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8 Ways to Take It to the Next Level

8 Ways to Take It to the Next Level
Take It to the Next Level

No matter what you’re doing, there comes a time when you are going to want to take things up a notch. Maybe it’s your career — even if things are going along fine right now, ultimately you’d like to get a promotion, increase your client base, or reach a larger audience. Or maybe it’s a hobby that you think you’d like to turn into a career.

Getting started with anything can be a struggle, but once you reach a certain level of success, it can be hard to figure out how to make whatever it is you do truly remarkable. The things we do have a way of developing their own inertia, and if we’re not careful, we get carried along in the routine without ever realizing the full potential of what we and our lives can be.

How can you shake things up a bit? What do you have to do to take your project, your career, your product, or your life to the next level? Read on…

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1. Build Your Brand

Long-time readers know that I haven’t always been fond of the idea of personal branding. Consider me convinced.

The strength of your brand is how well you are associated with whatever you do. For instance, lifehack.org offers tips and hacks to increase personal productivity. When people hear the word “lifehack”, they think of personal productivity, and when they hear “personal productivity” they think of lifehack. It’s a pretty strong brand. Some people have equally strong brands: when you hear about permission marketing, chances are you think of Seth Godin.

How strongly is your name linked with what you do? What could you do to link them more strongly? Some things to consider:

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  • Traditional marketing: Commercials, print ads, billboards, bus wraps — anything that gets your name and message in people’s faces. There are a few problems, though: people might mistake your message, linking you with the wrong speciality; people tend to tune out a lot of advertising as a survival mechanism; people often respond negatively to blatant branding efforts; it’s quite expensive.
  • Blogging: A blog is a conversation with your audience, and can help build up a loyal following that actually cares about what you do.
  • Word-of-mouth: Hard to create and hard to fake, but very effective. Seek out people with a great deal of influence and focus on convincing them of your value. If Seth Godin wrote on his blog that I was the best web writer he knew of, you can bet that within the day my career would be at the next level (maybe the level after that, even!).

2. Build Your Audience

Make a concerted effort to increase the number of people who know about you. Branding is part of this, but it’s not all of it. Give something away, find a new outlet, tell everyone you meet what you do, hand out cards wherever you go, show up at conferences and exhibitions, go to your kids’ classrooms and talk about what you do (and make it interesting enough that they tell their parents). Make yourself useful so people have a compelling reason to pay attention.

3. Increase Your Output

Give your audience, whoever that is, more of what they expect from you. Double, triple, or septuple your output. If you’re a writer, write twice as much. If you’re an actor, get into more plays. If you’re a filmmaker, pledge to produce four short films this year instead of one. Make a painting a day. Aim to top your sales quotas by 50% every month. Do whatever it takes to make yourself more productive. Learn to do whatever you do in half the time — then halve it again. (Read lifehack.org every day, of course!)

4. Improve Your Output

Make whatever you make twice as well. Improve the quality of your work until people have no choice but to stop and gape. Create benchmarks for your output, and aim to top them every single time. Take classes, read book, follow a mentor, practice twice as much, commit yourself to doing what it takes to master your craft or profession.

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5. Expand Your Niche

Do what you do now but with a wider outlook. If you write about dogs, start writing about pets in general. If you sell widgets, get into the widget case business. If you’re a musician, learn how to produce. Think about the people whose needs you aren’t meeting, and figure out how to meet them. Don’t try to create a new niche altogether, just look for ways to complement and leverage the work you’re already doing.

6. Restrict Your Niche

Or, do the opposite. Focus yourself on a narrow part of your niche until you’re the only one doing it. If you write about sports, write about baseball, then write about left-handed pitchers. If you make household appliances, make appliances for college students (and then for left-handed college students, maybe). If you paint landscapes, paint trees. If you do marketing consulting, offer viral marketing techniques that work with teenage boys. Become the person people have to go to when they have very specialized needs, because you’re the only one that does it.

7. Cross-Develop

Figure out how to use what you know in an entirely different way. If you coach little leaguers, write a book about coaching. If you offer one-on-one organization coaching, work with a developer to create home organization software. If you’re a TV camera operator, tutor middle schoolers in video podcasting. Find a new way to challenge yourself and put your knowledge to the test — while developing new knowledge and skills.

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8. Expand Your Network

Your audience are the people who buy, read, or otherwise use your product; your network are the people that help you make it, market it, or distribute it. Focus on building strong relationships with a variety of people both in and out of your profession. Don’t try to fake it — strong relationships have to be genuine or they won’t last. Join a social networking site like LinkedIn and work it like mad. Go to trade shows, conferences, and exhibitions and talk to every exhibitor and every presenter. Make a list of 20 people in your field you want to know and email them introductions. Build relationships with your 10 best clients. Build relationships with someone from your top competitors (if that’s legal). Join a professional organization and run for an office.

Obviously these are not all exclusive — you can and sometimes have to do more than one at the same time. And they’re not all necessary — some even contradict others. But all of them shake up your routines and make people pay attention to you, whether those people are potential clients, potential customers, or potential partners.

None of these are keys to instant success. All of them require hard work and time to show any effect. If you’re ready to take it to the next level — and you’re ready to put in the work and commitment that entails — then go through the list and ask yourself how each item could help get you there.

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Last Updated on August 20, 2019

Becoming Self-Taught (The How-To Guide)

Becoming Self-Taught (The How-To Guide)

Most of the skills I use to make a living are skills I’ve learned on my own: Web design, desktop publishing, marketing, personal productivity skills, even teaching! And most of what I know about science, politics, computers, art, guitar-playing, world history, writing, and a dozen other topics, I’ve picked up outside of any formal education.

