Q&A: How Much is Too Much for Professional Development?

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I’m doing a Friday business Q&A. To ask your question, email me here

How much is too much to pay for upgrading your skills, learning new technology or traveling to a conference with unknown value (both in the content and type of people who will be there)? OK, that was a lot of questions wrapped up into one sentence so feel free to chunk something out that’s relevant to the community here. ~ Joel, from Value of Simple

I’m so glad you asked this question because I really think I integrate something into the equation that I rarely see in discussions like this.

Start with the ROI

In the first place, of course, you need to work out your costs versus the value that the investment will garner. Sometimes this is pretty straight-forward: getting a certification that will allow you to be added to a professional directory, and allow you to add it to your CV as a quality indicator to potential customers might be worth every penny. Becoming a Certified Financial Planner, for instance. On the other hand, it might not be worth it– I could get a Life Coach certification, and I highly doubt it would be worth it. And something will fall in the middle, like NLP certification. Will that help me? Well, it probably wouldn’t hurt, but unless I was really interested in NLP, it probably wouldn’t be a value proposition.

Sometimes the Best ROI is in the Least Sexy Option

You know what I would spend money on? An Excel course. I’ve spent money on marketing courses, and productivity courses as well, because improving on the basics is one of the largest gains you can make. I will always spend to build and maintain crucial systems.

But getting back to your question… A conference, for instance, is kind of a crapshoot. You can reasonable expect a number of intangible benefits: You’ll learn stuff, meet people, network and so on. But you won’t necessarily get a ton of traffic or forge a JV partnership. You might, especially if you’re strategic, but it’s far from guaranteed.

So this is where most people will say, “Spend as much as you can afford. Always bet on yourself. Invest in yourself and it will pay off.”

Don’t Forget to Factor in Risk

But this where I differ– I think it’s extremely important to factor risk into the equation. I don’t just mean in paying for things; I mean in all things.

Your brain, when stressed, operates very differently than when it is not stressed (or is stimulated in a good way.) This recent article on stock traders show how badly cognition shifts under various circumstances, and nobody is immune to that. Nobody. So when the chips are down, you need to think about whether your business is in a precarious position, financially.

Even if you’re not in a precarious position, you probably won’t be able to do everything you want to do, and you have to be honest with yourself. Are you rationalizing that conference ticket by saying you’ll make the contacts that will bring in new clients when you really ought to shell out for some copywriting?

[Tweet “Sometimes the best ROI is in the least sexy option”]

You have to understand your brain. You’ll often work twice as hard to avoid a loss as you would work for a similar gain— and the feeling of missing an opportunity weighs heavily. That’s why a conference, by and large, won’t pay nearly the dividend that getting a really nicely integrated e-commerce back end set up… but we persistently rationalize that we could do that any time, and this conference is only once a year. Similarly, investments that rank highly as status indicators, like a website redesign, get more weight than, say, buying some time with Charlie Gilkey to do some strategic planning.

So that’s why it’s important to factor in risk, because of how our brains tend to weight our plans differently, based on the risk attached. You have to address that so it won’t steer you blindly.

Your Turn

Have you noticed your decision making change depending on whether you were running ‘hot’ or when you felt scared?

Like these Q&As? Want more? Email your question to feedthespark /@/ gmail.com
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9 thoughts on “Q&A: How Much is Too Much for Professional Development?”

  1. Good news Shanna! I’ve already taken Excel courses and that’s why most of my life is in spreadsheets now!
    Thanks for featuring my question here for your rockin’ Q&A Fridays. I was surprised by the pivot to talking about risk but after reading the post, it makes sense. I think in  terms of opportunity costs, but I’m now wired to take much bigger risks than I probably should, not smaller ones.
    I guess I have all these disruptive bloggers to thank for that.
    For better or for worse, I don’t run hot much so I can’t really answer YOUR question. I hope other people have more to share on it though.

    1.  @joeyjoejoe Most people do tend to put a lot of emphasis on opportunity costs, which is why I usually advocate the opposite. Every now and then there’s the odd person who puts things off until the ‘perfect’ time, but I’m sure that’s not you. 
       
