A Learner’s Place

There’s been a lot said (and written) lately about what to do when (not if — it’s never if) you’re laid off from your job.  One popular suggestion that keeps coming up over and over again is “go back to school.”

Now, that’s great for those of us who work in higher education. But “go back to school” isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution; as I wrote the other day, standard educational models can really get in the way of learning for some of us.

The Lazy Hiring Manager’s Guide to Personnel

The bigger problem with this advice is it feeds into the absolutely rediculous idea that somehow, learning something in a classroom is more valuable than learning it on your own.

I’ve always been incredibly frustrated by job postings that require a certain certification, because in my mind, all that most of those certifications show is that you know how to memorize facts and write tests. They don’t take into account your transferrable skills, for one. They also don’t show how you’ll actually handle things on the job.

Take a typical IT job posting, which very often requires a certification of some sort. The ones that make me laugh most are the ones that require you to have “a certification”, without specifying what sort. A networking certification won’t help you if you’re going to be doing database programming all day. That you can get a databases job with a networking certification, in my mind, reeks of laziness on the part of whoever is doing the hiring. It’s as if they want the piece of paper to do the thinking for them.

But what the lazy hiring managers miss out on by relying on those papers are all those candidates who are automatically screened out by the computer, before any human being ever sees the application.

They miss the arts student who spent the last 10 years of his life building and supporting a database for three local businesses. The one who, in exchange for having access to equipment and supplies, got up every Saturday morning to teach at-risk teens how to build websites, design user-interfaces and hook into web-enabled databases.

They miss the high school drop-out who was bored in school because she picked things up so quickly. She’s the one who was bored in junior high computer class and spent all her time sitting in the back, writing games for her friends. The same one who has enough knowledge of the foundations of programming that she can pick up any new language in an afternoon.

I know many of you will say that strong experience (like those two fictional people would have) can get you into great positions, and I don’t dispute that. But I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that many great candidates get screened out by automated systems, and don’t stand a chance. They simply don’t have as many opportunities as a “certified” (but maybe less qualified or skilled) candidate may have.

It’s not that the certifications (education) are inherently bad; it’s that the system is bad.

By relying on a universal and generic program of study or certification, it leaves employers in the unfortunate position of being unable to find someone who is uniquely qualified to meet their unique needs. Wouldn’t it make more sense to worry about finding the unique people first, and then worrying about generic knowledge that a bright person would pick up in days, later?

Fortunately, some employers seem to have figured this out.

Life Would Be Pretty Boring

It’s been a saying for as long as I can remember — “if we all thought the same way, life would be pretty boring” — but recently have we started to see the effects that hiring only people who all think a certain way can have on an organization. Call it a “side-effect” of the plethora of certifications, diplomas, programs and processes that churn out un-prepared grads all the time.

Where as the system is built to churn out like-thinkers, employers are skill looking to reward creativity and curiosity. While employers say they want only those people who have a demonstrated ability to do well in school or training, they still are looking for people who can invent new ideas and infuse their businesses with the “next big thing.”

It’s when employers look at what they actually want (as opposed to what the certification boards say they want) that some stop looking only at what pieces of paper you have — or don’t have — to your name. These are the ones who want first to know what you can do for them, and who care less where you learned what you know. It is a recognition that some very qualified people come out of formal training programs, but also that some very qualified people come out of other paths, as well.

The good news, of course, is that there are the employers that value divergent thinking, creative problem-solving, and unorthodox proposals. There are ones that are supportive of professional and personal growth and development. There are ones that very often value learning for learning’s sake.

And when it comes right down to it, I’d rather work in that kind of environment, any day.

It’s not for everyone, but it doesn’t have to be. Again, it’s not about whether or not education is the right path for everyone. It’s not about whether or not certification is a good barometer or not.

It’s about understanding that not everything is black and white; that what is good for one person may not be optimal for the next. It’s about acknowledging that there is a place in our society for people who can think widely, who question endlessly, and who learn quickly. There is a place for those with a breadth of knowledge, who follow where their interests lead them, even if that’s not into formal training.

When All Else Fails, Diversify

But back to this idea that education will help you recession-proof your job, or that it will get you another job more quickly (should you lose yours in the first place).

Education has nothing to do with it. Learning has everything to do with it. By all means, spend your time learning and growing, whether by going to night classes or just by picking up a book — inside or outside your current field of expertise!

To borrow on the financial metaphor, economists have been saying it for a long time: diversify! diversify! diversify! The more diverse your financial holdings, the better luck you will have in riding out a long down-turn and maybe even coming out ahead.

The same can be said for learners: diversify! There is certainly a place in this world for people who know a lot about a few very specific things (specialists). But often, the people who come out ahead are those who are flexible, who can adjust to changes, and who have learned how to learn, because they are most adaptable. There is also a place in this world for those who know a little about a lot of things (generalists). Diversifying in knowledge, like in financials, is not a bad move.

And just in case you think I’m making it up, and there are no such people out there (other than you and I) who think that way, here’s what Marketing Guru Seth Godin had to say on the subject (this is just an excerpt, but the whole thing is fantastic!):

Here’s what I’d want if I were hiring a marketer:

You’re relentlessly positive. You can visualize complex projects and imagine alternative possible outcomes. It’s one thing to talk about thinking outside the box, it’s quite another to have a long history of doing it successfully. You can ride a unicycle, or can read ancient Greek.

You have charisma in that you easily engage with strangers and actually enjoy selling ideas to others. You are comfortable with ambiguity, and rarely ask for detail or permission. Test, measure, repeat and go work just fine for you.

You’re intellectually restless. You care enough about new ideas to read plenty of blogs and books, and you’re curious enough about your own ideas that you blog or publish your thoughts for others to react to. …

When I first read that “job description” in November, it immediately resonated with me. And not just because I can read Ancient Greek!

What jumped out at me then, and what still strikes me now, is how much of it is based not on what you know, but on what you have the capacity to know. It’s about visualizing and imagining; creating and sharing; discovering and questioning; growing and learning.

It’s not about what you have been taught, it’s about what you can learn.