5 tips for lifelong learning

Experts say to read, listen, watch, engage, adapt, practice, and retain.
By Cheryl Meyer

You graduate from college with a wealth of knowledge, ready to dive into your new career. But what you need to know to be a stellar professional is sure to change with time and even technology.

How can you stay fresh, current, and coveted by employers? The answer is simple: lifelong learning.

“As younger CPAs, we need to think about our long-term plans and how the profession will look in 20 years,” noted Melisa Galasso, CPA, audit professional practices director at Cherry Bekaert LLP, in Charlotte, N.C.

Continual learning is a must for today’s professionals. Think of it as similar to continuous improvement for products, services, or processes. Not only will it give you a competitive advantage, but it will make you more well-rounded and appealing to others in social settings. It also can prompt you to be strategic and forward-thinking.

“Bar nothing else, [lifelong learning] is great for job security,” said Melanie Ott, principal and founder of Leap Forward Coaching LLC, a Chantilly, Va., firm that helps clients achieve success and satisfaction in their professional and personal lives. “We can’t assume that what we learned in high school and college and even graduate school will sustain us more than the next handful of years.”

What’s more, if CPAs stop learning, they risk becoming stale, bored, less sought-after by employers, or even obsolete.

But learning new skills and information can be a challenge when you’re a working professional who’s short on free time. Here are some tips for fitting more learning into your life.

Read, listen, watch. Whether you prefer to read on your phone, tablet, or computer screen, or on paper, make time daily for journals, newsletters, blogs, or books — or listen to podcasts or watch videos, such as TED talks. Take 10 minutes on the subway or bus to peruse articles. Sign up for news alerts or subscriptions, so information comes directly to you and you don’t have to spend time searching for it.

Josh Norris, CPA, managing member of tax firm Corkern & Norris and financial planning firm LeFleur Financial, both in Jackson, Miss., and a 2013 graduate of the AICPA Leadership Academy, reads The Wall Street Journal daily on his phone. He advises reading books, including biographies, and trade magazines such as The Kiplinger Tax Letter. “It’s almost a given — you’ve got to read,” he said.

People who avoid reading post-college “miss out on the biggest opportunity of absorbing information,” said Herb Stevenson, CEO of Cleveland Consulting Group Inc., a leadership and executive development firm in Novelty, Ohio.

Establish goals. Put a plan in place for learning and development. Figure out what and when you would like to learn. Set specific, measurable goals and verbalize them. Write your goals down, say them out loud, and share them with someone; if you don’t take these steps, you are far less likely to achieve your goals, Ott said.

Put it into practice. To retain what you learn, put the information into practice, and, if necessary, take low-risk chances. To become a better public speaker, for instance, speak at an organization that sparks your passion, said Galasso, who is also founder of Galasso Learning Solutions, a training and educational firm, and is a 2014 graduate of the AICPA Leadership Academy. If you read books on how to be a better networker, then network at an event or place where you’re comfortable, to improve your soft skills.

Ott also advises teaching your newfound knowledge to others, to help retain what you’ve learned. “Share it and educate others,” even informally, she said, noting: “If you teach material, you have to know it inside and out, and look back from a beginner’s perspective.”

Welcome technology. While some people view technology as a threat to today’s workforce, technology can help CPAs in their careers if they choose to embrace it, learn about it, and adapt. Keep up with technology by reading about it, or applying new tools when applicable — and let it help you in your career.

Get involved. You can learn plenty outside your office or home. Join community groups, such as your state society. Attend workshops, volunteer with your alma mater, or go to conferences.

“Teaming up with colleagues to attend these events makes educating yourself a fun, social experience,” noted Donna Salter, senior manager for young member initiatives at the AICPA. “Peers who also love learning can often be one of your best motivating resources.”

By embracing so many options for lifelong learning, you will allow yourself to stay up-to-date, innovative, and interesting, both professionally and personally.

Cheryl Meyer is a California-based freelance writer. To comment on this article, email senior editor Courtney Vien.

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