For the past year, I've found myself immersed in a professional development program of my own devising. It's nothing I planned and no supervisor came and told me I had to do it. (Fortunately I don't have a supervisor). No this program has just just sort of . . . evolved, really, morphing into a kind of trial by fire that's challenging me every day. It's a series of learning experiments that I've found myself running and the more of them I do, the more immersed in them I become.
It started out slowly with my first learning experiment, this blog, which has led me to research and reflect on all kinds of topics in the past year. A few months later, I set up my first wiki, the Web 2.0 in Nonprofits Wiki. And in March I wrote about my PLE, which was a "mash-up" of my learning tools that showed me how much my work and learning practices had changed in a few short months.
Things started to speed up in July with my rash, but strangely right decision to set up the 31 Days to Building a Better Blog challenge. For a month I played out a very public trying out of various tasks on my blog designed to stretch my skills and make me think differently about my blogging experience. I learned a lot in those 4 weeks and thought when it was over that I was done with learning for a while. I mean, that stuff is TIRING!
But then as the challenge ended, I found myself immediately immersed in starting up and maintaining an online social network as the Building a Better Blog folks moved over into our new home on Ning. Now I'm being challenged to master the technology of running a Ning network (admittedly not that difficult), as well as the process of facilitating an online community. I spent most of yesterday trying to make the site easier to navigate and wake up each morning wondering what I can do to foster conversation and community at the site. I've realized that I'm now hooked on learning and that this personal learning experiment thing is why.
What stands out for me in these experiences are a few things:
- They've been products of my own curiosity and interests, and I've generally been able to follow where they lead. This has been pivotal. It has kept me engaged and has helped me focus on developing my strengths rather than on overcoming my weaknesses.
- Each new thing I learn leads me to something else. It's almost disturbing, frankly, as the more projects and experiments I run, the more ideas I get on additional projects I could start. And the more empowered I feel to start them. My problems are that there aren't enough hours in the day AND I haven't yet figured out how to get paid for learning all day.
- Most of my experiments have been very social endeavors, where I'm learning not only from my own experiences, research and activities, but also from interacting with other people. In fact, it's often this social component that has pushed me to another level of learning as other people offer me insights and challenge my thinking. And these aren't even people I KNOW--they are digital friends, but real-life strangers to me!
- All of my experiments have involved a cycle of action and reflection where first I engage in some activity and then I reflect on what I'm learning. This is a natural cycle for me anyway, although I must say that blogging has nurtured and deepened these practices.
- I haven't finished everything I've started, and I'm OK with that. Several of my experiments are definitely works in progress that I may or may not go back to. I could consider them failures because I haven't finished them, but I don't. I see them more as parts of a learning process.
- They are helping me to develop new skills and keeping me engaged with my work in some different ways. These experiments I'm engaged in start with personal activity and interests, but then they bleed over into my professional life as I begin to implement them with my clients.
- As I watch my online portfolio of artifacts develop--my blog, my wikis, the social networks I belong to, the tools I'm using--it's like I can literally SEE my brain online. All of these networks and skill nodes and ideas that are interconnected and woven together, like watching neural pathways forming in your brain. It's pretty amazing actually.
What I'm realizing in the past few days is that this is the form that professional development must take in a world where everything is changing so rapidly. Not that there isn't a place for formal instruction--there is. It's just that personal experimentation as I'm experiencing it is a far deeper, richer and empowering learning experience than anything I've ever had in a classroom. This past year has done more for my professional development than 10 years of conferences, classes and formal training sessions.
What's interesting to me, too, is that because this learning is taking place in response to what is happening in my world as it develops (thank you Netvibes and RSS), my skills are more than "up-to-date"--they are often ahead of where they need to be for the work I'm doing. This is huge in a world where "value-add" is a function of the knowledge and skills you can bring to the table.
So where does all this lead me? I think this is mostly a post that pleads for all of us to engage in more personal learning experiments as a way to take charge of our own professional development. As Rosetta and I plan for our "Take Back Your 9-5" Career Retreat, this is particularly on my mind as a critical component in any career toolkit. I've written before about the need to take charge of our own learning, but the more I think about all of this, the more important it becomes to me. It's this approach to learning as something that's both personal and experimental that I think is really key to the real development of our potential.