I went to the School of Endless Self-Improvement. The more A’s I got as a kid, the more the nuns admonished, "Don’t rest on your laurels!" (For years I thought that meant my elbows.) Eventually I figured out that the sisters were challenging my premature sense of achievement and pushing me to stretch — which, to me, meant learning things I wasn’t good at. So this English major reluctantly swallowed the castor oil of precalculus, and later I dragged my work-weary butt through three years of a nighttime MBA program to learn accounting "just in case." Over the years, I’ve often dosed myself with remedial measures to get better jobs and prove I could learn even the things I didn’t like.
I run into many midlifers like me, willing self-improvers who keep taking courses and acquiring degrees because we want to live up to our potential — also, maybe, because we feel we’re not quite good enough as we are. But do these extra credentials really advance our careers?
As someone who advises women on career changes, I’ve observed that we’re more responsive than men to feedback that we’re "not quite there yet." Whether it’s the boss who blithely tells us how we need to change or our self-comparisons to peers, we’re goaded to keep adding new skills. Is that really the best strategy — or are we spinning our wheels?
Diane Sutter, 55, is president and CEO of Shooting Star Broadcasting, a company that owns and operates TV stations. Sutter, who divides her time between Boston and Sherman Oaks, California, has had it with the notion that we have to keep filling in our gaps. "I think that, as a career plan, being well-rounded is highly overrated," she says.
Sutter grew up at one of those dinner tables where parents never praise your A’s and B’s but harp on that one C. "I was so frustrated with that conversation that I went for a master’s degree, just so no one could say what I didn’t have," she says.
But now Sutter looks at people’s talent banks as full instead of half empty. She points out that when an Olympic gymnast executes a perfect 10, we don’t say, "Gee, if only she could swim." Sutter believes we’re all born with four or five talents that we need to develop into strengths. By the time we’re in our 40s, she says, too many of us are still searching for talents we don’t have when we ought to be reassessing the ones we were born with. "Find your talents and keep designing jobs that maximize them," she advises, "rather than seeking ‘rounding experiences’ in areas where you are weak."
For example, though Sutter manages engineers, she isn’t one herself and accepts that she never will be. "If I went to engineering school, I could go from poor to adequate, but I would never be great at it," she says. "We may think we haven’t achieved because the talent we have isn’t as valuable as someone else’s. Instead, we need to find a position that plays to our strengths."
Sutter isn’t anti-education, but she’s convinced that the best lessons come from within. "While a love of learning is a talent in itself, we generally don’t need a new skill, just a new application of our talents at work," she says. "It’s our unique combination of talents that is our fingerprint — and a key to our success."
The Upside of Perpetual Education
When I broached the idea to MORE readers that there might be such a thing as too much self-improvement, Pamela Thomason, for one, was indignant. "Being well-rounded is overrated? I don’t think so!" she says. Thomason, a 47-year-old neonatal intensive care nurse in Beaufort, South Carolina, used continuing education as a tool to figure out what kind of career she really wanted. "It took me five years of college and three partial degrees to decide that nursing was the best path for me," she says. Thomason has worked all over the country as a labor and delivery nurse. For years, she has also studied studio art — her first passion — in the hope of one day making a living at it. "I love the challenges of babies and nursing," she says, "but I absolutely must have some way of expressing my creative side too."
While working full-time in Tampa, Florida, Thomason worked toward a BFA in fashion design, taking classes three days a week and earning a 4.0 grade-point average. "I was looking forward to finishing my degree when my mother was diagnosed with cancer," she says. Thomason quit her job, withdrew from school, and moved back home to be with her mother, who died within a month. She soon found another nursing job, but her own health issues and the losses she’d sustained made her yearn to find a better balance between nursing and art.
Thomason got that chance when she was offered an unusual weekend-only assignment at a neonatal unit. Now she uses her weekdays to follow artistic pursuits, including interior decorating, decorative painting, and home accessory design. She has been hired for a redecorating project and hopes eventually to move to a larger home and set up a decorating studio. "Nursing used to pay the bills so I could do what I really wanted," she says. "But I’ve discovered I can do both. I love my nursing career. But when I’m physically unable to continue it, I’ll still be my creative self, and I want to keep developing those skills too. All the classes I’ve taken over the years have added to my creative storehouse."
How Much Training Do You Really Need?
