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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 September 18, 2019

    How to Take Notes Effectively: Powerful Note-Taking Techniques

    How to Take Notes Effectively: Powerful Note-Taking Techniques

    Note-taking is one of those skills that rarely gets taught. Almost everyone assumes either that taking good notes comes naturally or, that someone else must have already taught about how to take notes. Then, we sit around and complain that our colleagues don’t know how to take notes.

    I figure it’s about time to do something about that. Whether you’re a student or a mid-level professional, the ability to take effective, meaningful notes is a crucial skill. Not only do good notes help us recall facts and ideas we may have forgotten, the act of writing things down helps many of us to remember them better in the first place.

    One of the reasons people have trouble taking effective notes is that they’re not really sure what notes are for. I think a lot of people, students and professionals alike, attempt to capture a complete record of a lecture, book, or meeting in their notes — to create, in effect, minutes. This is a recipe for failure.

    Trying to get every last fact and figure down like that leaves no room for thinking about what you’re writing and how it fits together. If you have a personal assistant, by all means, ask him or her to write minutes; if you’re on your own, though, your notes have a different purpose to fulfill.

    The purpose of note-taking is simple: to help you work better and more quickly. This means your notes don’t have to contain everything, they have to contain the most important things.

    And if you’re focused on capturing everything, you won’t have the spare mental “cycles” to recognize what’s truly important. Which means that later, when you’re studying for a big test or preparing a term paper, you’ll have to wade through all that extra garbage to uncover the few nuggets of important information?

    What to Write Down

    Your focus while taking notes should be two-fold. First, what’s new to you? There’s no point in writing down facts you already know. If you already know the Declaration of Independence was written and signed in 1776, there’s no reason to write that down. Anything you know you know, you can leave out of your notes.

    Second, what’s relevant? What information is most likely to be of use later, whether on a test, in an essay, or in completing a project? Focus on points that directly relate to or illustrate your reading (which means you’ll have to have actually done the reading…). The kinds of information to pay special attention to are:

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    Dates of Events

    Dates allow you to create a chronology, putting things in order according to when they happened, and understand the context of an event.

    For instance, knowing Isaac Newton was born in 1643 allows you to situate his work in relation to that of other physicists who came before and after him, as well as in relation to other trends of the 17th century.

    Names of People

    Being able to associate names with key ideas also helps remember ideas better and, when names come up again, to recognize ties between different ideas whether proposed by the same individuals or by people related in some way.

    Theories or Frameworks

    Any statement of a theory or frameworks should be recorded — they are the main points most of the time.

    Definitions

    Like theories, these are the main points and, unless you are positive you already know the definition of a term, should be written down.

    Keep in mind that many fields use everyday words in ways that are unfamiliar to us.

    Arguments and Debates

    Any list of pros and cons, any critique of a key idea, both sides of any debate or your reading should be recorded.

    This is the stuff that advancement in every discipline emerges from, and will help you understand both how ideas have changed (and why) but also the process of thought and development of the matter of subject.

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    Images

    Whenever an image is used to illustrate a point, a few words are in order to record the experience.

    Obviously it’s overkill to describe every tiny detail, but a short description of a painting or a short statement about what the class, session or meeting did should be enough to remind you and help reconstruct the experience.

    Other Stuff

    Just about anything a professor writes on a board should probably be written down, unless it’s either self-evident or something you already know. Titles of books, movies, TV series, and other media are usually useful, though they may be irrelevant to the topic at hand.

    I usually put this sort of stuff in the margin to look up later (it’s often useful for research papers, for example). Pay attention to other’s comments, too — try to capture at least the gist of comments that add to your understanding.

    Your Own Questions

    Make sure to record your own questions about the material as they occur to you. This will help you remember to ask the professor or look something up later, as well as prompt you to think through the gaps in your understanding.

    3 Powerful Note-Taking Techniques

    You don’t have to be super-fancy in your note-taking to be effective, but there are a few techniques that seem to work best for most people.

    1. Outlining

    Whether you use Roman numerals or bullet points, outlining is an effective way to capture the hierarchical relationships between ideas and data. For example, in a history class, you might write the name of an important leader, and under it the key events that he or she was involved in. Under each of them, a short description. And so on.

    Outlining is a great way to take notes from books, because the author has usually organized the material in a fairly effective way, and you can go from start to end of a chapter and simply reproduce that structure in your notes.

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    For lectures, however, outlining has limitations. The relationship between ideas isn’t always hierarchical, and the instructor might jump around a lot. A point later in the lecture might relate better to information earlier in the lecture, leaving you to either flip back and forth to find where the information goes best (and hope there’s still room to write it in), or risk losing the relationship between what the professor just said and what she said before.

    2. Mind-Mapping

    For lectures, a mind-map might be a more appropriate way of keeping track of the relationships between ideas. Now, I’m not the biggest fan of mind-mapping, but it might just fit the bill.

    Here’s the idea:

    In the center of a blank sheet of paper, you write the lecture’s main topic. As new sub-topics are introduced (the kind of thing you’d create a new heading for in an outline), you draw a branch outward from the center and write the sub-topic along the branch. Then each point under that heading gets its own, smaller branch off the main one. When another new sub-topic is mentioned, you draw a new main branch from the center. And so on.

    The thing is, if a point should go under the first heading but you’re on the fourth heading, you can easily just draw it in on the first branch. Likewise, if a point connects to two different ideas, you can connect it to two different branches.

    If you want to neaten things up later, you can re-draw the map or type it up using a program like FreeMind, a free mind-mapping program (some wikis even have plug-ins for FreeMind mind-maps, in case you’re using a wiki to keep track of your notes).

    You can learn more about mind-mapping here: How to Mind Map: Visualize Your Cluttered Thoughts in 3 Simple Steps

    3. The Cornell System

    The Cornell System is a simple but powerful system for increasing your recall and the usefulness of your notes.

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    About a quarter of the way from the bottom of a sheet of paper, draw a line across the width of the page. Draw another line from that line to the top, about 2 inches (5 cm) from the right-hand edge of the sheet.

    You’ve divided your page into three sections. In the largest section, you take notes normally — you can outline or mind-map or whatever. After the lecture, write a series of “cues” into the skinny column on the right, questions about the material you’ve just taken notes on. This will help you process the information from the lecture or reading, as well as providing a handy study tool when exams come along: simply cover the main section and try to answer the questions.

    In the bottom section, you write a short, 2-3 line summary in your own words of the material you’ve covered. Again, this helps you process the information by forcing you to use it in a new way; it also provides a useful reference when you’re trying to find something in your notes later.

    You can download instructions and templates from American Digest, though the beauty of the system is you can dash off a template “on the fly”.

    The Bottom Line

    I’m sure I’m only scratching the surface of the variety of techniques and strategies people have come up with to take good notes. Some people use highlighters or colored pens; others a baroque system of post-it notes.

    I’ve tried to keep it simple and general, but the bottom line is that your system has to reflect the way you think. The problem is, most haven’t given much thought to the way they think, leaving them scattered and at loose ends — and their notes reflect this.

    More About Note-Taking

    Featured photo credit: Kaleidico via unsplash.com

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