Sunday, February 8, 2009

Being an independent means I’m finally free to learn

I’m on my way back from my first business trip since jumping ship eight months ago. I was going to blog about how hard it was to be away from the kids, but surprisingly I don’t feel much angst about that. In fact, I don’t feel much angst at all (an odd feeling for me, since I’m prone to angst). So, what to blog about?

Well, it was a really great trip!

What made it so great is that I wasn’t stressed. Attending this conference as an independent was so much easier than when I attended training as a full-time employee, because I wasn’t being pulled in a dozen different directions.

When I was employed full-time, attending a training session was really difficult. Despite all the professional development and training that my company touted in its recruitment literature, I never felt completely free to participate. That’s because it was expected that even when I was out of the office at a conference (or for any other reason) I would complete my work and hit all my deadlines. It was the unwritten rule: I’ll fund the course, but go at your own expense. And we all knew—whether we were out on vacation, at a conference, or down with the flu—we’d pay for it. The running joke was that you worked so many hours before, during and after your time out of the office that you should have charged the company overtime rather than taking vacation time!

What I remember about going to training sessions when I was employed was that I’d always come home exhausted, and often sick as well. That’s because I’d burn out. I’d go to the seminars for eight hours, and try to squeeze another eight hours of work in during breaks, before breakfast and in the evenings. I certainly didn’t get what I really needed at the time—the exchange of ideas, the networking, the energy to bring a fresh perspective to my work.

While it was hard for me–correction, it is hard for me—to divorce my professional self from the company I spent more than 10 years with, I loved attending this conference as an independent contractor. I was finally present—there in mind as well as body—at all the sessions. I didn’t return calls during breaks; rather I reviewed my notes from the sessions. I wasn’t trying to simultaneously clear out my inbox and keep projects going; instead, I stayed behind to talk to the other attendees and network. I didn’t put out fires; I brought a calm and open mind to each session.

And I finally realized that yes, professional development can be inspiring and refreshing—not just another energy drain. When I needed the training the most—when I had a full-time, fast-paced job—I didn’t have the time or the energy to really invest in myself. What I learned this weekend is that professional development is much like anything in this world—you get out of it what you put into it. And, also much like anything in this world, it took me quite a long time to learn this lesson.