Making Personal Development a Priority

Published on
February 1, 2023
Tony D. Thelen
Strategic Advisor, John Deere Financial
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While studying chemical and materials engineering at Iowa State University I learned about the properties of all kinds of materials – solids, liquids, gases, polymers, etc. When I started working for John Deere as an intern one of my first jobs was to measure the stress levels in the surface of axles that underwent different heat treatments. I used an x-ray diffraction machine to build a profile of the surface of the axle so we could understand how to improve the life of the axle. I’ll never forget the help I received from a lab technician named Russ Andreasen who taught me how to cut an axle, polish a section of it to a mirror finish, and apply a chemical etch to uncover its underlying microstructure. He was my first of many true mentors who went out of his way to help me learn new things I simply could not have learned in the classroom or on my own.

I didn’t know it at the time, but this was my first experience of integrated 3-dimensional learning – classroom, on the job, and learning from others. Each of the 3 areas has their unique and exclusive contribution to development – what you learn in one area just can’t be learned as well in other areas. Taken together they make for a powerful combination.

No matter where we are in our life or career personal development should be a priority.  

Below are my 10 tips on how to make personal development a force for good in your life.

1.    Be responsible for it.  A core belief I have is that personal development is my responsibility and not my bosses. There are infinite ways to pursue learning and development, but you have to accept the responsibility that you own your own development.

2.    Be aspirational. Think about the future and the best version of yourself. Some people call this a Merlin experiment – like cast your mind to a future period in your life and envision what you have become. Another way to do this is to think about your retirement announcement and what would you want people to remember you for? Aspire to learn, grow, and pursue your passions and interests. Daniel Pink would suggest from his book Drive that one of the 3 key motivators in life is to pursue mastery. Decide what you want to master in this world and then go for it.

3.    Make time for it. I once met a school teacher while fishing in Montana who was from Pennsylvania. He was building a home on the Yellowstone River little by little every summer. He would relocate to Montana for a few months each year, then return to teach school out East. I asked him how it was possible for him to pull this off and he simply stated, “If it’s important you just have to make room for it”. First, I loved his vision of a home on the Yellowstone and his multi-year commitment to making it happen, but what stuck with me throughout my life was his commitment to making room for what was important in his life. Make room for learning and development.

4.    Invest in it. Read books, listen to podcasts, join discussion groups, or lunch and learn opportunities. Take time to attend community activities and network with others. Spend a little money and time as a down payment on your future. It will change how you perceive the world, how you interact with others, and your life will become more enjoyable.  Pro-tip: Apply what you learn in some way in the next day or two and it will stick with you longer.

5.    Commit to it. Be intentional about it, both the short term and long term.  I personally like to view my development one year at a time, but every once in a while I take on a major initiative. This year I’m trying to learn more about how to be a better servant leader through better coaching skills, specifically asking better questions and better listening skills. As far as major initiatives, for me this meant getting an MBA after 10 years in my professional life, then 10 years later an advanced degree, then 10 years later writing a book and sharing stories in social media to contribute to others development.  Have a continuous learning mindset but commit to learning every year and throughout your life.

6.    Watch your blind side. It’s easy to get stuck in a rut or develop nonproductive habits over the course of our career, especially as the world changes around us. What worked at one point maybe doesn’t apply anymore. What is needed now to succeed must be learned. Some things need to be unlearned and others need to be learned. Be conscious of this reality. Pro-tip:  Get feedback every year or two from people who see you in action to help uncover blind spots.

7.    Be multi-dimensional. I mentioned this in the opening, but it’s important to reiterate. Learn from formal training like in-person or online classes, learn from on the job type activities, and learn from the experience of others through mentoring, coaching, or input from your boss or colleagues. Each of these approaches has aspects you can't get from the others.

8.    Enjoy the journey. Never lose that sense of awe in that moment when you uncover something new or learn a new skill or capability. Never lose that sense of curiosity on how things can be done better. Never lose that sense of satisfaction from mastering a new skill. Make the process of learning a part of life.

9. Celebrate your growth. Sometimes we don't take the time to acknowledge how far we have come in our development. Each year I'll look back on my journals and my binder that keeps track of all my activities throughout the year. It helps me appreciate how much I have changed and what I have learned throughout the year. Pro-tip: At the end of the year is also a great time to drop a note of thanks to someone who has made a difference in your life.

10.    Give back every chance you get. Lastly, I believe it’s important to give back as so many people have given to you. Be generous and provide input or assistance. If you see a way to help someone, take a step forward to offer help or ask if they are open to your assistance or ideas. At the end of the day it will be good for the person you are helping, the world will be a better place, and it will warm your soul knowing you made a difference for someone.

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