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

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.

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