This is the fifth installment of the Career Path series. If you haven’t read parts 1-4, consider taking a look at those earlier posts. The series is my attempt at sharing observations and mistakes I’ve made throughout my career which may be helpful for others on the same path.
The term diversify is usually applied to an investment portfolio, not a career in the corrections field. But I’ve found many of the people I’ve worked alongside over the years tend to spend the majority of their careers specializing in only one or two areas. They might focus solely on a certain type of criminal behavior like sexual offending or domestic violence. They may become instructors for a particular assessment tool, communication style or survival skill – whatever they might be passionate about. We absolutely need subject matter experts in every one of these areas and I’m thankful for the people who dedicate their careers to refining their expertise as these subjects evolve. But in my experience, there is as much value in diversifying the investments you make in your career as there is in the financial market.
Whether I like it or not, the words hard and soft are often used to divide different sets of skills we value in corrections. Hard skills would include arrest procedures or firearms training, while soft skills are more interpersonal and may include emotional intelligence or motivational interviewing. I’m not endorsing any one particular set of skills or elements of our field as being more valuable than another. I’m merely suggesting once you achieve a certain level of expertise in an area, there are benefits to diversifying your knowledge and experience in others, seeking balance in your pursuit of both hard and soft skills.
Moving beyond something we do well and onto something we don’t is unsettling, and that discomfort alone can be enough for many people to avoid learning new approaches later in their career. Unfortunately, I’ve also found when I would work hard for a long time to become proficient at something, and that something brought me respect and recognition, what I did started to become a part of my professional identity. The titles I held became synonymous with who I was. When that happens, our avoidance or resistance to change grows even more, not only because we are are naturally inclined to avoid discomfort, but because changing what we do can feel like changing who we are.
So why go through the process of learning something new and challenging, only to start all over again just when you’ve finally got it all figured out? I think about the benefits of diversification here in two ways. How it’s been good for me on a personal level and how it’s opened doors in my career.
Professional success is built around performance and visibility. It’s one thing to work hard and become the best at [insert skill here], but if no one outside of your team knows it, you won’t be able to influence others or share your knowledge with a larger audience and you won’t receive recognition for your contributions. Likewise, you may have a platform or opportunity to create visibility for yourself as a trainer or program manager, but if you don’t deliver results consistently, it won’t be enough no matter who you know. Being widely known for poor performance can be harmful to your career, so both elements are important.
Diversification expands your skill set and your network because it demands you establish new connections with people who can teach you and open doors you may have never known existed. Most of the people who work in corrections don’t do media interviews or become public figures. It’s through joining networks, committees, and trainings where you have opportunities to improve your visibility and diversify your career. When you invest your time and effort to become a more balanced professional with expertise in both hard and soft skills, you can also avoid becoming typecast or labeled by those who might favor certain skills over others.
The personal growth benefits of diversification took a longer time for me to appreciate. While I could clearly see how adding instructor titles to my resume would help me professionally, I thought I just needed to embrace the grind of learning new things and taking on new challenges because the benefits outweighed the costs over the span of a career. I never considered how embracing the process of learning in of itself could actually make me a better person.
Neuroplasticity means even late into adulthood our brains can still change and reorganize itself through behavior. When you learn something new, you are literally changing your brain for the better, and the more difficult the challenge, the greater the benefits. Learning something that challenges us improves the chemical signals, connections and structures within our brains that relate to short and long term memory, problem solving and motor skills. Everyone’s brain is different of course, but the good news is our ability to learn and become proficient in new things does not go away as we age and progress deeper into our careers. The barriers to change may still be in our heads, but the solution I found wasn’t brain surgery, it was changing my mindset.
The ability to diversify requires a growth mindset, or thoughts, values and beliefs that support continuous learning through effort and perseverance. To diversify your knowledge and experience is to embrace failure as a natural part of the learning process and actively avoid the complacency that tends to come with sustained success.
We know our ability to adopt this mindset is not limited by our hardware. In my case, I needed to change my thinking and embrace the process of learning. When I did that, it became less about strict discipline or delayed gratification and more about being present and accepting of where I was in that moment. I became more confident in my ability to learn and open to new ideas I wouldn’t have otherwise considered.
Even with a growth mindset, change can still be hard. Learning takes time and the more we win, the more averse we become to losing. But we don’t jettison what we’ve learned when we diversify; it’s multiplication, not subtraction. Whatever discomfort I experienced as I sought new ideas and perspectives was well worth it as I can say I’m not only a better professional for my efforts, I’m a better person.
The first four parts of this series were about how I got to a place where I started to feel more successful, resilient, and in-control of my career. I wrote this post for anyone who might be a little further down the path. For those who have already built a reputation around the quality of their work and the relationships they’ve cultivated. This is as good a time as any to pause and reflect on where we are in our careers, and I’ll end with this: no matter how much I think I know or what accomplishments I may have earned to this point, I have a lot more to learn, and that’s the point. It can get easier, but it doesn’t have to.