Against Self-Improvement

Is continuing education — like job certification and degrees — a career boost, or too much self-improvement?

By Mary Lou Quinlan
Mary Lou Quinlan
Photograph: Photo courtesy of Mary Lou Quinlan

The Over-Improvers

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?

Well-Rounded? Ha!

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."

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