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The One Question That Will Change Your Career

I wasted the first few years of my career.  I was focused on getting the right assignments, being promoted quickly, and acquiring the right job titles.

Then, I self-destructed.

I went to travel for a few months and came back the same day Lehmann collapsed. The job market crashed. I lost all my money. I had to take up a job several levels lower than the one I had.  It felt like rock-bottom.

I began my new gig grudgingly, thinking I would dislike it. But in the silence of failure, I learnt this one truth about myself.

I loved learning.

In school, in jobs, even in writing fiction, I’d always felt most alive when I was stretching to learn beyond my limits. I’d never really cared about anything else. In the clutter of company, I had taken on the dreams and ambitions of people around me.

It was liberating.

I threw myself in my new gig. The economy improved. New opportunities came my way. This time, I asked only one question.

Where can I learn the most?

I barely negotiated my salaries and book advances. I didn’t think about job titles. I didn’t even look at benefit packages and equity grants. Once, just as I was about to get a major promotion, I left to live in an ashram for a few months to learn how to silence the mind. I went sideways, up, down, stumbled, picked up, all consumed by the desire to learn.

Initially, it looked like a checkered mess.

Over time, the dots began to connect. The breadth of business and life experiences made for better decisions. In moving countries and shifting industries, I embraced complexity. The frequent brushes with failure, both in business and writing, strengthened my resolve.

Unknowingly, I’d stumbled across what Korn Ferry had learnt after years of research on learning agility.

Here’s how your career looks if you choose to learn.

The One Question That Will Change Your Career

Initially as you push your boundaries, you’ll go through ups and downs, more hard knocks than successes, but over time, learning compounds. And eventually, when seismic shifts happen in the world as they always do—new technologies, the rise of emerging markets, Brexit, whatever—regular careers start to falter trying to cope with complexity. But the learner thrives. H/She revels in ambiguity because his whole life is ambiguous.

Become a learner. Don’t fixate on titles and salaries. Titles stagnate. Learning grows.

Three tips to become a world class learner:

  1. Don’t weigh yourself down too early.

I’m surprised by the number of young people I meet who’re buying million dollar houses in the best school districts for their yet unborn kids and are convinced they only want to live in India or San Francisco or wherever. With so many constraints, how will you optimize your life for learning? Until your family really needs you or your kids turn seven or eight, flow to the best opportunities, live where you fear to live, take jobs that intimidate you a little. The first ten or fifteen years of your career are for trying, stumbling, falling. Widen your experiences, don’t weigh yourself down with certainties so early.

  1. Don’t have “hobbies”.

I used to hike a little, write a little, meditate a little because they were hobbies. Then, I raised my standards. I decided to publish a novel, hike every tough mountain from Kilimanjaro to Denali, and become a yoga teacher. My whole relationship with life changed. Earlier, these hobbies gave me a “little” pleasure. Now, they became a source of the deepest, most transcendental joy in my life. The depth and learnings from these passions overflowed in every aspect of life.

Happiness is in the pursuit of excellence.

Raise the bar for your “hobby”. Push the boundaries of excellence in everything you do and all of life will become one stream of constant learning.

  1. Choose silence.

An acquaintance from school was visiting New York recently. He really wanted to meet. We caught up–who’s doing what, how’s life here, how’s life there etc.. I walked away from the interaction, feeling nothing, neither the warm glow of a deep friendship, nor the pleasant absorption of a challenging conversation.

Another few hours of life gone.

Gandhi said it best: “Speak only if it improves on silence.”

I’d venture to say: “Do anything only if it improves on silence.”

For years,  I’d avoided silence with empty chatter and busy projects. Then, I learnt the richness of silence(though I stumble often as I did above). Silence is reading, reflection, meditation. It’s thriving with life, energy, and learning. Choose silence often.

P.S: Your method of learning may be different than mine so use these tips sparingly! The question though remains the same.

Where can I learn the most?

Are you asking it often? Or are there barriers to optimize your whole life around learning? I’d love to hear from you!