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Editorial
How To Go Back To School Without Going Back To School
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Lucille DeHart via SharpHeels

Starting in September comes the melancholy feeling of losing summer while entering the busy season of family schedules, holidays, and looming long winters (for those in seasonal climates). With the perceived loss that comes with change, a newness emerges: the chance to reset, renew, and relearn. The falling leaves can be taken as a sign of extra work and raking, or they can be seen as a time to start over – a new school year, of sorts.  In an academic context, no matter how tragic the last term was, with friends lost, enemies gained, grades failed or awkward stages entered, a new term means a fresh start: new notebooks with crisp bindings, sharpened pencils with fresh erasers, and a variety of other supplies that equip the student to face whatever lies ahead. The anxiety is tempered with optimism.

Executives lose this annual paradigm shift: One month just blends into another, and, aside from New Year’s Resolutions and corporate goal setting, they tend to carry on without much thought or reason to punctuate the various professional chapters. What if we treated fall like scholars do? What if we took the opportunity every year to do something new, to start something fresh, to challenge ourselves to learn something we don’t know? What if we all, literally or metaphorically, went back to school?

Business professionals can stay ahead of the learning curve by reading white papers, attending seminars, or even just participating in webinars. With the fast pace of technology and increasing demands of consumers, staying on pace in business can be exhausting and disheartening. As soon as we master a mobile device, the next model comes out; just when we learn about programmatic advertising, another over-the-top system emerges; and when we finally figure out how to search and optimize a website, Google changes the rules. Everyone wants to be the Amazon of a particular industry – or just try not to be deemed a relic by Amazon. All of this growth, speed, and activity is like being on a constant treadmill but not seeing any results and not getting ahead. It is easy to feel overwhelmed. For the maturing professional, it is easy to feel more outdated than a favorite Blackberry device. Fortunately, however, fall brings change, and change brings opportunity.

How can business professionals avoid burnout? How can they stay fresh and renew a sense of focus? Ironically, Arianna Huffington, in her book Thrive admitted to hoping for a hospital stay just to get a break from her aggressive work schedule. Other overachievers have silently wished for similar breaks. However, smart professionals know better options exist – like continuing education. Today many top universities offer accelerated programs in everything from customer experience and entrepreneurialism to digital marketing and global workforce development. They assemble top thinkers in a particular field and engage students in mini-MBA like sessions that can provide them with a new set of practical tools and insights. Students not only learn new things or reinforce and update prior learning, they also surface with a renewed sense of purpose and passion. After all, nothing is more humbling than being exposed to a world of new information and knowledge. These experiences always remind me that the more I learn, the more I realize how little I really know.  For those with an unquenchable thirst for information and progress, going back to the proverbial school once a year can satiate some of those needs, and, in doing so, nourish and reset the mind.

For those who may still think that an old dog can’t learn new tricks (that’s just what old lazy dogs say to get out of learning new tricks), here are a few ideas for re-entering the academic world.

Make a reading list.

Select professional and inspirational books that you have come across but haven’t gotten around to reading yet and read them. Alternate fiction/fun books with business books to stay motivated.

Subscribe to an audio book service like Audible.

Make the best use of commuting or travel time by listening to lectures and nonfiction often read by the author him/herself.

Watch TED videos on Youtube.

These are inspiring short talks (18 minutes or less) by world leaders across industries. TED began as a conference where technology, entertainment, and design converged. Today it covers almost all topics from science to business to global issues.

Travel to a conference.

It is nice to get out for a day and fit in a lunch-and-learn seminar, but it is more refreshing to get out of the office for a few days and line your schedule with lectures, dinners, and tradeshow encounters. Get in the habit of visiting booths of companies that you have never heard of. Find out what they do and learn more about their unique business niche. You will broaden your knowledge base along the way.

Join an industry group and participate.

Lining your resume with associations and councils that you pay to join looks good, but it is more rewarding to become an active member within those groups. Attend monthly panels discussions, dinners, and  networking events throughout the year. Not only will you expand your professional base, but you will expose yourself to a new group of thought leaders on a continuing basis.

Treat yourself or have your company sponsor you to take an executive continuing-education class or program.

MIT Sloan has a great assortment of three-day programs across disciplines. If you don’t want to take the time to attend in person, sign up for the web classes for a blend of independent and group learning.

Look for lectures offered by local colleges/universities or even the community YMCA.

Many academic institutions offer annual speaker series and have featured guests like Leon Panetta, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, and Ken Burns.

Subscribe to key publications and business journals.

Dedicate an hour a week to go through the email posts and article releases. The key is to schedule that hour as you would a meeting or an appointment; otherwise, your inbox will fill up and what would have been a nice break from your week will turn into a burden and another item on your to-do list.  Instead, block the time on your calendar, and leave your desk for another office or conference room to review the materials. Bring a beverage with you and enjoy the space.

Don’t always eat at your desk.

A professional book titled Never Eat Alone proclaims the benefits of networking continuously. It can be challenging to schedule all meals with interesting, productive meetings outside of the office, but once a week should be achievable.  Use this time to meet with old acquaintances and colleagues, or with agencies and sales organizations that are offering new insights or services in your industry. You will gain valuable one-on-one insights.

Get out of the office.

Make local trips to retailers, service providers, and entertainment complexes. Observe new marketing and business-transaction methods.  Look at what the competition is doing for sure, but spend more time outside of your industry to see what other smart businesses are doing with their brands and sales-lead generation – brands like Tesla and other car companies, Whole Foods, and technology stores. Do this seasonally and build team field trips around the practice for staff building and other benefits.

Many a brilliant mind has attested to the notion that a life well lived is a life that has never stopped learning. Whether watching the History Channel or Discovery, reading the Sunday Times cover to cover, or engaging in stimulating conversations about various topics from religion to politics, humans are meant to consume knowledge. Our entire growth and evolution as a species has depended on us acquiring more knowledge as we age in order to pass on wisdom to the next generation and start the cycle over again. Education not only furthers the greater good, but gives the individual a sense of renewal.  Go to Staples, get some new composition books and ballpoint pens and go back to school; just remember to bring an apple for the teacher.

This article was originally published on SharpHeels.

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