How to Create Professional Growth

By Nat Eliason in Learning

Published or Updated on Aug 04, 2015

If you’re like me, then you tend to spend some (probably too much) of your time thinking about all the ways that you can improve and grow yourself.

You think about the dietary changes you can try, the challenges you can put your body through, the best investment decisions you can make, if there are ways to improve your sleep.

But something I’ve noticed over the last four years is that people do not grow at the same rate. Whether it’s emotionally, philosophically, interpersonally, or professionally, some people seem to be growing from high-end grass-fed fermented non-GMO designer cow manure, and others seem to be planted in sand.

In any of these areas, if you don’t look back on yourself from 6 months ago and feel at least a little bit amused by your naivety at that time, then you’re not growing fast enough.

Some people move light years if you don’t talk to them for a couple months, and others have stayed more or less the same for 3, 4, 5 years or longer.

But why? And more importantly, if you want to make sure that you’re in the first camp and not the second, what can you do to avoid getting stuck on a growth plateau?

From talking with high growth people, reading, and looking at people who seem stagnant, these are the best ways to engineer professional growth. They’re the levers you can pull to make sure you’re growing your skills and talents instead of getting stuck at the same pace as everyone else.

Here are the eight levers you can pull:

  1. Staying Challenged
  2. Setting Big Goals
  3. Finding Good Mentors
  4. Surrounding Yourself with Good Friends
  5. Reading A Lot
  6. Developing Willpower and Moderating Indulgence
  7. Becoming Comfortable with Failure
  8. Quitting More

1. Staying Challenged

If you’re not being challenged and pushed, then you’re not growing much.

It’s like if you go to the gym and just lift the same weight, or run the same distance and pace every time. You won’t get any stronger or faster. You have to stress your body for it to grow, and you have to stress your mind for it to grow as well.

If someone is bragging about how easy their work is, or if it’s artificially hard (hard for mental / physical taxation, not creatively challenging) then the odds are good that they’re not learning much.

We need to stay challenged in order to grow. The challenge needs to be creative so that you’re learning new things to address a problem, and it also needs to be fun. If it’s not creative, then it’s just physically or mentally taxing which might built fortitude, but slow your learning by leaving you gasping for air.

If it’s not enjoyable, then you’re not getting anything from the challenge. Your motivation to meet the challenge is only not getting fired, or not failing, as opposed to wanting to learn the material or solve the problem.

Your friends that are growing the most are the ones that are pushing themselves past the limits that their peers are self-imposing, and you can do the same by seeing your existing limits as artificial.

How to Harness Challenge

People who are growing quickly always seem to be just a little stressed. They’re not completely overwhelmed, but they want to dominate whatever they’re doing.

And they’ll usually admit, to some degree, that they don’t totally know what they’re doing. But this is fine! Not knowing what you’re doing is one of the best kinds of challenges because it requires you to be creative and resourceful, and it will make your success that much more satisfying.

There are two types of challenges that will help significantly help with your growth:

Doing anything you don’t know how to do.

When you’re asked or required to do something you don’t know how to do, you have to go figure it out.

This is scary to a lot of people who don’t know how to self-educate. If you’re used to having knowledge handed to you via school or training, then going out into the blue and teaching yourself something from scratch is intimidating. But it’s always significantly easier than you expected once you start digging.

Doing more than there’s time for.

If you just take on the amount that you’re certain you can fit into your schedule, then you won’t be pushed to get more efficient at it or to cut out anything you don’t need to do.

It’s likely that you don’t have to do 100% of the tasks on your to-do list or that you think you need to do. For me, it frequently ends up being around 50%: the other 50% I can outsource or forget about.

If you’re not pressed for time, then you’ll end up doing the 100% just to feel busy and productive. Conversely, if you give yourself 200% of what you think you can handle, then you’ll do the most important parts and get more done than you expected. The time challenge pushes you to focus on what’s most important, and Parkinson’s Law makes you more efficient on what you are doing.

