An increasing number of employers are including professional development goals into the yearly HR evaluation process. At one level, that is a great thing. It recognizes that learning has to be central to career development. But, professional development carries the connotation that there are knowledge and skills that you know you need to learn in order to advance to the next level of your career. Sometimes, it may make sense to focus on personal development more broadly—in a way that is independent of what you need to know to do your job or to smooth your career path.
There are definitely times when professional development is warranted. Early in your career, there are going to be a lot of gaps between what you learned in classes and the skills you need daily to succeed at work. For example, much of education is an individual sport, while work is a team sport. As a result, you may not have developed a lot of great skills to work as part of a team during your education. You have to pick up those skills after you enter the workplace.
Even after you have been in the workplace for a while, there often are skills that will help you to advance to the next level of your organization. Working with your supervisor and other mentors, you often can identify things that you need to know at the next rung of your career ladder that are not a central part of the work you’re doing now. Those can be the basis for professional-development goals.
But, professional development has three potential limitations. The first is that it tends to be focused on specific concrete work skills rather than general leadership or thinking abilities. It is important to shore up weaknesses with new learning, but success at work involves more than just a collection of specific skills. It also requires broader abilities to frame and solve difficult problems, which is hard to teach in the short-form courses typical of professional development.
The second is that it simply isn’t possible to foresee in advance all of the knowledge and skills you’ll need to address tomorrow’s problems. Often, the innovative solutions you come up with involve recognizing that something you learned outside of the context of the work you do has relevance for a current project. You only discover that information was important after you are in the situation in which you need to use it.
The third is that professional development probably won’t help you work your way out of a lull in motivation. If you’re just not feeling excited about the work you do, learning more about it is unlikely to be inspiring. Instead, you may come to dread your professional development opportunities.
And that is where personal development comes in. Sometimes, you should set a goal to learn new knowledge and skills without regard to how they relate to your current job. You might focus on something that seems work-related in some way—such as learning something about a similar industry or things that people with very different job functions know. But, there is often a lot of value in learning things that are not directly tied to specific work tasks.
For example, long-form learning engagements like degree programs (rather than brief certificate or workplace training programs) teach a lot of specific knowledge and skills, but their primary benefit is that they make room for developing broader thinking and problem-solving skills that are crucial for addressing the difficult and unstructured situations that characterize the thorniest conundrums at work.
Even when you are planning to engage in specific classes or to pick up a few books to read, it can be helpful to focus on areas with no obvious relevance to your own work. This breadth of knowledge provides new avenues for approaching difficult work situations. Also, the skills you learn can enable you to get involved in new projects that go beyond what you have worked on in the past, which may open up new work opportunities.
Learning something very new has a great motivational benefit as well. When you are an expert in an area (as is likely to be true in your primary areas of responsibility for your job), you have to work hard to improve even a little in your knowledge and skills. It can be difficult to detect any change in your performance over time, which can lead to a sense of stagnation (even if you are actually continuing to move forward).
When you first learn something new, though, you learn a lot very quickly. You can see your improvement day-to-day and week-to-week. As a result, picking up a new skill (even one that is completely independent of your work life) can be invigorating because it reminds you that you have a lot of untapped capacity. Engaging in personal development that goes beyond your work can snap you out of a lull and renew your motivation more generally.