including HR from the Outside In: Six Competencies for the Future of Human Resources. He notes that “learning agility”—the deftness at gaining and using knowledge—is the “biggest predictor of long-term leadership success,” according to research by the Korn Ferry Institute. “Workers who take charge of their careers by learning and growing will be far more successful than those who are overwhelmed by change. It is far better to act than to be acted upon,” he continues.

Such mantras are popular with boomers and Gen Xers like me, and maybe even more so with people in their 20s and 30s. “In broad terms, millennials get it, get that education is key to a better life and that education doesn’t necessarily stop when you get your first piece of paper, your first degree—you keep going,” says Liz Weston, a nationally syndicated personal-finance columnist. “I see it as a huge positive that these people are taking care of themselves. They’re not waiting for an employer to take care of them.”

The reasons behind all this studious zeal are as varied as the learners themselves. And they’re rooted in changes that began decades ago.

End of an era

There was a time when your employer would take care of you. “Career development used to be part of HR planning,” says Charles H. Fay, Ph.D., professor emeritus of human resource management at Rutgers University and editor of Compensation & Benefits Review. “Companies would say, ‘Here are the people we have, here are the people we need.… How can we develop them?’ Nobody does that anymore.”

The shift away from in-house development began in the 1960s, Fay says, when people with MBAs discovered that “the way you could maximize your income was to leave one employer and go to another. It was the first time that really happened with professionals. Before that, if you switched jobs once, it was suspect. If you switched twice, you were a job hopper.”

In the decades since, the old model of staying true to one company has continued to erode—and employers’ loyalty to workers has slid correspondingly. “Some managers worry about investing in developing people who can then easily take those skills to a competitor,” says David G. Allen, Ph.D., a former human resource management professor at Rutgers. Such wariness only increases in a tough economy, since the “return on investment” of employee development is hard to measure.

Most companies hire people with the skills required for identified goals and fire them as needs fade or change, Fay says. “I remember a song by Janet Jackson, What Have You Done for Me Lately, and I think that’s the philosophy of many employers now: What have you done for me lately, and what are you going to do for me in the future? If we can’t find positive answers to those questions, then we’ll part ways.”

There are exceptions to this attitude. Actuarial firms, for instance, invest a fair amount in employee development, Fay adds. In some high-tech fields, companies are widely seen as more generous to workers as well.

But most people who are developed by their employers are being groomed for executive roles or are tradespersons like machinists and welders, Fay says. “In the middle, the broad range of mid-level employees, the company’s not going to do it for them. They’re on their own. Many companies have tuition reimbursement programs of one kind or another, but that’s pretty much it.”

Growing independence

Employer-sponsored development is even scarcer, of course, when you lack a full-time employer.

According to a 2022 McKinsey report, 36% of American workers earn a living partly or wholly through independent work, which included delivery workers, tutors, writers, freelancers, contracted workers and temporary positions. A similar McKinsey study in 2016 found that only 27% of working-age individuals in the U.S. defined themselves as independent workers. 

“There’s less trust in employers today,” says Rich Pearson, an instructional aide with the Palo Alto Unified School District and a former senior vice president of Upwork, an online platform where businesses shop for freelancers. “We have a whole generation of millennials and college grads who have come out of college seeing how their parents were perhaps treated in 2008 and are choosing income security over job security” by freelancing, temping and so forth. “It’s more important to be employable than, maybe, to be employed full-time.”

Many people, like me, get into contingent work because we enjoy the freedom of it, the ability to weave jobs around family and other commitments. Others find it less a choice than an essential as businesses trim full-time staffs.

All of which means that for plenty of us, personal development is something you do on your own time and dime. As Fay points out, why would employers help one freelancer add skills when they can easily hire another who already has those skills?

Survival instinct

That’s something Britta Noack knows well. As a freelance German-English translator in San Diego, she sees personal development as a professional necessity. “It’s part of my job,” she says—a part she spends about 100 hours and $3,000 to $5,000 on each year as she takes seminars and travels to conferences. “Translation is a very cutthroat market. There’s a lot more people going into work for themselves because it’s so much more flexible and a lot of companies have cut out their in-house translators. To stand out, you don’t have a choice. You have to better yourself in any way possible.”

The same is increasingly true in many fields, whether you’re freelance or on the payroll. Developers (aka computer programmers and engineers), for instance, are highly competitive, Pearson says. As technology changes, so do the most marketable skills. 

Even people in less high-tech jobs feel the pressure to beef up their expertise. “Any of the professions, even doctors—with technological advances, think about it—there’s so many developments that if you don’t keep up with them, you’re obsolete,” Fay says.

Plus, if your industry hits the skids, you’d better have some options.

“Almost everyone has either been unexpectedly displaced or knows someone who has been unexpectedly displaced,” Allen says. “If that happens and you are not prepared to market yourself as current, it can be quite traumatic.”

Weston couldn’t agree more. In the 1990s, as a business reporter in Southern California, she began taking financial-planning courses. While newspapers around the country shrank, folded and laid off people (including papers where she used to work), she polished the fifth edition of Your Credit Score, one of five popular books she has written. “You never know when an industry will disappear beneath your feet, or an employer will, or there’s going to be a better opportunity out there,” Weston says.

A push for parity

When SUCCESS asked me to take a coding course with Lily and write about it, I became that rare freelancer being paid to learn new tricks. But as glad as I was about this, and as much as I looked forward to mother-daughter time that didn’t involve one of us nagging the other to practice the piano, I felt nervous.

The last time I studied anything to do with computers, I was in college, taking a course in the programming language Pascal. My fellow students (mostly guys) seemed to understand the professor instantly. To me, he appeared to speak Klingon.

