Sharpening Your Sword

I can still hear the advice from Joan, the regional head of the Leadership Development Program (LDP) at AT&T when I first started with the company… “Don’t forget to continuously sharpen your sword.” … it’s not what you think, I wasn’t a part of the “fencing” department… She was referring to always remembering to be a student, taking time to develop your skills and continue learning.

With all that goes into the day-to-day of our jobs it is hard to set time aside to improve our skills, and often when we get busy with work or our personal lives this learning is the first thing to falls by the waste-side.

This “continuous learning” can come in many shapes and sizes.  For some it is going back to school part-time to get a graduate degree, but (since that is a major commitment) you don’t have to go to that much of an extreme.  The first step is to figure out where you have skill gaps but also where you have strengths. Then look for resources that will fill the skill gaps and others that will take a strength and turn it into something you can build your brand behind.  For example, if you struggle with interacting with your boss, find a book on managing your boss and read it, taking note of techniques you can incorporate into your relationship with your boss. If you feel you are a solid speaker, join a toastmasters or find a way to go back to your college to talk to a group of students. This will allow you to become a master at speaking, which will lead others to see your skills in the area of public speaking (more on the importance of building on your strengths later).

For me personally, I remember that I struggled with remembering my list of “To Do” items each day and lost a good number of great ideas I came up with because I didn’t have a good way to keep track of everything.  Around that time I was reading Richard Branson’s autobiography (Losing my Virgininity, a great and pretty entertaining for a biography, book) and he talked about how he had this notebook that he carried around with him to write down his ideas and keep track of his day (clearly nothing revolutionary, but effective for him).  I decided to give this a shot (in the form of one of those small Moleskine notebooks) and it has worked wonders for me keeping track of my list of action items and ideas that pop into my head throughout the day.  While there are many other electronic tools that can do the same, actually putting a pen to paper really worked for me.  Now a have a part of my bookshelf full of these notebooks that I have filled out over the last couple of years.

Here are a few more ideas of ways to “sharpen your sword” to be a constant learner:

  • Take a Local/Online Course (if, for example, you do not feel comfortable with finance, find a course or materials you can review to improve your comfort level)
  • Join a Professional Organization (related to your industry or just an area of interest or around a skill-set like Toastmasters for public speaking)
  • Reading a book on the topic (or magazine or Harvard Business Review-like article)
  • Reading Blogs/RSS Feeds (part of sword sharpening is keeping up to date with your industry)
  • Find a mentor who is an expert that you can ask questions to and bounce ideas off of

Just remember the old adage that if a lumberjack has one hour to cut down a tree, he will spend 45 minutes sharpening his axe and 15 minutes actually chopping.  In this analogy we are generally coming in with a pretty sharp axe (from our college educations) however a lot of the sharpness (1) doesn’t translate to a corporate environment, and (2) goes away after we chop (i.e. work) for a while, so we need to keep resharpening.

If you have any other ideas of ways to “sharpen your sword” feel free to comment.

Until next time, Mr. Biz OUT.


About Young Professional's Edge (YP Edge)

Aaron McDaniel is a corporate manager, entrepreneur, author, public speaker and community leader. Aaron has held numerous management roles at a Fortune 500 company, being appointed Regional Vice President at the age of 27, and is the founder of multiple entrepreneurial ventures. He is also the author of the book, The Young Professional's Guide to the Working World ( Aaron instructed a highly rated student-led course on leadership at UC Berkeley’s Haas Undergraduate School of Business and has a book, The Young Professional's Guide to the Working World: Savvy Strategies to Get In, Get Ahead, and Rise to the Top, due to be out later this year. Aaron offers advice that helps young professionals build the foundation for a successful career. Visit his blog, to learn more.

Posted on August 19, 2011, in Philosophy, Solid Advice and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. Anthony L. Hogan

    I use a tablet notebook, HTC Flyer, and my notes get automatically sent to a cloud library and once a week I review the ideas that sparked that week.

    Another practice I use is to set weekly personal development, or as I call them “Ivolution” appointments. For example I have a Thursday night “Spanish Class”, same day and time each week, like a university course, where I sit down with Rossetta Stone to ‘Sharpen my Spanish Sword.’ By making it a scheduled weekly event, I rarely miss it…and if I do I feel like I have to make up the missed class.

    “I + Evolution” = Ivolution = Your personal path to growth and development

  2. One way to “Get Sharp” is to use Twitter to follow your interests. Bloggers, analysts, business leaders & companies all pretty much have Twitter accounts. If you learn the name of the person who is leading a team or business unit you want to meet? Follow them. I find it’s the best way to stay tuned-in on products, technologies & companies.

    I’ve actually gotten an appointment with a potential client using the information they tweeted to leverage my involvement.

  3. Great post, Aaron. Especially nowadays, you can’t show up for a job and expect to be trained. Employers expect you to show up with all the necessary skills. The only way to get those skills is to invest time and train for them before you need it.

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