This is not to toot my own horn at all; if you stop to think about it, much of what you know how to do you’ve picked up on your own. But we rarely think about the process of becoming self-taught. This is too bad, because often, we shy away from things we don’t know how to do without stopping to think about how we might learn it — in many cases, fairly easily.

The way you approach the world around you dictates to a great degree whether you will find learning something new easy or hard. Learning comes easily to people who have developed:

Curiosity

Being curious means you look forward to learning new things and are troubled by gaps in your understanding of the world. New words and ideas are received as challenges and the work of understanding them is embraced.

People who lack curiosity see learning new things as a chore — or worse, as beyond their capacities.

Patience

Depending on the complexity of a topic, learning something new can take a long time. And it’s bound to be frustrating as you grapple with new terminologies, new models, and apparently irrelevant information.

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When you are learning something by yourself, there is nobody to control the flow of information, to make sure you move from basic knowledge to intermediate and finally advanced concepts.

Patience with your topic, and more importantly with yourself is crucial — there’s no field of knowledge that someone in the world hasn’t managed to learn, starting from exactly where you are.

A Feeling for Connectedness

This is the hardest talent to cultivate, and is where most people flounder when approaching a new topic.

A new body of knowledge is always easiest to learn if you can figure out the way it connects to what you already know. For years, I struggled with calculus in college until one day, my chemistry professor demonstrated how to do half-life calculations using integrals. From then on, calculus came much easier, because I had made a connection between a concept I understood well (the chemistry of half-lifes) and a field I had always struggled in (higher maths).

The more you look for and pay attention to the connections between different fields, the more readily your mind will be able to latch onto new concepts.

With a learning attitude in place, working your way into a new topic is simply a matter of research, practice, networking, and scheduling:

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1. Research

Of course, the most important step in learning something new is actually finding out stuff about it. I tend to go through three distinct phases when I’m teaching myself a new topic:

Learning the Basics

Start as all things start today: Google it! Somehow people managed to learn before Google ( I learned HTML when Altavista was the best we got!) but nowadays a well-formed search on Google will get you a wealth of information on any topic in seconds.

Surfing Wikipedia articles is a great way to get a basic grounding in a new field, too — and usually the Wikipedia entry for your search term will be on the first page of your Google search.

What I look for is basic information and then the work of experts — blogs by researchers in a field, forums about a topic, organizational websites, magazines. I subscribe to a bunch of RSS feeds to keep up with new material as it’s posted, I print out articles to read in-depth later, and I look for the names of top authors or top books in the field.

Hitting the Books

Once I have a good outline of a field of knowledge, I hit the library. I look up the key names and titles I came across online, and then scan the shelves around those titles for other books that look interesting.

Then, I go to the children’s section of the library and look up the same call numbers — a good overview for teens is probably going to be clearer, more concise, and more geared towards learning than many adult books.

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Long-Term Reference

While I’m reading my stack of books from the library, I start keeping my eyes out for books I will want to give a permanent place on my shelves. I check online and brick-and-mortar bookstores, but also search thrift stores, used bookstores, library book sales, garage sales, wherever I happen to find myself in the presence of books.

My goal is a collection of reference manuals and top books that I will come back to either to answer thorny questions or to refresh my knowledge as I put new skills into practice. And to do this cheaply and quickly.

2. Practice

Putting new knowledges into practice helps us develop better understandings now and remember more later. Although a lot of books offer exercises and self-tests, I prefer to jump right in and build something: a website, an essay, a desk, whatever.

A great way to put any new body of knowledge into action is to start a blog on it — put it out there for the world to see and comment on.

Just don’t lock your learning up in your head where nobody ever sees how much you know about something, and you never see how much you still don’t know.

3. Network

One of the most powerful sources of knowledge and understanding in my life have been the social networks I have become embedded in over the years — the websites I write on, the LISTSERV I belong to, the people I talk with and present alongside at conferences, my colleagues in the department where I studied and the department where I now teach, and so on.

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These networks are crucial to extending my knowledge in areas I am already involved, and for referring me to contacts in areas where I have no prior experience. Joining an email list, emailing someone working in the field, asking colleagues for recommendations, all are useful ways of getting a foothold in a new field.

Networking also allows you to test your newly-acquired knowledge against others’ understandings, giving you a chance to grow and further develop.

4. Schedule

For anything more complex than a simple overview, it pays to schedule time to commit to learning. Having the books on the shelf, the top websites bookmarked, and a string of contacts does no good if you don’t give yourself time to focus on reading, digesting, and implementing your knowledge.

Give yourself a deadline, even if there is no externally imposed time limit, and work out a schedule to reach that deadline.

Final Thoughts

In a sense, even formal education is a form of self-guided learning — in the end, a teacher can only suggest and encourage a path to learning, at best cutting out some of the work of finding reliable sources to learn from.

If you’re already working, or have a range of interests beside the purely academic, formal instruction may be too inconvenient or too expensive to undertake. That doesn’t mean you have to set aside the possibility of learning, though; history is full of self-taught successes.

At its best, even a formal education is meant to prepare you for a life of self-guided learning; with the power of the Internet and the mass media at our disposal, there’s really no reason not to follow your muse wherever it may lead.

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Featured photo credit: Priscilla Du Preez via unsplash.com

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