Our own growth can be difficult, either being personal or professional. Comparison, while tempting, can be misleading not just because we are able to assess only superficial factors, but also because everyone is different. One of the most challenging thing in my experience is not much the effort, sometimes major, that we need to put into growth, but also the understanding of where: where do we want to go? what do we want?
If you’re in a work context, and you’re either trying to define your own path or helping the company to put in place a proper growth structure, you can frame the question in three incremental parts:
- Ground — Where am I now?
- Identify — What do I want to learn?
- Acquire — How can I grow there?
As a starting point for any kind of growth we need to know where we are starting from. This isn’t just useful at a personal level, but also because it allows to align with people around you, and it makes everyone aware of each other skills.
Answering “Where am I now?” is very helpful both in a narrow way, about a specific skill or ability, and in a broader way, about our professional and life situation.
Assessment is difficult for many reasons, one of the main ones is the split between internal and external perspectives:
- Internal: subjective, it’s easy to either underestimate or overestimate, yet it’s where a lot of the motivation and passion is located.
- External: still subjective, because any external assessment will either be the subjective view of someone, or some kind of metric. Contrary to popular understanding, metrics aren’t objective because they are both a proxy for the actual thing you want, thus unlikely to be exact, and chosen, thus expressing bias for a particular measurement.
Ideally, a way to approach a certain degree of objectivity requires multiple external perspectives and a lot of personal internal work to avoid our fears, denials, and assumptions. It can take a lot of work to assess skills, however, even a high level perspective could be useful as a general indicator. All depends on what we want to do with this assessment.
This kind of evaluation can be done with tools like Skills Matrixes or Skill Trees, can be supported by coaches, and can be explored with workshops.
It’s likely that we can look back at our own life and understand how sometimes we had a very clear idea of what to do next, and sometimes we had no clue. This could apply to a very specific topic, or to broader ones.
In the case of professional growth, it’s easy sometimes to just go with the flow, and follow whichever opportunity comes to you. This is a very common practice, and to a certain extent not an entirely bad one if we started in a place of personal interest and we are still exploring. On the other side of the coin however, this limits the visibility of what we could be doing that instead would be even better for us — for whichever measure of better we want to use. For this reason, it can make sense to take a step back and think where we want to go, so we can be more purposeful in our progress.
Specifically, I find that goals should be done as a pair of long term and short term. The long term can be more vague, more tied to beliefs and values, and not having a specific way to measure if it’s “done”. It’s more a direction than a place. The short term one is a way to progress toward that long term goal, and there can be more than one. As a reference, if the long term is a matter of 1 to 10 years, a short term one is a matter of 1 to 3 months, but could also be as short as one week or a single activity, like an intensive workshop or class.
The short term one should also be the one that is possible to measure in some way, if you’re comfortable with measuring outcomes. Often this kind of goal is more objective, and more clear when it’s done: I got a certification, I passed a class, I shipped, published, completed something, etc.
What if we don’t have any clear goal? What if both short term and long term ones elude you? Identifying goals can then become a large amount of work. A good way to approach this is to use short term goals in a way that instead of being incremental, it’s exploratory. Instead of being a step toward a long term goal, it’s a taster to see if a direction resonates with us.
In short, there are two types short term goals:
- Step goal — we have a good long term vision in mind, and this represents a way to work toward that vision.
- Exploratory goal — we don’t have a clear idea, thus we use the short term as a way to explore different things and to find what resonates with us.
Answering “What do I want to learn?” in the form of short term goals should thus be as specific as possible and limited in time (i.e. 3 months max). Not because we want it to end — we can always do it again! — but because we want to celebrate the progression.
If your goal is not clear, there’s no approach that can give you an answer for sure, but there are many out there that can help you explore and find a direction.
Once the goals are clearly set, we can then go ahead and get there. The acquisition part can be divided in three sub steps that you might already know:
- Plan the actions, tasks, activities that will get us there.
- Do them.
- Review what has been done: what worked and what didn’t work.
While these three steps might seem obvious, it’s surprising how often we forget to do all the three of them, which often leads to incomplete or unsatisfying progress — or even the lack of perception of any progress at all.
For the “How can I grow there?”, it can be useful to have others to help out. Either someone that can help you to stay on track, or a group of peers that share the same or a similar goal.
This model provides a high level guidance to define your own personal method for growth. If you want something that applies the above in more detail, check the Purpose Timeline.