      The way I like to think of it is, “What if you got discovered tomorrow? What if you were suddenly swamped with interest? Could your business, your systems handle it? If the answer is no, you should spend more time on your system, because if you get a bunch of traffic and you don’t use it effectively, it was worthless– especially because you might be too busy with new work to bring your systems up to snuff. 
       
      Basically, get all your ducks in a row on the home front, then throw yourself 100% on getting the word out, or building new opportunities. Don’t juggle. It just gets messy.
       
      I can say this because none of my clients are the types to hang back, waiting for the right moment. They want everything, now. Different types of people, different types of advice.

  2. I think you did a great job answering his question!    I’m not sure what you mean in that final question about making decisions when scared, though.  Do you mean fear of missing out on an opportunity so you invest when you really shouldn’t?   I can see how that would happen.
     
    When it comes to conferences, coaching, or any other expensive investment in personal development, I’m very skeptical.  I’m not against it.  Depends on why I want it and if I can afford it.  For me, the best investment is just working hard on my craft and connecting with peers.  That’s free.  Seminars, conferences, books, tend to not offer me lasting results.  It usually ends up being a high of motivation and that’s it.  
     
    If the investment is going to give you real clarity, solid steps to accomplish something (not just motivational hype) or offer some certification or education you need – as you mentioned in the post, then it’s more worth it.

    1.  @deniseurena It’s kind of a sports metaphor.  Apparently ‘they’ did a study on baseball pitchers and measured their actual performance against when they thought they were ‘hot’ (ie, couldn’t miss, struck out all comers) or when they thought they were in a slump, and they found that their *actual* performance didn’t vary that much— but because of their perception of that performance, their decision-making process did; they made riskier decisions when hot, played more defensively when in a slump. 
       
      The interesting thing is how this played out: the risky behavior mitigated the gains that confidence garnered, and the defensive playing made up the losses that lack of confidence incurred. So I was just asking if other people had noticed this effect… I certainly have. 
       
      You’re ABSOLUTELY right that working on your craft and networking, and other free activities are the best investment. For one thing, the risk is zero, so the ROI is pure gravy. That’s very sensible of you, and I suspect that’s because the reality of having no safety net except yourself is very real to you. You simply cannot afford a bad risk– so you don’t. I can definitely see my business behaviour change when I know that I have no one to back me up. 

  3. “Have you noticed your decision making change depending on whether you were running ‘hot’ or when you felt scared?”
     
    YES.  The only training investments I’ve ever regretted were made out of fear.  Usually “product x will fail if I don’t completely master topic y”.   (Where topic y is a tangent of the main topic that only a small fraction of the audience for topic x will ask about.)

    1. @NadiraJamal Ah, so tempting. Because it is basically a defence against Imposter Syndrome. “If I master Y I will no longer be ‘less than’ and all sorts of good things will fall in my lap but they definitely won’t now because I am a LOSER’. Gotta love that monkey mind. 🙂

      1. @Shanna Mann Pretty much!  
         
        It’s kind of like writing a cookbook, and having a recipe that calls for wine, and feeling like I also have to tell them how to make wine.
         
        a- totally out of scope of the project
        b- if they don’t have any wine, I should be telling them to go out and buy some.  Trying to teach them how to do it themselves will just distract them from the end goal of cooking something tasty.  (Even if they do complain about having to buy it.)
         
         
        (Although winemaking is FUN.  None of mine turned out particularly good, but the process was a lot of fun.)

        1. @NadiraJamal Ha! THAT is a trap I fall into all the time. “Oh SURE, you could BUY wine at any grocery store. But wouldn’t you rather know how it was made, right down to the type of grape? WOULD’T YOU!!!” And then I wind up overwhelming people because I’m busy geeking out.

        2. @Shanna Mann I TOTALLY used to do that, but 14 years in IT support and 4 years teaching dance mostly cured me of that.  (Mostly.)
           
          Now, I only fall for it when I’m freaked out about whether I’m good enough.  i.e., I start worrying they’re going to say “well, if you can’t teach me how to make wine, what kind of chef ARE you?”

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