Why Chris Rock is on Broadway, Or, How to Learn New Skills
This post was originally published in the Harvard Business Review.
Chris Rock recently spoke about his Broadway debut. Arguably one of the funniest men in America, Rock is venturing outside his comfort zone of stand-up comedy to perform eight live shows a week as an ensemble cast member. As Rock pushes himself to new heights, one wonders what drives that ambition.
As Rock explains in the clip: “You’ve got to be really good to last. You really do. You’re not going to get by just on being popular. So I’m really just trying to learn and get better. Being rich is not about having a lot of money. Being rich is about having lots of options.”
Rock is creating options for himself by venturing outside of his comfort zone. And while some may argue that Rock can do just that because he’s a celebrity at the top of his game, you don’t have to wait for the zenith of your career to venture outside of yours.
Learning new skills while earning a paycheck is like getting paid for research and development into your own career. Imagine someone paying you to go to college instead of you writing that tuition check every semester. If you have the opportunity to learn on the job, why not take or create it?
In my upcoming book Great on the Job, I talk a lot about using what I call the LEARN strategy as paid R&D into your career. How can you get paid to learn? Assuming you’re not going to quit your day job and head to Broadway, consider creating the following opportunities to:
- Excel elsewhere at something you’re already good at
- Assist others
- Redirect unwanted work
- Network with well-regarded or well-connected colleagues
One of the best ways to learn a new skill is to offer to take your expertise to another group or division in your firm. If you’ve honed your skills marketing consumer products and now your company is putting together a task force to re-brand your organization or expand services overseas, volunteer for the project. You’ll gain a ton of new learning by sharing your marketing expertise and applying it to a new area. Or, if you’re looking to make a career switch — you’ve excelled as a writer in the newsroom but now want to work for a start-up — there’s a good chance you can put your writing skills to work while learning about the entrepreneurial mindset in business development or corporate communications. By taking a skill you’re inherently great at and using it for something outside of your comfort zone, you’ll undoubtedly accelerate your learning curve.
Its no coincidence that the NBA ranks player assists — helping teammates is critically important to winning the game. Helping colleagues is no less important. Often, opportunities for visibility and growth within an organization present themselves as part of seemingly undesirable tasks.
For example, at a large non-profit in Chicago, a junior staffer is tapped every year to help out and serve as Secretary of the Board. It’s a thankless job that rarely tops anyone’s wish list of assignments, but for the junior staffer, it provides unparalleled access to senior leadership. The role of scribe provides a huge amount of learning and insight into the organization (listening in on every board meeting) good visibility with the Executive Director, and a chance to build relationships with the board. Furthermore, more often than not, a former secretary will land a plum new role within the organization after fulfilling his or her duties for the year. Smart people are catching on and what was once a dreaded activity is now becoming a coveted role.
Redirect Unwanted Work
Sometimes you’ve got more thankless work than you know what to do with. If you notice your learning curve flat-lining, it’s critical that you speak up. If you’re continually working on unchallenging assignments or seeing promotions or rotational opportunities pass you by, you need to raise your hand directly and ask for the projects you need to help you get promoted or compensated well.
Although you shouldn’t say, “Brian, I don’t want to do any more client pitches,” you certainly can say, “I’m always happy to help prepare client pitches, but I haven’t had a chance to present in a meeting yet. I’d really like to make sure I have an opportunity to do so in the next few months, can we talk about ways to make that happen?”
If you present your case as being long-term focused and highlight your need to continue to challenge yourself, you have a good chance of making some of those stretch assignments come your way over time, and learn from them as they do.
Finally, there are always the movers and shakers in any organization — the decision makers and power brokers and the people who have access to them. If you’re not interacting with the powers that be, raise your hand and ask to be assigned to some projects or deals with specific people who you respect, admire or who wield real influence.
Make a point of seeking them out and asking to work with them directly or letting others know you’d like to work with them. It won’t always happen right away, but more often that not, people are flattered to hear you admire them and want to work with/for them. People who are well regarded, well respected or even just well connected typically have valuable wisdom to impart — make it your business to be there when that learning happens.
As a senior partner on Wall Street once said to me, “no one cares more about managing your career than you do.” You can’t expect your manager or mentor to continually suggest new roles or opportunities: you’ve got to ask for those roles and make the opportunities come your way. Make it your priority to continually learn and push yourself to new heights professionally.