August 29, 2003
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Stretching yourself, both professionally
and personally, can be a bit painful. It can also yield some
of the best improvements in your life. Just like you may be sore the day
after starting a new exercise routine, your ego and intellect might emerge
a little bruised, but your body will be better for the effort.
You want to do what?
My most recent learning experience started with a visit to the yearly
Open House at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory
(JPL) with my 5-year-old, Joe. He has always liked the Battlebots television
show and robots of all sorts. Along with all the million-dollar Mars Rovers
and other high-tech exhibits, there was also a demonstration by kids from
area high schools involved in the FIRST
program (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology).
They had various large-scale robots engaging in a practice competition.
Joe was fascinated and every day since that visit we have had some talk
about robots and how he wanted us to build one of our own. So, it was
time for me to do the “Dad-thing” and figure out how to do
Outside the comfort zone
If you are really engaged in your career, you know that there are times
when you will be pushed outside of your comfort zone. Perhaps you are
dealing with a new technology for the first time. Maybe your company is
instituting a new program or a new process. When you work for yourself,
as I do, you can sometimes get too complacent – performing the same
tasks again and again – and not stretch yourself too much. Joe’s
request was a timely and welcome reminder. Learning new stuff is not only
necessary, but fun.
If you are not being challenged enough in your job, you need to take the
initiative and challenge yourself. You need to push your comfort level
as far out as possible. By doing this, you will expand your mind, your
opportunities and your career. Sure there will be bumps and bruises along
the way. You might even look a little silly, but this is all part of the
learning process. Making mistakes means you are challenging yourself to
learn something new.
I have a few burns from the soldering iron, and have “let the magic
smoke out” of a few transistors, but I also have developed a few
small, working robots. Better still, I am feeling really good about myself
and my abilities. While this project has little to do with computers,
the sense of accomplishment translates to other parts of my career. When
I am facing new challenges in my career, I can think back on my new successes
and remind myself that good things are possible.
So, what have you learned today?
Have you actively reached out to learn a new skill, a new program, or
any other new technology in the last week? If not, you are shortchanging
yourself and your career. Not only that, the longer you continue in this
mode, the harder it will be to ever pull yourself out. Inertia is a dangerous
thing. It can bring you to a complete stop, if you let it.
Unlike my robots, however, your new project doesn’t have to be computer-related.
Learning anything new from flower arranging to tai-chi to skateboarding
is a way to expand your mind and fight off inertia. Take up wood working
or something as far from high tech as you can get to offer your life a
If you are looking for something that particular to your high-tech career,
though, you can’t go wrong in some of these starting places:
• Learn a new operating system.
If you are a Windows user, learn something about Macs and vice-versa.
Even better, dive into Linux or Palm OS or something even more esoteric.
• Learn a new program
If you are an expert in Microsoft Office, try out a few of the competitors.
Jump into a new genre and try out Paint Shop Pro, Photoshop or other
graphics program. You could even hit the books and start programming
again — or for the first time.
• Work with different people
If you work inside a corporation all day, try getting out and working
with some other types of people. I work with a lot of seniors who are
often using a computer for the first time in their lives. This really
opens your eyes to the confusion computers can sometimes cause. Work
with kids. (You could get involved with the local FIRST program and
help them build their robots!) Work with scientists. Work with anyone
and everyone. It can really help to expand your understanding about
how computers are used.
“Starting here, starting now”, as the song says, start stretching
yourself intellectually, personally and professionally. You have everything
to gain. The stimulation you receive will carry over into all aspects
of your life and could be just the thing to jumpstart your high-tech career.