Learn As if You Want to Live Forever
Most people credit Albert Einstein with saying that “once you stop learning, you start dying,” leading Ghandi to advise that we should “learn as if [we] want to live forever.” As the spring conference season begins, these quotes seem apropos, reminding us of the importance of staying current in our field, of deepening our own skills, and of contributing to the growth of others. No matter how much experience we have, how many degrees we’ve earned, how many conferences we’ve attended, or how well known we’ve become, there’s always something new to learn, and certainly our experiences can help enlighten others in their journeys.
Over my life, I have known several “professional students” and confess to having secret ambitions to amass multiple college degrees in my youth as well. Although the realities of “adulting” (especially the responsibilities of paying bills and the lack of an inheritance that provided unlimited resources) may have put an end to such ambitions, the desire to continually learn remains a core value and motivation for my personal and professional life. Perhaps that is what led me into this field, and specifically consulting, where the opportunities to learn a little about a lot of different industries present themselves to me regularly.
Of course, you don’t need to be an information development professional to find regular opportunities to learn, but we are certainly afforded many opportunities and reasons for learning. Consider all the things that tie directly into our ability to be an effective communicator:
- We must learn about ourselves. To do a good job, we must fully understand our own strengths and weaknesses, our motivations, our likes and dislikes. All information developers are not necessarily good editors, and vice versa. All information developers are not interested in strategy, design, and architecture. All information developers do not have a passion for taxonomy and metadata. There are plenty of opportunities for each of us to find the bits at which we excel and that brings us satisfaction and even joy. Our learning must start with self-discovery and awareness. Not only does this learning direct our ambitions, but it informs our interactions with others and influences our ultimate performance.
- We must learn about the team we work with. Today’s information developer is seldom an island. We must interact with a variety of other people, including our department team of editors, illustrators, architects, and other writers, our subject matter experts and product managers, and potentially a wealth of other representatives from groups such as training, marketing, and technical support. We need to take the time to appreciate the skills and perspectives each bring to the project, respect the jobs they perform, and empathize with the pressures and stresses that influence their interactions with us. Taking the time to learn about each person pays off in trust, mutual respect, and often prioritized attention when we need information.
- We must learn about our users. I strongly believe that not a word should be written until it is well established who we are targeting. Your audience directly influences the content you include, the tone you take, the delivery mechanisms you employ, the keywords you choose, and your definition of quality. Learning about our users is an absolute must for creating effective content. The more you know about them, the more effective and focused your content becomes. Although a subject for another column, it pains me to hear from so many how very little time is devoted to such learning. It seems writers aren’t allowed to talk to users, and when the expectation is that the content must meet the needs of every possible user, taking the time to learn about them is deemed unnecessary or extravagant. I counter that companies cannot afford the extravagance of trying to be everything to everyone. Want to lower your documentation costs? Invest in learning about your users. You’ll find plenty of things you currently do that are irrelevant and unappreciated by your audience. The expense of such learning more than pays for itself.
- We must learn about the technology we support. Although we may never become all-knowing, experienced subject matter experts, we have a responsibility to become competent and comfortable with the technology that we write about. A lack of understanding about the content is glaringly obvious to users in a final document, leading to overall distrust of the content and contributing to the call volume in our support centers. Further, ignorance about the subject matter leads to a degradation of our jobs to word processing and copyediting, while our subject matter experts are forced to do the real writing, something they aren’t trained to do, nor most of the time even interested in doing. The more we learn about our products and the industries they support, the easier it is to write about them, the less reliant we are on our busy subject matter experts, and the larger a contribution we can make to their design and implementation.
- We must learn about our own industry. I’ve been in the technical communication industry for almost 30 years. The job I do today bears very little resemblance to what I did back then. To remain effective, I have had to learn new tools, new standards, and even new ways of writing, not once, not twice, but constantly. I don’t write books anymore; I write structured topics. I don’t write in Word anymore and store my files on a hard drive somewhere; I use an XML author and component content management system. I don’t copyedit; I use automated quality checkers. I must ensure my content conforms to specific schemas and standards. I must reuse content in more effective ways than cut and paste. I must tag content with an appropriate taxonomy to ensure it can be found among the plethora of other topics available. My career has been an unending opportunity to learn and if I hadn’t taken advantage of those opportunities, I’d be useless to my clients and virtually unemployable.
