To Improve Your Career Prospects, Diversify Your Learning

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Successful investors know that portfolio diversification is an essential strategy. They don’t just invest in different businesses, but across industries. If one sector suffers, you don’t get caught with your eggs in one basket. Some of those investments might even grow enough to offset any loss.

Investors don’t have to be experts or hands-on in every domain where they get involved. For example, you can benefit from franchising a hydraulic hose business, even without industry knowledge.

The average employee may not have their sights set on investment. Their immediate focus tends to dwell on staying competitive in the workforce and advancing their careers. But they, too, can benefit from the principle of diversification. In this situation, the concept applies to skills and learning.

The world rewards generalists

The principle of specialization is ingrained in our upbringing and institutions. While children are often encouraged to try out different activities and learn many things, we expect them to gain focus as they mature.

This is reinforced on many levels. We bandy around sayings such as ‘jack of all trades, master of none.’ Peers, teachers, and family members ask students what their career plans are, with increasing seriousness and frequency. The education system itself encourages specialization by offering specific courses in the promise of better job outcomes.

Gaining focus in learning is a natural part of growing up, and it certainly helps us to better navigate the adult world. But excessive specialization can lead to flawed development. It may leave individuals at a disadvantage in a competitive and changing world.

The case for specialization is persuasively driven home by the likes of Malcolm Gladwell, who popularized the concept of the 10,000-hour rule. The premise being that putting in more hours into improving a skill invariably makes you better, and doing so early on will amplify your advantage.

This assumption has since been disputed. Specialization is only suitable for certain highly domain-specific skills, and occupations that offer ‘kind’ learning environments. Those are basically situations where you can repetitively execute known functions with little deviation and thrive as a result. Music, golf, and chess are some examples.

For the majority of careers, and therefore people’s lives, environments are what psychologists term ‘wicked.’ They have a high degree of complexity and so many interacting variables that perfect information is impossible. In such situations, it’s the generalists who thrive.

Gaining from adversity

Generalists aren’t people who are unfocused in their approach to learning and development. They may be good at a specific skill. But they have also intentionally cultivated the quality of range. They don’t hesitate to dabble in a wide variety of skills.

This combination of continuous learning and curiosity gives them an overall breadth of knowledge. They may not be experts in multiple areas, but they know enough transferable skills to handle unexpected situations. It allows them to tackle problems they’ve never encountered and find solutions that are considered out-of-the-box.

Having range operates on the same principle as diversifying your investment. Instead of stocks, real estate, or startups, you’re investing in different skills.

Diversification works on the principle of antifragility, coined by Nassim Taleb in his works on risk management. A system subjected to stress will break if it’s fragile. If it’s robust, it will likely survive unaffected. But if it’s antifragile, it gains and grows from the ordeal.

Disruptive events can affect companies unevenly. The pandemic was bad for most industries, but IT companies largely thrived. Investors who diversified in this sector, and workers with the bread of knowledge extending to this domain, would have benefited where others struggled.

Diversifying adult learning

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The prevailing influence of change and uncertainty in our world was already in place before the pandemic and will continue beyond it. As adults, we are responsible for diversifying our own skillsets in order to thrive in such a future.

Thus, a case can also be made for adopting a diverse approach to learning itself. It’s not enough to simply read about a wide variety of topics. You will learn more effectively if you explore different learning styles or make use of different media.

Listen to expert podcasts, watch instructional videos and TED talks. Attend webinars for now, and workshops once restrictions on in-person activities are lifted.

If you have the flexibility to do so, take a certificate course, or pursue higher education. Seek an internship or do volunteer work. Attempt a personal project to exercise a new skill and get feedback from others.

You don’t have to do all of these things but experiment with them to find out which one is most effective for your learning. That will enable you to dabble in a greater breadth of skills and ultimately become a diversified, antifragile employee with strong career prospects.

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