How to keep growing through your milestones

For several years now, I’ve become very interested in understanding how I learn and how to create the best environments & contexts for me to continue to grow. Having turned 50 last year, it is a great time to take stock, so to speak. I recently came across a pair of related articles that gave me an opportunity to reflect on my own professional journey and consider some options for continuing my growth. For reference, here are the links to each respective article:

“At Work, Experience is Falling Out of Favor” – Jerry Useem, The Atlantic

“Your Professional Decline is Coming (Much) Sooner Than You Think” – Arthur C. Brooks, The Atlantic

As a summary, the first article discusses the importance of adaptability & mental agility in the modern workforce and uses the real-world example of the approach that the US Navy took in designing & staffing one of its newest vessels. The second article dovetails with the first by explaining the differences between “crystallized” & “fluid” intelligence and then describes how the author was attempting to shape the next phase of their career partly by using the strengths of their crystallized intelligence – what they have amassed over their lifetime.

I found these articles quite interesting as I have been exploring my own learning process and belief systems over the past several years.

Personally, I have always been more of a generalist with a “T-shaped” personality. I feel comfortable in many contexts and can engage well in these areas, but I focus my expertise in more targeted areas. I like the flexibility and variety that these characteristics afford me.

I had attributed my comfort with this personality type to a number of possible reasons, but had only recently started digging into the motivations behind my approach. To be completely honest, some of these motivations weren’t necessarily empowering: distraction, avoidance and non-committal behaviour have definitely played a part in my past choices, combined with all of the positive & empowering reasons for exploring many different interests & paths. This is my opportunity to look at this without judgement and see what I can do to continually grow.

From these articles and some other books that I’ve recently read, I’ve come up with the following approach to mapping out a general path for my future:

  1. Being aware of the story I tell myself in how I learn

    I’ve found myself falling into the trap of saying “my brain doesn’t work that way” or “I’m not sure I can learn that” as I get older, and I’m now consciously stopping that story in its tracks. Our brains are wondrous in their complexity & abilities and while there may be clinical reasons for decline (some of which can be addressed through lifestyle & health choices), I’m not going to limit myself right out of the gates. Getting out of my own way is a choice that will open up new possibilities.
  2. Staying curious

    I’m embracing the “generalist” aspect of my personality and am being mindful, conscious & strategic with my curiosity. New experiences are always welcome, but I’m also going to guide that curiosity in order to keep moving in a more focused direction. That curiosity aligns with the fluid intelligence & mental agility mentioned in the articles.
  3. Trusting the opportunities that come into my life and the people who bring them
    While I am an advocate of the idea that the energy that you put out in the world comes back to you, I am also pretty pragmatic about the effort that’s needed to make something happen. Being in a positive state alone will not make the change happen – I am responsible for that change. That being said, I also understand that I can “prime” myself into a more receptive & aware mindset by changing my outlook and the energy I put out there. Knowing that now, I trust that the opportunities that come across my path and the people that I meet are part of that journey. It may not be completely evident or obvious at first, but they are playing a definite role.
  4. Staying aligned with my values
    I recently wrote about my “rudder words”, words that keep me focused during the day and that serve as a kind of checkpoint if I notice that I’m feeling a little challenged or out of sorts with what I’m in the midst of doing. These words also serve as a guide for my future. I took a lot of time to choose my words so I feel comfortable & content that they are authentic for me. Related to the 3rd point, if opportunities & people align with my rudder words, I can’t ask for anything more.
  5. Make longer term goals
    This was a recent nugget of learning from the book “Super Brain” by Deepak Chopra and Rudolph Tanzi. Making longer term goals that will take time & effort to achieve provide a kind of “North star” to use as a guide. These longer term goals will also help me evaluate the opportunities that I come across and to objectively & pragmatically evaluate whether they will contribute to me achieving my goal. This point and the 4th point will leverage my experiences & values which are both related to my crystallized intelligence. I can trust that they will serve as the foundation for my future. There are also opportunities for me to share my experiences with others, as a mentor & coach.

There are perceived milestones that we have in our lives: birthdays, career & life changes. These are definitely opportunities for us to pause & reflect, and then to choose & act on the future we want to create for ourselves, regardless of age. I thank you for your time in reading this and hope that it resonates with you in some way.

p.s. a special thanks goes to my friend Ingrid for her feedback on this article