Jackie Burleson, of Charlotte, North Carolina, came to her career crossroads at 41, while she was a software manager for Bank of America and a self-acknowledged workaholic. "When my relationship of four years ended — due in large part to me dumping my unhappiness about work onto him — my world fell apart," Burleson says. "I sought counseling and came to realize I had the power to make the changes I wanted to make."
Thrilled with the difference therapy had made in her life, she considered becoming a therapist. But she was daunted by the idea of going back to school for a master’s in social work. Then a friend suggested Burleson would make a great life coach, and she was instantly energized — "a great clue that you’re on the right path for a new career," she says. She enrolled in a one-year coaching program whose combination of weekly teleconferences and weekend seminars was doable with her work schedule. When she received her certification, she quit her job at the bank.
But soon a sense of inadequacy set in. "Without more training, I wasn’t comfortable presenting myself as a coach," Burleson says. "I felt like I was a fake."
While deciding whether to sign on for more extensive certification, Burleson noticed an odd phenomenon."I’d be looking around the house for a stapler or for a black skirt to wear, and when I couldn’t find it, I figured I’d go buy another. But sure enough, the next day or so, I’d find that stapler or skirt. And I started to wonder, why do I keep searching outside for things? I’ve already got what I need right here, right now."
This insight gave Burleson the courage to present herself as a career transition coach. "I realized I had a lot of personal experience to offer people in soul-deadening jobs," she says. Though she’s not yet making the money she did in her bank job, she has found the satisfaction of doing work she loves.
But Can You Make a Living?
Though some careers really do require extra degrees, those credentials don’t guarantee financial success. Pamela Rybka, 52, of Toledo, Ohio, has been continuing her education for decades, following liberal arts studies with a certificate in geriatrics and then a BA in psychology and geriatrics. She soon discovered that her chosen field is not a lucrative one. "You could earn more money walking dogs," she says. So Rybka, a single parent, continued studying until she was able to switch from geriatrics to better-paying work counseling adolescents and children.
Rybka did find a way to make a decent living in her field when she was recruited for a job as director of a geriatric outpatient clinic. But it didn’t last. The hospital closed, shutting down her program, and she had to take a lower-paying position as director of a senior center. So while she feels she has definitely rounded out her skills, she’s still waiting for the payoff. Rybka recently started pursuing a PhD in health psychology with the goal of more job options and better pay. "I hope I’m not escaping reality by going back to school," she says. "It has always felt good to learn. Sometimes my education has gotten in the way of my personal life — but on the other hand, learning has helped me get through some very low points."
If You Love It, Go for It
Feeling good about learning is actually a sign that you’re on the right career track. "The love of learning something will tell you whether you can be a star with it," says Nella Barkley, CEO of a coaching company and author of The Crystal-Barkley Guide to Taking Charge of Your Career (based on the career counseling methods of John C. Crystal, whose work also inspired the book What Color Is Your Parachute?). "It makes me cringe when people waste their time pursuing degrees that don’t really matter to them," Barkley says. "If you’re driven by ought-tos rather than want-tos, you’ll never shine — you’ll just be someone who’s always fighting her way up. Ask yourself, how can I take the skills I’ve acquired so far and apply them to what I care about?"
Many of us, Barkley believes, lead lives that were predicated on the first decision we made out of college, which led to another decision, and then another. "I have my clients think back over their lives and write stories about the things they’ve enjoyed doing, and through those stories, their skills and attributes became apparent," she says. "These pieces of information are like a giant jigsaw puzzle. You drop them in a disconnected way, but as you bring more and more information to the fore, the whole picture appears. The answer may hide in an unexpected place, but it always comes from within — it’s never a matter of what the growth industries are, or what’s going to be hot next year."
The real key, Barkley says, is to trust what’s inside us rather than the boxes others put around us. "All the great teachers over time have told us that the key is to know ourselves," she says. "Yet there’s something in our psyches that makes us believe that if someone else doesn’t say it, it’s not so. People who are trying to be helpful may guide us in the wrong direction or tell us to get serious about the ‘real world.’ But the real world has thousands of different endeavors, and there are so many ways to learn — some academic, some not. There’s always a place for us if we can only figure it out."
Mary Lou Quinlan is CEO of the marketing firm Just Ask a Woman and author of Time Off for Good Behavior: How Hardworking Women Can Take a Break and Change Their Lives.
Originally published in MORE magazine, July/August 2007.