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By Allison McWilliams (’95), Ph.D., Assistant VP, Mentoring and Alumni Personal & Career Development, Wake Forest University

When you think about professional development, what comes to mind? Pricey conferences? Work-sponsored speakers and webinars? Professional associations? Each of these are great ways to build your knowledge and skill set, and especially at conferences and through associations, to build your network. But the problem with many of these “learning opportunities” is that they tend to be very passive experiences. You go because you are told to, or because it seems like a great way to get in a work-sponsored vacation, or it just looks good on your resume. All of those things are true, and, it’s a real missed opportunity for meaningful learning and growth. And, let’s be honest, it can be expensive, especially if your place of work isn’t picking up the tab.

But in today’s inter-connected, learning-based world, there’s no need to approach your personal and professional development this way. In fact, if you are sitting around waiting for someone to tell you how and when to grow and to learn, you most certainly are going to be left behind. Today’s employers are less inclined than ever to invest in the growth of their employees. It’s up to the employee, you, to take ownership for your own path, and the steps that you need to take to get there. So, what do you do? It’s actually super easy! Take a few minutes and put together a plan of action for yourself.

First set some goals. Think no farther out than six to twelve months. You can put some longer-term dreams or vision out there, but as for concrete goal-setting, no more than a one-year timeframe. Where are your gaps? What do you need to learn? What skills or abilities do you need to acquire to be successful in the future, or to get yourself closer to that dream or vision? Write out two or three goals for yourself, and then some strategic, concrete action steps to achieve them. These might include things like identifying a class to take or a certification you need to acquire. It might mean reading some books or creating a practice of curiosity conversations. It might mean identifying some habits or practices you want to try or build into your routine. We’re going to look at each one of those in turn. The point is, to pick those action items that work for you, and that connect to your learning goals.

Take a class. In today’s online world there are literally thousands of classes available at your fingertips, some fee-based and some free, through things like EdX, Coursera, as well as through your alma mater. Local community colleges, bookstores, and other community-based organizations also provide loads of learning opportunities depending on your interest, ranging from one-time speakers to language courses to certifications. Think about what you’re wanting or needing to learn, and look for it. You’ll be amazed by how many learning opportunities are right in your backyard.

Read books. Yes, this sounds old-fashioned, but books are still a thing! And, with Amazon and e-readers (though let me take this moment to make a plug for your local bookstore), you have a nearly endless library available to you. Build out a list of twelve books you intend to read over the next year, one per month, to deepen your knowledge. These could be leadership books, books on a particular skill area, or even just those great fiction reads you’ve never made time for, previously. Trust me, you will be better for it, at the end.

Have curiosity conversations. Curiosity conversations are like informational interviews, except the goal simply is to get to know someone, not to network for a job. These are great ways to learn about other industries, career paths, leadership styles, and people, and a fun way to build your network. Curiosity conversations pay off in unexpected and delightful ways. Wake Forest alumnus Ryan Riccordella has a video teaching us all how to do these conversations in effective ways. Watch the video, and then identify twelve people you will reach out to over the next year. Just one conversation a month!

Create new habits. Finally, the next twelve months are a great opportunity to build in new habits. Pick one habit each month that you will intentionally practice. For example, in month one, you might create and start on this plan. In month two, you might adopt some new financial habits. In month three, you might join a gym or plan to sign up for a local road race. And so on. In twelve months’ time you will find yourself more aware of who you are, what your skills and interests are, and which habits you want to maintain in the future.