Learning As a Vocation

Today I learned…

Much of the period between July, 2016 and March, 2020 was a combination of thrilling, frustrating, exciting and nerve-wracking. After being let go from Voce Communications I embarked on the roller coaster life that is freelancing, eventually adding on my full-time position at Starbucks, meaning each week and month involved a fun little game of “how much am I being paid this time,” one that gets more than a little wearing after a while.

As stressful as that was, though, it also continued in some manner one of my favorite aspects of agency life, both at Voce and previously at MWW Group. Specifically, the ability to bounce between a handful of industries and business types, always learning something new as I did so.

Requiring Knowledge Is Limiting

Over the years as I was applying for both full-time and freelance positions, one of the most common requirements listed for those jobs was “extensive knowledge of X industry.” The companies doing the hiring or contracting wanted someone already well-versed and fluent in the details of their industry and business model, an understandable request meant to reduce the amount of effort they had to put into bringing someone new up to speed.

While that makes some amount of sense, it overlooks the advantages someone with no or limited insight can bring, as well as what other skills the applicant may have that are just as transferable.

For instance, no matter which industry we’re talking about, knowing how to manage a publishing calendar is going to be important for someone in a content marketing position. Likewise, experience with reporting, community management and other skills will all be relevant whether the company is in accounting, healthcare, technology, real estate or any other field.

Sure, a basic understanding of how those companies and industries work is a bonus, but which would you rather have if you were hiring?

  1. Someone who could recite chapter and verse of the latest relevant industry regulations but didn’t know which end of Sprout Social was up, or
  2. Someone who knew a little bit about the company’s market but had a dozen examples of managing or being involved with programs of a similar size and approach?

The one can be taught on the job, the other can’t. And the non-industry specific skills are more likely to cause significant problems from Day One if they’re missing than the others.

An Opportunity To Learn

On the occasions when I was hired for a freelance or contract position – as well as the years I spent in agency life – I was given the opportunity to learn something new, something that’s incredibly important both in the moment and over longer periods of time.

Here are just some of the industries that, in the last 20 years, I’ve been thrown in the deep end of:

  • Publishing
  • Health insurance
  • Streaming entertainment
  • Real estate development and sales
  • Financial auditing and advising
  • Web development
  • Marketing and public relations
  • Dentistry
  • Automotive insurance
  • Architecture and construction
  • Translation technology

Entering into any of them, I was not an expert. But there’s nothing like being given an assignment or task to encourage you to engage in a bunch of research. Doing so not only helped me deliver the best results I could for a particular job, but also added to my overall knowledge base so that the next time I was even more well-positioned to get a job or deliver a quality product to my client.

Having those opportunities was not only advantageous to me professionally but also enormously interesting personally. I’ve always been someone who will read a book or watch a documentary on just about any subject, and focusing my curiosity in the direction of a specific project was helpful.

But…How?

The question then becomes how I went about picking up the vernacular and other language or shorthand needed to do the job effectively. Everyone’s preferences will vary but I found this process fell into two big buckets.

First, start searching. On many occasions in the first months at a financial auditing firm, I would be uncertain of some of the terminology being sent my way by coworkers and managers. My first step was to fire up The Google and see what I could figure out on my own, seeing if I could then apply the appropriate context to what I’d been sent.

Second, ask questions. When that research didn’t work, or if something came up at a time I couldn’t do my own searching, I would simply ask for an explanation. For some people this can be overly intimidating as any sign of uncertainty can be, in some situations, taken as a sign of weakness or even incompetence. That thankfully has not been my experience, and the times it was I simply plowed on through and showed through my work that I was capable of doing the work better than anyone even if I sometimes needed a definition provided.

Third, start reading. One of my first moves when I got a new client or started a new position was to subscribe to any RSS feed or email newsletter I could, paying attention to who the industry’s influential journalists, analysts or other individuals were. It’s the equivalent of someone learning how to speak German deciding to live in Munich for a year. Nothing helps you pick up not only the language but the intricacies and nuances of that language like immersion.

NSL (Never Stop Learning)

With the economy having gone through more massive upheavals in the last 20 years than there are Comic-Con attendees wearing orange “Jayne hats,” it’s so vitally important that individuals who are or will be looking for work know what they’re talking about. That doesn’t – and shouldn’t – mean they are quoted and verified experts in every field, but it does mean that they can point to a track record of work with similar required skill sets as well as a willingness to learn.

That kind of constant, broad, self-directed education will be useful and helpful, no matter who you are. It’s also, at least to me, a lot of fun, which is a nice bonus.

By Chris Thilk

Chris Thilk is a freelance writer and content strategist with over 15 years of experience in online strategy and content marketing. He lives in the Chicago suburbs.