Although I didn’t know it, my experience was classic for women first dipping a toe in high-tech waters. Research shows that there is a disparity between young girls and boys when it comes to computer science, and the gendered stereotypes inflicted by society, peers and themselves mean young girls are less likely to pursue any previous interest in the field. If and when girls finally try to catch up, “a lot of the boys, because they’ve had exposure to it before, are doing really well or it looks easier for them, and so girls get this idea [of] I’m not good at this,” says Nicole Noll, co-founder of Boston-based Women’s Coding Collective (WCC), which runs the course Lily and I took.

Noll has heard from countless women (including me) whose solution at such times was to seek help from experienced folks—who proceeded to “jerk the keyboard out from under them.” Some people may think this is helpful (I know my rescuers in college did), but “it’s really hard to learn this stuff if you can’t do it yourself.”

WCC is one of at least a dozen organizations that offer do-it-yourself coding classes just for women in-person and online. Lily and I were among 30 students in a two-week intro to HTML. Once it began, with everyone introducing themselves online (“Hello. I’m Elizabeth. I’m here to start something completely new in my life.” “Hi, I’m Chelsi. Coding always felt extremely foreign to me.”), I knew this wouldn’t be half a month of Klingon-laced despair. We were teachers, artists, a librarian, a biotechnician. Three times a week we received clearly-worded challenges in topics such as “tidy code” and “retired tags to avoid.” True, some were tough, but if we got stuck, the instructors posted easy-to-understand suggestions.

“It just felt like a really comfortable environment to learn in,” said our classmate Alexandra Molnar. “I really felt a sense of community and making friendships. We had a common bond of female empowerment, so it’s not like we were excluding males but more just boosting the skills and values that women can bring to the table.”

From one challenge to the next, Lily and I moved closer to our goals: for Lily, making a webpage for the pop band she’s started with three friends; for me, being less dependent on others to manage my website or the online poetry journal I edit. We did happy dances when we got things right. We gave each other nerdy nicknames, Em and Strong, after the HTML terms for emphasized and important text.

Sitting across from Lily day after day, I often gazed delightedly at the face above her open laptop: serious, focused, and intrigued by something other than Taylor Swift lyrics for a change. Not that I have anything against Ms. T-Swizzle, but who knows where coding might take my daughter?

Noll thinks along similar lines. Like organizations such as Girls Who Code, Black Girls Code and TechGirlz, WCC is part of the movement to give girls more savvy in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM). She and her colleagues have brought coding instruction to Girl Scout troops, schools and science festivals, and offered a workshop (not the one Lily and I took) for mothers and daughters.

“We’re not looking at this as some pure technical skill,” Noll says. “It’s life preparation. Coding is a way of speaking; programming is a way of thinking. And if you’ve got this whole other way of thinking, it’s going to open up all kinds of possibilities.”

Fulfillment and variety

People of many stripes are tapping new opportunities for growth.

Greg Owens worked for a national paint company for years, where he eventually became a branch manager. “I was raised real conservative: Go to college, get a business degree, get a good job with good benefits and security, work for the man until you retire,” he says. A few years ago, though, it dawned on him that “that’s not what I love.” What he really wanted was to become a coach, speaker and leadership-skills trainer, with a humorous twist. So Owens has spent hundreds of dollars on standup and comedy-improv classes; he’s been doing open mics in upstate New York and braving “Funniest Person in Rochester” contests. “I’ve got a safe and secure job, a good job [at the paint company], but I’ve peaked at it, and I think I’ve got more to offer other people in the business world,” he said. After 19 years as a manager, he quit his day job and became a “humorist, speaker [and] helper of others” full-time.

Sometimes, people acquire new skills purely because they love the careers they’re in.

“Routine is a terrible thing as far as I can tell, for our profession in particular,” says Jason Silverstein, a New York City journalist who devours books about his chosen field and recently attended a daylong reporting camp. To do your job to the best of your ability, “you never want to be any less curious or skeptical or open to new ideas,” he continues.

Katie Grace McGowan, deputy director of Kresge Arts in Detroit, learned to speak Croatian to get the most out of an artistic residency in Croatia. She not only met that goal but also wound up marrying a local man and being able to speak with her mother-in-law in “my slow cavewoman Croatian.” Would studying a new language have been worthwhile even without such unexpected perks? The answer seems clear. “Learning keeps you alive!” she says. “I can’t imagine living a static life. In order to grow and develop, I think we all have to keep learning.”

Hill and Carnegie live on

The morning after our first encounter with the demon kitten, I gave Lily a few hints. (I had stayed up late, inching my way toward a solution.) She nodded and got back to business. Minutes later, her face was brighter than her laptop screen. “It worked! Oh my gosh! I clicked on the kitty, and it took me to Wikipedia! Oh my gosh! This is so awesome!”

High fives. Happy dance.

Like so many in the Age of Expertise, Lily and I were feeling the boost that a little know-how can bring. In fact, I realized, we were feeling plenty of things that Carnegie, Hill and their ilk started preaching about generations ago. The confidence. The discipline. The drive.

Maybe this new personal development wasn’t so different from the old, after all.

“Lily, after we finish our class, do you want to keep going?” I asked. I explained that HTML wasn’t enough to yield a cool website; we’d probably need CSS (Cascading Style Sheets) and JavaScript, too.

“Yes, totally!” she said. “Let’s sign up.”

“Go, Em!”

“Go, Strong!”

This article appears in the January 2016 issue of SUCCESS magazine and has been updated. Photo by