Humans learn from the moment they are born (and probably even before that), but once we reach school age, ‘learning’ is formalised and – for better or worse – monitored and marked. But what happens when you are no longer being formally assessed? Do you keep an eye on your own learning? I’ve learned that passing on knowledge is a good way to help retain it, so here are five things I’ve learned in the past 12 months which I hope will inspire you to re-think your own approach to continuing professional development (CPD).
There are plenty of informal ways of learning, but in my experience booking yourself onto a course is a good way to make sure that the big learning tasks get done.
I’ve completed many courses during my career but two are particularly memorable. One was way back in the mid 1990s when my then employer (the Civil Service) sent me on a short course about sales techniques for non-sales staff. Their intention was to improve my ability to sell editorial services to other government departments and non-government organisations. It didn’t quite work out as intended: I decided I’d rather ‘do’ than ‘sell’, so I moved on to a new role in a different organisation as soon as I could. But I did learn an important life skill that has come in very handy during my freelance career: ask open-ended questions.
The other course was almost two decades later, when I sent myself on a course about how to teach adults (a City & Guilds course then known as ‘peetles’; Preparing to Teach in the Lifelong Learning Sector). Just this morning I used some of the skills I gained on that course while drafting feedback on work by a proofreading student. (I teach editorial skills for the Chartered Institute of Editing and Proofreading, CIEP.)
In 2022 I paid for three doses of CPD: a week-long in-person (via Zoom) writing course; a self-paced self-assessed course on Plain English; and a two-day deep dive into all things editorial at the CIEP annual conference.
As it turned out I had a busier year than expected and if it wasn’t for having booked those courses in advance I’m sure I would have dropped them off my to-do list. I did have to put the first one on hold due to a clash with a client’s deadline, but having paid my money I’ll certainly be finding time for it … just not quite yet!
I’ve followed the columns written by Oliver Burkeman for the Guardian over many years, and now I subscribe to his regular newsletter too. During the Covid-19 lockdown he gave a talk on his then new book Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals, and I dashed off to order a copy. You can probably guess what happened next. Yes, when it arrived I got straight on and read the opening chapter, then looming deadlines intervened and I haven’t reached chapter 2 – yet!
But I did buy myself a Christmas ‘gift’: to attend a four-hour workshop he was running at the start of this year, with the very appropriate title: The Art of Imperfect Action.
Starting from the premise that the days roll on one after another whether we like it or not, and that every conscious choice closes off some other path we could have trodden, Burkeman encouraged participants to embrace ‘imperfectionism’. That is, if you want to do something, just get on with it: ‘You can’t decide to start “life” on Monday.’ In other words, stop waiting until the time or conditions are ‘right’.
That dithering and waiting for the perfect conditions – a.k.a. procrastination – is incredibly common, especially among the people Burkeman described as ‘insecure over-achievers’ (those of us who feel we’re never quite good enough no matter how hard we’ve worked). And the meat of the workshop was what he termed ‘An arsonist’s guide to burning your bridges’; that is, a bunch of techniques for getting beyond the temptation for procrastination.
Here are a couple that I’m trying to practise:
- remembering that there will never be a point in life where there isn’t stuff to get done
- underestimating what can be achieved, by setting a lower bar on what you want to get done in a day.
There are various ways to formalise that second point, but I quite like the idea of 3:3:3, which Burkeman set out as a minimum of 3 hours of core work, 3 ‘maintenance’ tasks and 3 small to-dos, where the maintenance tasks are about keeping your body and mind fit and healthy enough to cope with the other stuff (e.g. getting some fresh air, cooking/eating a meal, putting on a wash load).
If you note down everything you do over a day it’s highly likely that you will more than achieve those targets, especially if you have deadlines to meet. And if you don’t manage it for a day or two, just start again the next day.
A different angle
Something freelancers often underestimate is how much they learn from their clients and projects. We encounter different challenges with every project, and even if you work with some clients over a long period there are still things that you will learn from/about them, particularly when there are changes within an organisation.
Set aside a few minutes and try writing down the things you learned during a project you’ve just finished: about the way you worked with the client (or vice versa), or facts from the actual content of the material (that’s why many editors are good quizzers*), or applying a new technique to improve your speed or accuracy, or seeing the world through someone else’s eyes.
Definitely a lesson (or three) a day.
The learning never stops
It’s pretty common to see people who are new to editorial work planning out their ‘training’ and asking which course to take next, as if there’s some point where they will have done enough training – a bit like the days when we longed to give up subject X once we’d taken the O-level/GCSE exam.
Yet there are others who fret for years that they are not good enough. One more thing I learned from Burkeman’s workshop was particularly liberating, so I want to pass it on to all my readers who are freelance editorial workers:
- It’s unlikely you’ll ever conquer your imposter syndrome.
Why? Simple: every time you gain a little knowledge or experience you move up the ladder to the next level of expectations.
And that’s one reason why I find it really useful to take a course or read an article that’s about something I’ve studied directly, or tangentially, before. You will either confirm your expertise or gain an extra insight.
The Plain English course I took last year is a case in point. Another is my work teaching editorial skills: I learn from the students as they learn (I hope) from me.
You are what you … choose
But most of all this year I’ve learned about myself: that I can let go of some tasks I had set for myself that no longer suit me or fit with my lifestyle (heck, this applies to clothes too**).
And this starts today – the first day of the lunar new year. Because, as we say in Yorkshire:
- Tomorrow never comes.
* At the CIEP conference ‘pub quiz’ and on national TV.
** I’ll recycle those, of course.
Photo: The hidden pool, January 2023.