Way back when in 2008 (when Miley Cyrus was a role model for tweens and Barack Obama had no gray hair), I was on the hunt for my next job. As we all know, job hunting is a stressful chore, but I was determined to break into a marketing role. I was on a career path that I knew was not my calling, especially after I had a career epiphany in an MBA class. It was there at UConn where I took my first marketing class, which changed my life forever.
Until that class, my life plan was to be a U.S. Marine for my entire career. Unfortunately, life and an untimely injury had other plans. I left the Marine Corps in 2006 and was in a finance role where my creativity and hunger for continuous improvement were dying on a vine. I was feeling aimless and unfulfilled at a job where I had little outlet or receptivity to new ideas. Solace came from the MBA program, where I found myself in a marketing course with a visionary professor. It may sound naive, but I wasn’t even aware that marketing was a job until this amazing experience (just for the record I am a lot smarter now).
A bolt of lightning hit me on the first night of this course, and I immediately knew what I wanted to do with my life – marketing. It immediately became clear that I had already been a marketer in my role as a Marine Corps recruiter – I just hadn’t thought of it that way. In that role I designed print marketing materials, set up promotional events, and was the first Marine recruiter to use email as a marketing tool.
As soon as I got home from that first class, I started looking for a marketing position. Luckily I soon found a low-level marketing role at Priceline.com. The only problem with that is I had just about zero digital marketing experience. I actually had to go back to the job description to pull out the funny acronyms, and then look up what SEO and SEM stood for. How the hell did I get hired?
Luckily I had an incredible boss that was very patient with me, but I also developed a plan. I knew I had to learn how to be a digital marketer as soon as humanly possible. And what is the best and fastest way to learn something? Complete immersion. Don’t take it from me, take it from science. Further, how else could one be extremely motivated to learn something quickly? Put money on the line.
In addition to buckets of pain and late nights, I learned. I studied every blog and book I could on SEO to help my site rank better. I tested and learned everything I could in AdWords. I became an expert in Google Analytics (so much so that I was later invited to speak at Google on the topic). I became proficient in using Photoshop and was creating my own ad banners.
Learning these topics and more have been the most important factor in my career success, and still helps me to this day. In a field like digital marketing, knowing how to code and how websites work can save you so much time, and also help you think of creative ways to solve problems. Coding knowledge helps you get things done and earns the respect of your developers and other colleagues. Just last week I was in a group discussing a problem that didn’t seem to have a good answer. I offered the idea of using the dataLayer to store data on a web page so we could use it to help in a conversion optimization exercise. Yeah, I get nerdy like that.
In another role, I used the a/b testing knowledge I gained from courses and personal website experience to redesign a lead generation form. Overnight the form conversion spiked and resulted in an incremental 140K per month in revenue.
What’s the lesson in all this? You can be like most digital marketers and be good enough at paid search, a/b testing, social, etc., or you can take your career to the next level and set yourself apart by putting in the time and effort to learn. The dividends it pays throughout your career can be enormous. Executives will turn to you for a sanity check when a developer or product team member makes a statement about what can and cannot be done in a reasonable time frame. Colleagues will come to you looking for solutions to tough problems, and you’ll become a trusted advisor.
I know it’s hard to find time for just about anything. In addition to a very full-time job, I have three children that I’m trying to be a great dad to. My wife works and does so much to keep our home running, so I try to help out as much as I can. I am also out at least 2 nights per week with various obligations. All that said, I still take the little pockets of free time that I have to read and learn. Sure, it takes me a month to read a 200-page book, but I will get it done eventually. (If you’re curious, I just finished the Harvard Business Review’s guide to Better Business Writing and next up is Hacking Growth by Sean Ellis and Morgan Brown). I have found that the benefits of finding time to learn are very much worthwhile.
Some of the most world-renowned
business leaders dedicate themselves
to deliberate learning on a regular basis.
I was talking about these benefits recently to a colleague who is early in his career and looking to set himself apart. I told him that taking the time to learn topics that were perhaps outside of my specific career role has made all the difference. While taking the time to learn has had a substantial positive impact on my career, don’t just take it from me. Some of the most world-renowned business leaders dedicate themselves to deliberate learning on a regular basis. Warren Buffett, Bill Gates, and Oprah Winfrey all run multi-billion dollar empires, yet make it a point to practice deliberate learning for at least 5 hours per week. If they can find the time, I bet you can too!
It may be a daunting to find that time, but it’s never been easier to learn new skills. There is a treasure-trove of information in blogs and specialized websites on so many topics. For me personally I love to learn and sharpen my marketing skills by following thought leaders like Sean Ellis (follow Sean on Twitter), Morgan Brown (follow Morgan on Twitter), Luke Wroblewski (follow Luke on Twitter) and Rand Fishkin (follow Rand on Twitter). When I read their content I swear I can feel my brain swelling with new interneuronal connections. I’ll often find ideas from them that I then explore further to create new understanding and broaden my scope.
Other sources of learning come from online courses and Massively Open Online Courses (MOOC). With sites like Udemy.com and Coursera.org, you can explore topics from Machine Learning to coding with Bootstrap to Mathematical Thinking. I like a resource like Udemy where you can move at your own pace, while the offerings from Coursera will be on a schedule and you’ll need to keep up. From my point of view, content at Udemy is great for learning the basics on many topics, while the content you’ll see at Coursera is going to be more comprehensive, as these courses are built by university professors.
Whatever route you choose, taking the time to discover new topics and broaden your intellectual scope is a worthy activity. Whether your goal is to set yourself apart from your peers on your career path, or simply learning for its own sake, you will absolutely be rewarded with new career opportunities or a more intelligent view of the world. While I’ve given some of my personal examples of the benefits of learning, you can follow the path taken by some of the world’s best and smartest leaders as well. Finally, it’s never been easier to reap the benefits of personal growth by following thought leaders and taking online courses to help you on your journey of enlightenment. Now it’s your turn – what will you choose to learn?