Working Hard, or Working Smart?

In this blog series so far, I’ve talked a lot about transitioning from studying education to IT and some of the challenges and difficulties that have arisen. Much of what I’ve spoken about has been the hard work it has taken to learn new skills and acclimatize to a new way of doing things.
However, there was something I encountered recently on Twitter that gave me pause as to how I approach challenges in my life such as my studies.

https://twitter.com/chenoehart/status/1175777183224217600

Chenoe makes a valid and important point in her tweet. While hard work is important to achieving goals, it is not always the most important factor in achievement and getting ahead. In fact, it can be counter-productive after a point. At several points this year, I have worked to the point of feeling burnt out and being completely unproductive for days at a time as a result of ‘doubling down’ and trying to work beyond a reasonable point. As a person who derives a lot of my self-esteem from professional and intellectual success, coming to terms with this fact of life has been very tough and is an ongoing process.

Networking, especially in white-collar professions is increasingly critical to career success. We’ve all heard the adage “It’s not what you know, it’s who you know”. With tertiary degrees becoming more commonplace in the workforce, it takes something extra to stand out. This is particularly difficult for a shy and introverted person such as myself to come to terms with. In an ideal world, the hours and hours I put into my studies, my blogging, extra-curricular work on online courses such as DataCamp polishing my coding skills would be sufficient. However, while this is entirely necessary to do, it’s not quite enough.

On the other hand, it’s also a liberating thing to hear, in a way. With more emphasis being placed on networking and socializing, it’s not always necessary to know every little thing about a topic before applying for a job, an internship or other professional opportunities. Hearing stories of other peoples’ professional struggles and triumphs and realizing domain knowledge is not the be-all-end-all is relieving to know.

Perhaps the greatest challenge I’ve faced this year has been to put myself in uncomfortable situations related to professional networking and mentorship. Entering a room of strangers and striking up a conversation on topics related to information technology, as a newcomer surrounded by experienced professionals, has been a nerve-wracking experience on the occasions I’ve had to do so. However, it’s also been a massively beneficial exercise. Additionally, spending an evening here and there at these events have resulted in a huge gain in terms of experience, confidence and knowledge of the industry. Compared to the many nights spent on assignments, tests and exams of varying relevance and interest, these networking experiences in retrospect look far more favourable and enticing to attend.

All of this is not to dismiss the importance of study and of consistent, mindful and applied effort toward learning. Even the most charismatic and engaging person, without knowledge and ability to back themselves up, will quickly falter in a professional setting. What I am arguing, however, is that being smart and strategic with my time, not just spending every waking hour on IT-related work frantically trying to learn everything as quickly as possible has been the route to my successes thus far this year.

Learning How To Learn: Motivation, Discipline and Embracing Challenges

One of the most notable aspects of studying IT so far has been the stark contrast in how I’ve had to learn in contrast to my previous study experiences in education and Humanities subjects. Studying at a tertiary level is not a new experience for me. Having previously completed a Bachelors with Honors and made it partway through a Masters degree in Teaching, the ability to study and to learn new material is not a new experience for me. Or so I thought, going into the beginning of the year. Perhaps the biggest change from previous subjects I’ve studied has been moving from a relatively passive form of learning, which involved a lot of reading, listening to lectures and passively absorbing information to a much more hands-on form of learning.

By nature, learning IT skills is a hands-on exercise. It involves learning how to operate software, put together code, construct programs. These are not tasks that can be learned just by reading a book or taking notes. It involves diving in and becoming familiar with unfamiliar processes. With this comes a lot of trial and error, experimentation, and inevitably, moments of getting stuck and feeling frustrated. For a newcomer, it can be a rude awakening. Developing resilience to failure and setbacks (and there have been a lot of them!) is probably the most important thing I’ve taken away from my courses so far this year.

Part of the solution to this dilemma is to become immersed in the subject. My course subjects, rather than being the sum of my learning, is only a starting point. Much of my spare time has been devoted to covering knowledge gaps, as well as learning particular areas of IT that have been particularly interesting more in-depth. In my case, this has been anything related to data, analytics and business intelligence. Thinking less about the outcome (finishing the course, exams, and graduation) and more about the process and my output (acquiring new knowledge, coding and building things, producing content, developing new contacts) has been key to making this change.

Having a consistent, organized and disciplined approach to study is important. There’s been a lot to learn and taking even a day or two off has resulted in quickly falling behind. At the same time, taking it all too seriously has from time to time resulted in frustration, dejection and burnout. Treating my studies less like an ordeal to be overcome and more like a puzzle to solve or a game to master has made the process more enjoyable, successful and increased my motivation and desire significantly. There’s a lot of science to back this approach – the mental models or frameworks used to approach a problem are crucial to outcomes, as is using a gamified approach to learning.

I’ve recently become a lot more interested in the science of learning and have actively embraced self-development, in the form of reading blogs, reading books, participating in Twitter discussions and other online communities and so on. Blogs such as Anne-Laure Le Cunff’s  Ness Labs and Shane Parrish’s Farnam Street have been particularly inspirational in this regard. As much as individual effort and drive are important in learning, even the most talented and hardworking student can only get so far on their own. To truly realize potential, like-minded community and peers are necessary for support, motivation and accountability.