With lengthy spells of home working and many people reconsidering their career choices, 2020 has made for some great opportunities and reasons to learn new skills.

One thing’s for sure - learning new things is always going to help your career. But it’s easy to get into bad habits, putting the blinkers on and not opening yourself up to a broad programme of education.

So here’s some things to consider before you embark upon any learning journey: why you should maintain a wide range of skills and become a multi-disciplinary expert to enhance your job prospects and performance.

After reading this, have a look at our resources on career development in your spare time and the best books on how to learn.

Maintaining cognitive diversity

“The growth of the future will be catalysed by those who can transcend the categories we impose upon the world; who have the mental flexibility to bridge between domains; who see the walls that we construct between disciplines and thought silos and regard them not as immutable but movable, even breakable.” - Matthew Syed, Rebel Ideas

We previously looked at the idea of cognitive diversity within organisations; having a diverse set of experiences, opinions and skillsets throughout a workforce. This generally makes companies stronger, because they’re less prone to invisible blind spots (things they don’t know that they don’t know).

It also discourages a culture of ‘yes men’ - people agreeing with and enabling each other, even if they’re wrong, because of our tendency to trust people similar to us.

On the individual level, there’s an equally important need to keep yourself cognitively diverse: the world of work is changing rapidly. Having a varied skillset is super-important - it stops you falling behind in the changing world of work, but it also makes you uniquely valuable.

So if you’re an accountant, you’ve got a set of useful skills that are always in demand.

But if you’re an accountant who can code in Python, you’re suddenly much more valuable to certain employers. Or you might be an accountant that speaks Swedish, or who referees football matches at the weekend.

The benefit here isn't just that you have more skills, but that each different skill boosts the other. Having different sets of mental frameworks and ways of tackling problems can be a uniquely valuable asset.

As David Epstein, author of Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World, suggests:

“...breadth of training predicts breadth of transfer. Transfer is your ability to take knowledge and skills and apply them to a problem or situation you have not seen before. And your ability to do that is predicted by the variety of situations you’ve faced in training.”

Diverse learning also helps you build ‘career capital', As Cal Newport calls it in his critique of the “follow-your-passion” mindset, So Good They Can’t Ignore You. Career capital is the thing that opens more doors than anything else.

Building your mental filing cabinet

Billionaire investors aren’t always easy to identify with. But Warren Buffett has some pretty simple wisdom when it comes to obtaining knowledge:

"A lot of us are on the treadmill of consuming expiring information. Not Buffett. He filled his mental filing cabinet with information that had a long half-life.

While most of us focus on consuming information that we won’t care about next month, let alone next year, Buffett focused on knowledge and companies that change very, very slowly or not at all. And because the information he was learning changed slowly he could compound his knowledge over time. And Buffett has been in business for a long time, giving him incredible opportunities to create a cumulative base of knowledge.”

Can you apply this wisdom to your own learning journey?

Take digital marketing, for example. You might enjoy spending time reading articles like ’10 top tips to maximise SEO performance in 2020’, but if it’s full of stuff that’ll be out of date in six months, is it a valuable use of your time? Instead, consider digging into the fundamentals. Rather than surface-level tips, a solid understanding of the foundations of any subject will be much more useful over the long-term.

A useful question to ask when picking a book, course, or qualification - will this knowledge compound? Just like picking a savings account, the initial interest on your investment can seem small, but over time, it can pick up a huge amount of momentum and pay off handsomely.

Pick your sources wisely

If you’re not enjoying a book or course, you don’t have to finish it.

Just because you’ve paid for it, doesn’t mean you’re obliged to go all the way through. That’s known as the sunk cost fallacy, where an investment justifies further expenditure (in this case, time and energy).

It’s the same feeling that drives gamblers to keep going after losses, instead of walking away.

The same thing applies to learning.

Take books, for example. According to Richard Koch, author of The 80 / 20 Principle, 80% of the valuable content can often be found in 20% of the book. That’s a simplified rule of thumb, but it’s worth bearing in mind: not every page of a book will be equally useful. Many educational or business books follow the same structure:

  • Bold or unconventional statement (summed up in the title)
  • Introduction summarising the idea
  • 8 or so chapters of examples justifying the idea
  • Conclusion summarising the idea again with actions you can take

So skipping a few of those chapters and going straight to the end might give you the majority of wisdom within, in a fraction of the time. If you’re borrowing books from the library and making notes, this could be a great way to expand your horizons with less effort than you might have thought.

You’ve then got the time to move on to other material and learn more useful things.

Keeping sane and wise  

In our personal lives, cognitive diversity is a huge asset too.

Reading your news from different sources helps you see different sides of a story. And keeping informed by scrolling through social media feeds won’t do you any favours.

Conversation on social media skews naturally towards more extreme ideas. Things are only shared because of valence - the fact they provoke a change in emotional state for the viewer, whether that’s surprise, fear, anger, laughter, or so on.

And so ‘good news’ just isn’t visible, making us all feel more anxious and fearful. “Things have been fine for a few days” isn’t a compelling enough story for a news cycle, but most of the time it’s true.

Which means that rational, well-thought-out, properly sourced arguments are a rare sight, and echo chambers of fear and misinformation bubble up easily.

The opposite - reading widely - will make you calmer, wiser and more qualified to do things. Understanding that you have gaps in your knowledge shouldn’t be something to be ashamed of - it’s a good reason to complement your skills by seeking a wide range of wisdom.

“By opening ourselves up to diverse ideas, we not only detect new opportunities but diversify our minds. That is not to say that we don’t need specialist expertise; quite the reverse. We need both conceptual depth, and conceptual distance. We need to be able to understand the status quo, but also to question it.” - Matthew Syed