Again, it has to stay fun, though. If you’re not enjoying what you’re doing, then you’re not going to absorb the knowledge or rise to the challenge. You might succeed, but you’ll learn very little and not be motivated to get the most possible out of it.

Don’t take on 200% of work you hate… take on 0% (outsource, delegate, find another job, etc.).

2. Setting Big Goals

If you want to grow, you have to have something you’re growing towards.

Your big goals are your idea of who and what and where you want to be in the future, and what motivate you to figure out how to get there. Without an idea of where you want your future, you’ll just run around aimlessly responding to short-term desires.

Think of it like a run. If you just “go for a run” then you have no sense of how far you’re going, how fast you should be moving, or how much longer you should go. You’ll just run around for a bit, decide it’s a good time to stop, and go home. Your life and development shouldn’t be an aimless run through the neighborhood.

When you have no big goals, there’s nothing you’re growing towards, and it’s easy to fall into a malaise

If your goal is to get some promotion in two years or get a 5% raise next year, then you’ll do the work to make that goal happen.

But if your goal is to get the promotion in 6 months, or to get a 20% raise next year, you’ll put in the time and work to make that happen instead. It goes back to being challenged.

When you have small and easy goals then you’ll spend the time you need to hit your goal, and then you’ll just piss away the rest of the time on minutia and work you shouldn’t be spending time on.

How to Harness Big Goals

The scope of your goals will motivate you to do great or mediocre things, to grow a lot or a little. You’ll grow to fit the size of whatever you’re shooting for, or not grow since you don’t need to for easy goals.

To get the most out of your goals, have long term ones (maybe 10yr) that you’re shooting for in lofty terms, and then as they get closer to the present make them more and more concrete. Having daily, weekly, and monthly goals is important, but only if those are feeding into some higher yearly and multi-year goals.

If you don’t know what you’re working towards, then why work on anything at all?

3. Finding Great Mentors

Mentors have, throughout history, been a core aspect in someone’s ability to grow. Socrates mentored Plato who mentored Aristotle who mentored Alexander the Great.

‍Get a good mentor and one day people will keep stone carvings of your face

Usher mentored Justin Beiber. Okay not as good of an example but there’s a reason that Beibs, of all the hopeful YouTube singers, meteored to the top and others didn’t.

But a bad, or unhelpful mentor will slow down your growth significantly, and could be worse than no mentor at all.

Typical bosses and managers usually can’t teach you that much. They’re barely ahead of you skillwise, and it’s in their interest to limit your upward mobility since they don’t want you to make them look bad or take their job.

And a manager or boss may not represent what your long term goal is. Assuming you have a big goal, (and that your big goal isn’t to be a middle manager) then why would you take advice from them?

No contact with people much higher up in the industry makes it hard to see how to get there. A CEO of a big company is likely not going to come chat with you in your cubicle about how you can get to where they are now. It’s your job to seek them out.

And there may be charlatans who you shouldn’t be taking advice from but who masquerade as experts. These people are even more deadly because they want to help you and you might listen to them without realizing that their advice is bad.

So you can’t just get any mentor, you have to get a great mentor.

How to Harness Great Mentors

The right mentor at the right time will make all the difference.

Finding someone whose life you want, whose type of work you want to do, and whose skills you want to develop, gives you access to a vast amount of information on how to get there, and more importantly, how not to get there.

They can introduce you to the right people, recommend the right books, put you on the right products, and help you grow 10x faster than you could on your own

And they’ll give you the motivation to believe its possible. When they’re some mysterious figure that you kind of want to be like, it’s hard to know what to do. When you’re texting them emoji’s you realize they’re a real person like you and that you can get to their level.

But you have to put in the effort to find them and build a relationship with them.

4. Keeping Motivating Friends

Having fat friends makes you more likely to get fat. But, as the same study shows, having a friend lose weight also makes you more likely to get in shape. The actions and habits of the people we spend time with can affect us in huge and subtle ways, both good and bad. The trick is to harness it for good.

