By Amy Blaschka
We have about 20 working days before we close out the year, which gives you plenty of time to squeeze in some professional development—without spending a dime.
Here are the 20 best (and free) ways to improve your career before the new decade begins:
1. Get your (career) story straight
Everyone has a unique story, but not everyone leverages its power. Properly crafted, your career story helps to differentiate you from your competitors, highlight your value, and to draw others to you. It provides a common thread that weaves together your personal and professional experiences, as well as your transferable skills, making it easy for others to connect the dots. Knowing and being able to articulate your career story clearly is transformative; use it wisely.
2. Share your wisdom
Wisdom is the ability to think and act using knowledge, experience, understanding, common sense, and insight. But it transforms into something truly powerful when it is shared.
Why? Because all the wisdom in the world is meaningless without application.
Yet many leaders eschew this and choose instead to hoard their insights, fearful of giving them away. They don’t understand a simple truth: sharing your wisdom doesn’t diminish your impact; it amplifies it. And today, the best way to magnify your message is to harness the power and reach of social media.
3. Clean up your (work) environment
Your environment, which includes your friends, colleagues, location, habits, and lifestyle, impacts you far more—for better or for worse—than you realize. You can’t make a significant, lasting change without altering some elements of it. Real growth happens when we understand whom and what best supports what we want, and then align ourselves with those people and places that do. Your environment always wins; make sure it supports your goals.
4. Say ‘no’
If you want to grow your career, you need to learn to say no to almost everything (and everyone) that doesn’t excite you, speak to your values, further your mission in life, or help you achieve your goals. Remember, when you say no to the things and people who no longer serve you, you can say yes to those that do.
5. Say ‘yes’
Saying yes can be a boon to your career—it opens you up to new challenges and opportunities, invites collaboration, empowers and affirms others, and creates an environment where it’s safe to try, fail, learn and innovate.
6. Brush up on your soft skills
Emotional intelligence is rooted in them, business leaders swear by them, and they remain in high demand. I’m speaking of soft skills, those frequently misunderstood and undervalued skills that power career success.
This finding underscores a fundamental truth: At its core, business is about relationships. No matter your job function or title, to succeed, you must interact with other people. And those who find a way to combine their hard skills with soft skills create environments that empower and ignite their teams, delight their customers, and fuel sustainable growth.
7. Master time-management
Your ability to prioritize and focus your attention on tackling work projects is crucial. How and with whom you spend your time, and your productivity while doing so, demonstrate your focus and commitment to what—and who—matters most. When you master time-management, you’ll learn to say no, do, decide, delegate or delete tasks, batch routine tasks, eliminate distractions, embrace mono-tasking, get to know—and work—your own rhythms, and build in breaks to recharge.
8. Become more self-aware
Most think of self-awareness as knowing yourself. Self-aware leaders have a clear understanding of their strengths, weaknesses, thoughts, beliefs, motivation, and emotions. They are honest about what they want, their skills, and what matters most to them. They also have an accurate perception of what sets them apart, and can then use their unique talents to magnify their impact in an environment that best suits them. Conversely, they also understand and acknowledge their blind spots and areas needing improvement.
But self-awareness is not just about knowing how you move through the world; it’s about knowing how your energy affects others. This perspective allows you to understand that everything is connected—your interactions with other people, how they perceive you, your attitude, and your responses to them in the moment—and all can be enhanced through better self-awareness.
9. Get curious
Curiosity can be defined as a strong desire to know or learn something. But it’s so much more than that.
When you’re curious, you’re open. Open to exploring new ideas, experiences, and possibilities. Open to meeting new people and learning new things. Open to leaving behind outdated mindsets and limiting beliefs to make room for your highest and best self. And it’s that openness—that curiosity—that fuels growth.
When you embrace curiosity, you transform into a lifelong learner, which is what personal and professional growth is all about.
10. Smile more
You already possess a simple yet profoundly powerful way to instantly improve your career: smiling.
Research shows that smiling puts others at ease, makes you magnetic, inspires confidence and trust, is good for you, makes you more creative, and is contagious.
11. Get creative
Creativity is the ability to perceive the world in new ways, to find hidden patterns, to make connections between seemingly disparate things, and to generate innovative solutions. When you’re creative, you’re able to turn new and imaginative ideas into reality. Business leaders agree that to cultivate your creativity, you should ask big questions, pay attention, be open-minded, set aside time to let your mind wander, and not be afraid to take risks.
