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The only sure-fire investment

The only sure-fire investment

There’s only one investment that’s absolutely guaranteed to give you a great payback, regardless of the state of the economy and the uncertainties of this fragile world. I’m talking about the investment you make in yourself.

Think of yourself as a business

Imagine you’re Jane Doe, Inc. Whether you’re self-employed or work for a giant corporation—or even if you’re not in employment at present—this business is your basis for financial survival. If Jane Doe. Inc. is a sound business—meaning it offers real value to its customers (your employer, your boss and your colleagues)—it will prosper and provide you with a lifetime’s return. And that’s the case whether your “business” is selling your time and effort in a physical sense, your expertise, your creativity, or your willingness to do what the company asks of you. Whatever it is you do in return for payment is your “product.” Your “business” sells that “product” for wages, salary, commission or tips.

The world is extremely competitive. There are thousands, millions of people offering “products” that compete directly with yours. They could be John Doe, Inc., based in the next door house to yours. Or Jacques Doe, S.A. in Paris; Jonathan Doe, PLC in London; Helga van Doe, Gmbh. in Dusseldorf; or Do Lin Ji in Beijing. Everyone is part of a global market. For your “business” to prosper, you have to offer some kind of value that gives you an edge. If you don’t, you’ll be treated as a commodity.

Commodity businesses are tough

A commodity is something like coffee, or wheat, or hours of low-level work. It doesn’t matter where it comes from. If a company wants hours of time manning a help desk, it wants to pay as little as possible for those hours. And if that means it employs people in India rather than Indiana, who cares? The “commodity” is the same. We generally believe coffee from Colombia is superior to coffee from, say, Nigeria; but, believe me, if some huge corporation just wants to put hot, brown liquid in a trillion cups at the greatest profit to them, they’ll buy whatever’s cheapest.

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“Commodity” people are also seen as interchangeable. They’re hired as “hands:” just a living machine to do a particular job that real machines can’t do yet. No one cares very much about commodity people. If one of them doesn’t perform well, or has too much time off, or annoys the boss, they get fired. There are plenty more. In a day or so, no one will notice the difference. If the corporation needs to make some quick saving to boost quarterly profits, lay off as many of the commodity people as possible. After all, you don’t need to worry about losing valuable expertise. When the profits scare is over, you just hire some more. One is as good as another.

You don’t want your “business” product (you and the work that you do) to be seen as a commodity. If that happens, you’re at the bottom of the pile. Expendable. Replaceable at a moment’s notice. To be bought for the lowest possible price.

How do you escape the commodity trap?

  • By doing what any successful business does: creating some uniqueness in your product that marks it out and gives it added value. That means making significant investments in your personal “business”. Not once, but again and again, so you maintain your advantage. Because many of those competing businesses are investing as well.

    How would you feel if someone asked you to put your money into a scheme they weren’t investing in themselves? Would they have any credibility? Imagine being the Loan Officer of a bank. Someone comes to you with an idea for a business and wants you to invest the bank’s money in their future. It all looks fine until you casually enquire what the amount of their personal investment will be.

    “Oh, nothing,” you’re told. “I plan to use your money and keep my own.”

    Impressed? I think not.

  • Always invest in yourself first. Thousands of people every day expect their employers to invest time and cash in them (training, bonuses, good salaries, promotions, new equipment), yet they don’t invest a penny or an hour in themselves.

    Is it any wonder that their employers aren’t too keen to lay out more money? Or that they try to protect their investment by setting conditions or requiring people to pay the money back if they leave? Is it surprising most will only invest where it suits the company directly? Or that they’re unwilling to fund programs that they think might make it easier for people to get jobs elsewhere?

  • Whose “business” is it anyway? Yours, right? So you ought to have more interest in it than anyone else. And if you want your “business” to prosper, you need to get it the investment it needs, whether that means taking every opportunity your employer offers, going back to school, reading the latest books on your job you can find, or simply hunkering down and learning everything you can on a daily basis as you do what you’re paid for.
  • Every increase in the worth of your personal “business” (your experience, your knowledge, your skills, your motivation and capability) takes you further towards marking yourself out from everyone else. When times get tough, who will a business fire first? The “commodity” people: easy come, easy go. The people who aren’t seen as anything special: lots of those around when time gets better and we recruit again. The ones who can be replaced by machines.

    But companies aren’t keen to let their best people go. They’re tough to replace. They may join a competitor. The company needs them.

    And if things get really bad and almost everyone has to go, who’ll find it easiest to find new work, or start their own small business? Not the thousands of “commodity” people. There are so many of them that they swamp the few jobs available. And what can they offer to start their own business? Even gardeners and pet-sitters face competition from others who add just that extra spark of value.

Make that investment now!

As technology continues its march and it becomes easier and easier to locate jobs anywhere in the world, you need to stay a step ahead. There are fewer and fewer jobs for poorly-skilled people. The few that exist are badly-paid and chronically insecure. Of course, new jobs are also being created all the time, but they’re different jobs: more highly skilled, more technological, more professional.

If you want your personal “business” to prosper in years to come, you need to be able to take these new jobs, not cling to the shrinking number of old ones. You need to have that spark of extra value to stand out from the crowd. That takes investment of time, money and effort.

Just as banks are eager to invest in good businesses that they believe will prosper and bring them good returns, so employers are still keen to invest in staff who show they have what it takes to provide a big payback. But don’t expect anyone to invest in someone who hasn’t invested in themselves first. Even charities look for people to help themselves as well as seek help from others. Today’s employers are certainly not charities!

Will you sit around and hope someone will invest in you? Or go out and invest whatever you can—and as much as you can—first and then use that to convince others to invest still more?

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Invest all you can in yourself. Keep on doing it. You’ll never make a sounder and more certain investment in your life. And you’ll never reap a bigger reward.

Adrian Savage is a writer, an Englishman, and a retired business executive, in that order. He lives in Tucson, Arizona. You can read his other articles at Slow Leadership, the site for everyone who wants to build a civilized place to work and bring back the taste, zest and satisfaction to leadership and life. His latest book, Slow Leadership: Civilizing The Organization

    , is now available at all good bookstores.

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    Last Updated on January 21, 2020

    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.

    The Keys to Learning Anything Easily

    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.

    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.

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    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.

    How to Self-Taught Effectively

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

    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.

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    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.

    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.

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    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.

    Check out this guide for useful techniques to help you practice efficiently: The Beginner’s Guide to Deliberate Practice

    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.

    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.

    Here find out How to Network So You’ll Get Way Ahead in Your Professional Life.

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    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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