There are countless ways you can spend money on your professional development. From conferences to coaches, you can "invest" until you’re broke.
So how can you choose smart investments that actually generate returns?
I asked several people whose careers I admire about the smartest investments they’ve made. Here are their guidelines for making the most of what you’ve got.
You don’t just want to sit in a class. You want opportunities to practice new skills in as realistic of conditions as possible. Maureen Sullivan, the president of AOL.com, says that she passed up a higher paying summer job during college in order to teach summer school at her local high school.
Forgoing the extra salary was a smart investment, because "being a teacher involved learning how to command a classroom, learning how to be in an environment of people who are just barely younger than you, almost your peers, and trying to be a leader in that environment." That experience "prepared me for work," she says, now that she’s leading a large operation in her early 30s.
Naomi Schaefer Riley, a columnist for the New York Post, says that at one time "I used to wait to buy a new computer until my old one really was going to die." But then she realized that "You don’t want to wake up praying every morning that the laptop makes it through the day. That’s not a particularly productive approach to your workday." So now she’s writing on a snazzy MacBook Air she bought a few months ago.
"This is what I do all day long," she says. "How much time do I want to wait for my computer to turn on and off?" She’s also sprung for good office furniture and (key for work-at-home types) enough real estate to have an office with a door.
Lindsey Pollak, author of Getting from College to Career and an official ambassador for LinkedIn, notes that "For me, the best investment has been hiring a few different strategic coaches when I have been struggling with a business issue—what direction to go, how to better manage my time, etc. I’ve found it's always so much more effective to hire an expert than to try to puzzle through everything myself."
For instance, when she was debating whether to develop an online education series, she hired a coach who offered similar programs. "I thought I was hiring her to teach me how to do it, but the coaching actually led to the realization that it wasn’t the right move for me and I ended up working on how to grow my live speaking business instead." This, Pollak reports, "saved me a ton of time and stress."
Angela Jia Kim, founder of the Savor the Success women’s professional network, says that "I have to have people around me who hit the ‘tennis ball’ fast or I get bored easily." So she makes sure to join—or in her case, start—mastermind groups like the 7-Figure Club that feature other entrepreneurs with thriving businesses. "I get excited by someone’s fast growth in one week," she says. "That kicks me in the rear end and I love it."
While there’s a lot to be said for giving back (and you should make time to mentor people for lots of reasons) if you’re choosing between professional networks, one that’s a slight stretch is probably the better bet.
Time is money, but Calee Lee, owner of the digital children’s book publishing company Xist Publishing, says that "The best investment I’ve made is spending the time to do things without an immediate payoff." For example, she once engaged in a 26-email discussion with a librarian who read a comment she posted on an article. She never did wind up selling any books to his library, "but he introduced me to a vendor who sold our entire catalog to the state of Massachusetts as part of their statewide ebook project."
She’s now in 51 Massachusetts libraries with a road toward being in all 1,700 in May. "During the initial stages of this project, I felt conflicted that I was taking time away from the immediate concerns of publishing and marketing new titles, but the exposure from this project has helped open other doors that will hopefully lead to other large deals." Aim to spend some time every day buying the business equivalent of lottery tickets. You don’t know what will pay off, but in this particular lottery, over time, something will.