How to Harness Motivating Friends

Find the smartest people doing the coolest stuff and become friends with them.

Stop thinking about “networking,” the idea of networking is mostly bullshit. Just do cool shit and talk to other people who do cool shit and you’ll build a massive network of people doing cool shit.

Live with, and spend time with, people who reinforce your best habits. The ones who push you to be your best, who encourage you to be healthy (physically and mentally), and who you can bounce ideas off of and learn from.

There’s no shortage of people who are fun to drink with. After a couple of drinks, EVERYONE is fun to drink with. But there’s a massive shortage of people who can push you to be your best, so you need to focus on surrounding yourself with them.

5. Reading a Lot

Across the board, everyone I know who’s growing quickly reads voraciously, and everyone who’s stagnant or near stagnant doesn’t. And I know I’m opening myself up to a host of biases but this sentiment has been shared with every high-growth person I asked.

But we’re losing our ability to read carefully. Most sources of entertainment focus on keeping your attention by having a high number of “changes” in the action which requires you to stay focused on it and not move on to something else. But this increase in pace is compromising our ability to focus on anything for a long period, and in the process, necessitating even faster-moving shows.

This is why kids shows move VERY FAST. They need to keep the kids engaged and that’s hard with slower, more character based plots.

But the same is true with adult TV, movies, articles, and some books. Back in the day no one could print dozens of < 100 page books on bullshit, but now we have tens of thousands of them available on Kindle. We have sites that keep us entertained with extremely short, intellectually light articles. We have apps and games that focus on quick action to keep us engaged. Even the news rarely runs a story longer than a minute. We need stimulation!

As a result of all of this, we’re starting to suck at reading.

How to Harness Reading

There simply isn’t a better way to expose yourself to new ideas and concepts than to read, but reading takes more effort now. Spending time with a book, and focusing on it without checking your phone or computer, is HARD.

But it’s a skill like anything else, and you can develop it with practice. If you have a hard time getting engaged with reading just do it for 10-20 minutes. That’s a small commitment that you can easily walk away from afterward, but you frequently won’t once you get into the swing of it.

And if your response is “I don’t have time!” Well, it’s surprisingly easy to read over one hundred books a year, and if you do it right, you can easily remember everything you read too. 

6. Developing Willpower and Moderating Indulgence

People who are growing are spending their time on learning and socializing with the right people. They indulge, like anyone else, but they don’t overdo it. They know how to moderate themselves and use their willpower.

Overindulgence is incredibly easy with all of the options for it that we have available to us. There are the obvious cases of overindulgence: drugs, alcohol, food, smoking. But you can also overindulge in Netflix, social media, dog photos, anything unproductive and that’s used as a break or escape.

We live in an environment of immediate gratification anytime we want something to distract us, but no one ever trained us in dealing with that. We never took a class on staying focused or trained our willpower in a gym. It requires tons of willpower to live today, and most of us don’t have it.

So when an opportunity for some short term pleasure comes up (e.g. going out drinking), we tend to pick that over making a long term investment (keeping a good sleep schedule / diet) because the gratification is clearer and more immediate.

But reigning in our demons, whether they’re drugs or social media, is essential for full growth.

How to Harness Willpower & Moderation

One of the best ways to avoid overindulgence is to control who you spend time with (see above). You have friends who bring out the degenerate in you, and ones who help you keep good habits.

Don’t be friends or spend time with someone who just wants to drink all the time, or who runs home from work to get in front of the TV, or who eats poorly or smokes. All of those habits will rub off on you.

Second to that is developing your willpower. If you have strong willpower, then it will easier to say no to those temptations in your environment and keep yourself focused on your big goals and long term plans.

And with that willpower comes moderation. There are some habits you should stop outright (smoking, eating refined sugar, doing heroin), but for other indulgences like drinking or watching TV or playing games or doing less harmful drugs just do it less. Do it enough to just satisfy whatever hedonic compulsions you have, but not so much that you feel like you need it to be happy.