- We must learn about the world. The world grows smaller each and every day. Our content typically reaches far beyond our country’s borders. It spans multiple languages and more importantly multiple cultures. Tied closely to learning about our users, a solid understanding of the cultures and environments that we are reaching is imperative to effective communication. Learning about the world in which our products are used certainly influences the examples and scenarios we incorporate, the format the content takes, and even the delivery mechanisms used. We grow to appreciate the difference our product and our content can make in the world.
Just as there are many things we can learn about, we have many opportunities for learning. As I mentioned, we are entering the spring conference season, when many organizations, my own included, offer several days of keynotes and concurrent sessions where you have the opportunity to learn from your peers and industry experts. DITA North America is fast approaching in a few weeks in Denver. The STC Conference follows in May in Orlando. Too late to get approval for these? Look at the calendar; there are many more later in the year, including Best Practices in Seattle, Lavacon in New Orleans, and DITA Europe in Rotterdam. I strongly encourage your participation at one or more of these excellent learning and networking opportunities.
Want a more focused training program? Check out your local colleges for relevant courses. Search for two- or three-day instructor-led workshops, such as those taught by Comtech. Check out self-paced, online courses from a variety of sources. Structured writing, DITA, minimalism, project management, taxonomies—there’s likely a relevant course for your needs starting soon.
Yes, sometimes we struggle to get permission to attend a conference or a workshop, but the reality is that you don’t need permission to learn. Even if you lack the resources for formal training, you have plenty of other ways to learn. At the learning and training conferences I regularly attend, the training industry is almost pre-occupied with this concept of continuous learning. Learning theory indicates that 90% of all learning is done outside of formal learning channels, leading learning professionals to spend a lot of effort looking for ways to provide informal learning opportunities that are available at the moment of need. I just attended the eLearning Guild’s Learning Solutions conference, where the agenda was filled with talks about performance support, microlearning, and social learning. These methods are designed to give you bite-sized learning opportunities at the moment of need. For example, there are thousands of communities of practice offering social learning where you can post questions, read blogs, interact with others in the industry, essentially curating your own learning experience. And don’t forget the libraries of books to read, Ted-talks and other webcasts to watch online, and free webinars which seem to be available on an almost weekly basis from a variety of industry consultants and leading vendors. The information is out there, waiting for you to take advantage of it.
Unfortunately, the pressures of deadlines and budgets and the need for sleep often war against the desire to expand our skills and horizons, and we find our learning time limited or virtually non-existent. It is at those times that I personally feel old and out of touch, discouraged by what little I’ve done with my potential. Although I may be dedicating all my time to getting the job done, my clients aren’t really getting my best. They get the deliverable and it meets their requirements, but it lacks the vitality that it could have had even if I’d spent less time on it and more time on self-improvement. They benefit not only from the new things I might have learned and applied to their deliverable, but also from the energy and confidence gained by spending time learning.
It’s unfortunate that many companies don’t see this connection. They don’t dedicate a budget for training; they don’t carve out time for conferences. “We employ professionals and we expect them to stay current on their own time.” Conscientious employees will likely do so, but in the process, they do not form any sense of loyalty to the company, and when the opportunity presents itself…they jump ship, taking that knowledge acquired on their own time with them. A little investment in the team, however, goes a long way toward better performing employees who appreciate the company’s interest in their professional development.
However, whether or not your company takes an interest in your professional development, you must. Whatever you do for a living, never stop learning how to get better at doing it. Make it your goal for the year to learn something new and hone your skills. My challenge to you is this: Don’t be at the same place as you are right now when you read my column in the April 2019 Best Practices. Choose to be young, regardless of your physical age. Choose to learn as if you want to live forever.