12. Practice empathy
Simon Sinek, Oprah Winfrey, and Gary Vaynerchuk all cite empathy as an essential leadership skill. To become more empathetic, shift your mindset to put people first, seeing them as human beings rather than a means to the end of a transaction or task, ask thoughtful and probing questions that draw out implications and feelings, which in turn, fosters a deeper connection, and listen more and talk less.
When you practice empathy, you’ll better understand your customers, colleagues, and partners, and then be able to use those insights in ways to better serve and communicate with them.
13. Be brave enough to use this four-letter word
View vulnerability as a strength, not as a weakness. When we find the courage to ask for help, modeling vulnerability, it creates a positive ripple effect. We give others permission to do the same, creating a culture and environment of openness and collaboration. We lead with empathy, which enhances connection and communication, and builds trust.
14. Change your perspective
Your perspective is the lens by which you view yourself, your career, and the world. It affects the story you tell yourself and the story you tell others. It impacts your potential, and according to Gary Vaynerchuk, founder and CEO of VaynerMedia, it’s also the quickest path to success and happiness.
“Listen, if there is anything I could wish on you, more than my work ethic, or my energy, or my charisma, it would be the mindset and perspective,” Vaynerchuk said in a recent article. “So much of our lives is predicated on how we look at the situations that surround us.”
15. Embrace the four words that will help you communicate and connect better
Far too often, we assume that everyone thinks, behaves, and communicates the same way we do. Worse, we make the mistake of focusing our sales pitches and communication about us, rather than our intended audiences.
No matter your industry or profession, four words have the power to change your results instantly: It’s not about you.
The finest leaders understand that by putting others first and adopting a service mindset, they can improve their communication and connection, and establish trust, deepen relationships, and build business.
16. Learn to be more charismatic
Charisma is more than being engaging or witty. We’re attracted to those who truly listen to us, who give us their undivided focus and leave us feeling seen and heard. Those who dare to be vulnerable and who genuinely want to connect and share and treat us with respect and kindness. And in return, we offer our unwavering attention and trust.
At its essence, charisma isn’t just about your likability or ability to tell a good story. Instead, its real power has less to do with you and everything to do with how you make others feel.
17. Dare to be a “career contrarian”
“Career contrarians” share the ability to adopt an often unpopular perspective and make it work for them. Instead of conforming to conventional or practical approaches, education, or paths, and they seek alternative means to career fulfillment. This means they realize that there is more than one path to success (and it’s probably non-linear), are comfortable being uncomfortable (even, and especially, when they fail), trust their gut, play the long game, eliminate the negative self-talk, and understand that taking an alternative path may inspire someone else to do it, as well.
18. Focus on attention and trust
Seth Godin suggests that “the currencies of anybody who wants to make change happen right now are attention and trust. And they’re in a virtuous cycle. You don’t get attention unless you’re trusted. You don’t get trusted unless you get attention.”
Kindness and respect ultimately earn attention and trust. You can demonstrate both by differentiating between good and bad attention (something that aligns with your beliefs, and will be positively received), not trying to game the system (don’t use a power play to try to influence people), and by being generous (not selfish, expecting something in return).
19. Become an excellent listener
Sir Richard Branson sums up his leadership credo in five words: “Listen more than you talk.”
The benefits of listening are numerous. Active listening demonstrates respect, builds trust, and makes people feel valued. It creates a virtuous cycle: we naturally gravitate toward those who listen to us, and when we feel heard, we open up and share. Active listening also allows leaders to learn about things both good and bad, so they can discover new ideas and opportunities as well as detect—and get creative about solving—potential problems when they’re still in their infancy.
20. Move past your fear and stop hiding
Fear is a powerful emotion. It often masquerades as a cloak of protection, keeping us from doing things that may cause us harm. But sometimes, the real damage comes from the inaction that fear enables.
We avoid at all costs those things that make us uncomfortable, but there is no growth in the status quo. Sooner or later, that caution and those fears that prevent you from getting hurt or put on the spot, stagnate you.
Everything you’ve ever wanted is sitting on the other side of fear; it’s time to stop hiding and go for it.
Ready When You Are
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