How to Screw Up Your Career In 5 Easy Steps: A Failure to Actively Learn

This is the third post in a series on common mistakes that people make in their early careers. While I originally targeted these posts toward women, I've learned that many men are reading these with interest too, so I've shifted a bit to be more inclusive.

Last weekend, I had 48 hours all to myself – my first such block of time without any obligations to others in literally a decade. The feeling of freedom was overwhelming and liberating. On Saturday, I took a fascinating graffiti class in San Francisco. After learning about the history of this art (did you know that it’s actually called “writing” since the art is letter-based? And that calling it “tagging” is an insult to the artist?), I spent a couple of hours spray-painting up a wall somewhere between the Tenderloin and SOMA. The next day, I took a hula hoop class taught by a very bohemian woman named Josephine who keeps bees, performs at circus events, and moonlights as a flaming sword eater. I drank in these experiences with excitement – the joy of learning something new was exhilarating. I haven’t taken the time to learn a new skill or hobby in years. These classes ignited my creative side and made me crave learning more, a geeky desire to research graffiti and practice hooping sneaking into my body.

But it was during this weekend that I caught myself saying something to my teacher that goes against everything I believe in, career-wise and on a personal level: “I wonder why nobody ever taught me how to hula-hoop.”

Mistake #3: Waiting to Be Taught New Skills

I realize that I have no future career in circus arts, but what I said to beekeeping hoop girl is a common mistake that many of us make in our personal and professional lives: failing to take responsibility for our own learning.

There is a difference between “being taught,” which is a passive activity, and “learning,” which is a proactive activity. Learning requires initiative, drive, and a willingness to absorb and understand new information on our own. Being taught requires time spent with your butt in a chair listening to someone else decide what to tell you. When you learn, you take your own career and development into your own hands. You seek out opportunities for enrichment and plot your own course. When you learn, you empower yourself. And it’s a lot of hard work.

But when you expect to be taught everything you need to know, you put your career and future in the hands of someone else. It’s easy to fall into this trap – our education system emphasizes students being taught the “right” things to achieve certain test scores and a general, mediocre average. Learning for learning’s sake isn’t fostered because there is no standardized test for innovation or passionate learning. But what this mentality teaches us is to sit back and wait for someone to decide that it’s time for us to learn. And that’s the wrong way.

You are in charge of your own learning. You need to decide the skills that you’ll practice and perfect to make you great at your job. You need to realize that nobody else is looking out for you as much as you are – not your boss, your spouse, your team, or your friends. You need to take matters into your own hands and learn.

I have made mistakes in this area, but especially in the past 5 years, I’ve operated with the belief that my career is my own, and my life is my own.

No one ever taught me how to start and run a business, but I figured it out on my own and with the help of others whom I sought for assistance.

No one ever taught me how sell software, but I practiced through trial and error for years until I found a solution.

So now it’s your turn to take the initiative.

You want to be a programmer? Learn the language in a night class, online, or from a mentor.

Want to start your own business? Don’t listen to the naysayers – just go out and do it and get help from someone who has been there (and a lawyer and CPA – always).

You want to get fit, or try a new hobby? Then just do it. Learn along the way, and embrace the challenge.

Learning means taking calculated risks and being open to a failure. It means being active in your career and personal development. So don’t make the mistake that has held back so many young people and wait for someone else to decide it’s time for you to learn something new. If you want a promotion, a job change, or independence, I urge you to actively learn the skills required to earn it. And when someone comes to you asking for help, be a teacher and mentor. The rewards are satisfying and empowering – you’ll never go back to waiting to be taught again.