Achieving a Sense of "Personal Best"

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By three methods we may learn wisdom: First, by reflection, which is noblest; second, by imitation, which is easiest; and third by experience, which is the bitterest.

Reflection. Reflexivity. Critical reflection. Reflective practice. Study the life’s work of any of the researchers who pioneered these concepts — Malcolm Knowles, Karen Kitchener, Stephen Brookfield, Donald Schon — and you’ll discover that the collective beauty of these ideas is the ability to stand outside of yourself to obtain a more objective view. When combined with the ability to self-direct, these concepts form the fundamental tenets of andragogy: the theory of adult learning.

Why begin with a lesson in andragogy? We’re all adults here. And as adult learner-practitioners, we have the capacity to critically examine ourselves. We can use insights and learning from our past, assess where we are now, and improve our present and future for personal learning and development. This also applies to our professional practice, where we can examine strengths and talents or weaknesses and development needs.

When thinking about your career, what opportunities do you see? What opportunities do you seek? What are the obstacles or threats to progress? Perhaps it’s time to critically examine your professional practice by conducting a personal SWOT: Strengths; Weaknesses; Opportunities; Threats.

Typically used for project or business planning, a SWOT can similarly help you build personal strategy, explore new solutions to problems, identify barriers, and decide on direction. As in business planning, a SWOT analysis can be applied to different aspects of your professional practice — from your career goals in the short term to those you are aspiring to in the future. Think of your career as your business.

Strengths: These are the characteristics that give a business an advantage over others. What “advantages” do you bring to your current job? Think about your knowledge, experiences, relationships, communications skills, reputation, values, network and connections, and management/leadership skills. Strengths can be easy to identify, so calibrate your assessment by asking others what they see as your strengths.

Weaknesses: These are the characteristics that place a business at a disadvantage. In your personal SWOT, this is the opportunity to think about the “disadvantages” or liabilities that you bring to your current job. What do you avoid due to lack of confidence? What knowledge or skills do you need to update? What are your bad work habits? (I’m a procrastinator. There, I said it.) What negative feedback about your work habits or personality have you received? These are uncomfortable questions that require critical reflection. But answering these questions will ensure that you’re ready for that question in your next big interview: “What is your biggest weakness?”

Opportunities. These are the elements that a business can exploit for advantage. They are the external factors that you can utilize to expand your portfolio, obtain a promotion, and/or determine career direction. Could a new project help you strengthen existing skills or learn new ones? Do you have a strong professional network where you can seek good advice? Are you exploring new resources or attending conferences to understand trends in the field? Remember, a hallmark of adult learning is self-direction, so engage.

Threats. These are the elements that could cause trouble for a business. What are the obstacles you face at work? Is your job — or the skills required to perform your job — changing? If left unattended, could your weaknesses become threats? You need to assess threats and determine ways to overcome them.

To initiate your analysis, you can explore any number of personal SWOT templates. Generating long lists isn’t important, so keep each quadrant to a list of three to five points. This will require you to think reflexively about what to include. Don’t overestimate your strengths or brush over your weaknesses. Consider opportunities that are available to you today, and take a long look at threats (those things you’d rather ignore).

Once your personal SWOT is complete, take a look at Marci Martin’s article “Conducting a Personal SWOT Analysis for Your Career” in Business News Daily. Martin outlines a practical path: matching or converting. For matching, you connect two of the categories (e.g., strengths to opportunities or weaknesses to threats) to show where to take action. An example of converting is turning weakness into strength by growing a skill set.

To deepen critical reflection, share the results of your personal SWOT with a trusted friend, mentor, or advisor. Ask for an assessment of your strengths and weaknesses. Where does their assessment align with yours? Where do they disagree or observe something that you didn’t? Hearing the opinion of others can be difficult, but these conversations enable the process of learning continuously and becoming a reflective practitioner.

Use these conversations to brainstorm. Should you address your weaknesses by return to school, obtain training, read articles, attend professional events, or find a mentor? How can you seize opportunities to transfer current skills or build your network? Can you mitigate threats by eliminating self-made obstacles, creating a professional development plan, or expanding your portfolio, and can you improve your strengths by improving the weakest one, sharing your expertise, presenting your work, or serving as a mentor?

Being successful in your job and advancing in your career is not a sprint. This is a marathon. Think of your personal SWOT as a way to help you achieve a sense of “personal best” for professional endurance. Don’t wait for a performance review to reflect on your professional practice. Conduct your personal SWOT. Examine your matrix, and regularly reflect on areas where you excel and areas where you can improve. Discuss your assessment with trusted others in your network. Remember, as an adult learner-practitioner, you have the strength of self-direction, so use it to explore resources and attend professional events to build knowledge, skills, and networks for your personal strategy.

Julie K. Little is vice president for teaching, learning, and professional development at EDUCAUSE.

© 2016 Julie K. Little. The text of this blog is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.