We all need breaks from work and from being productive, but it should enhance the rest of our life and not impede it.

7. Becoming Comfortable with Failing

There’s a fine line between being comfortable with failure, and having a fuck-everything-YOLO attitude. You want to be on the “comfortable” side (if that wasn’t obvious).

Why? Because if you’re not willing to occasionally hit your limits and screw everything up, then you’re not pushing hard enough.

Most people go through life plagued by latent fears. Fears like losing their job, getting broken up with, a friend dying, publicly embarrassing themselves, getting really sick, etc.

We don’t admit it, but those fears hold us back significantly. Fearing losing your job stops you from asking for bigger raises or looking for better options. Fear of getting dumped might stop you from having important conversations. Fear of public embarrassment might stop you from trying new things. Fear of getting really sick might make you more sick by using antibacterial hand sanitizer or killing your immune system with stress.

But none of these fears do anything productive for us, they just hold us back from growing as much as we could be.

How to Harness Failure

The best way to stop being afraid of failing is to fail, and to fail big. Some of the people I know who are growing the most failed in ways like getting kicked out of college or working on a company for 2.5 years before having to shut it down or getting mixed up in drugs to the point of becoming a dealer, then saying fuck it and paying their way through college working nights and weekends.

Now I’m not saying you should smoke a bunch of meth so you can get clean and be motivated, but you should be more comfortable putting yourself in situations where everything might go to shit.

Because heaven forbid you should ever fail in one of these big ways, you’ll have that experience as a reminder that even when your worst case scenario happens the world doesn’t end. Even when you hit “rock bottom,” you’ll know that you can figure out how to deal with it and keep on going.

And most importantly, when you’re not completely afraid of failing, you’re more willing to take risks that may or may not result in a big payoff, but that will certainly result in learning.

It goes back to the section on challenge. When you risk a big failure you’re certainly challenged, and by being challenged you learn much, much more.

8. Quitting More

People who are growing know when to quit and move on. They don’t overinvest in anything that isn’t serving them or that isn’t letting them grow as quickly as they could be, and they’re not worried about replacing whatever it is that they’re quitting.

We’ve all seen that friend who stayed in a relationship longer than they should have. Or the one who stayed at a job to the point of hating it. Or the one that kept pouring money and time into a startup that was never going anywhere.

Why do people do this? Two reasons: they’re suffering from the Sunk Cost Bias, and they’re afraid they won’t be able to replace whatever they’re quitting.

The sunk cost bias is something that we all have to deal with daily, but what about the second case? What do you do about being afraid that you can’t replace what you’re quitting?

If you got yourself into something, you can always get yourself into something else. If you’re even thinking “will I find anything else?” then that’s a sign that there’s definitely something better for you out there. There’s a better relationship, better job, better startup idea. These are all things that are artificially scarce and that we only think are rare when we’ve had very few of them.

If you’ve only been in love once or had sex with one person, you might think you’ll never find someone else. If you’ve only had a couple jobs or got very few offers, you might think you’ll never get another good one. If you’ve only had a couple startup ideas, you might think you’ll never get another good one.

But in every case, it’s just a limiting belief that you can overcome by being exposed to more in each area.

And how do you get more exposure, not fear loss, and find the best jobs, relationships, and everything else? By being willing to quit anything that isn’t serving you as much as it could be, and finding something better.

Last, a Caveat

You don’t need to obsess over professional growth. If you’re a smart person who just wants to run a diner and wax philosophy with a few friends, that’s fine.

But, if you do want to grow as much as possible, I hope this article was helpful. If you’re at the level where you’re financially secure, and where you have big dreams for what you want to do with your life, then rapid growth is necessary. But you should do it because you want to grow, not because you feel an obligation.

Without a strong, burning desire to grow, you won’t get very far. So before doing anything else, make sure you have that, and that you have an idea of why you want more personal growth.


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