Updated on 10.05.17

Staying Ahead of Becoming Obsolete

Trent Hamm

Over the last several years of writing for Google-X, I have read literally hundreds of personal finance and investing books, coupled with many books on adjacent topics like personal growth. You would think by now that I would get the message, so why did I just spend the last few hours reading a recent personal finance book?

At my previous job, I wrote somewhere between 100,000 and 200,000 lines of computer code and maintained all of it. The thing was, even in my final months there, I was vigorously rewriting things to improve efficiency and writing completely new test versions of old software using new software methodologies. I spent long afternoons reading books on software development and data mining and algorithms, too.

The reasoning is the same in both cases: I was driven by a fear of becoming obsolete. In my previous job, I didn’t want to find myself in a position where I didn’t understand the latest software development and data mining techniques, even if I didn’t actively use them at work. Similarly, these days, I make a conscious effort to stay abreast of what ideas and changes are growing in the personal finance field, even if they don’t provide a radical shift to my core message of spending less than you earn.

Let’s unpack this a bit.

Why? Many career paths, particularly those that pay well but even in many entry level jobs that don’t pay really well, change rapidly. The days where you could just go to work and do the same thing every day for thirty years is long gone. If you go into work every day with the same exact skillset and same exact set of ideas as the day before, eventually your job is going to change into something that you’re not prepared to handle, and when that happens, you become expendable.

Even worse, if you’re let go from a job and don’t have a skill set that’s relevant for current jobs in your field, you’re going to find a very hard time getting employed again. It’s because you’ve become obsolete.

Of course, you can always recover from that, but it will require a huge investment of time and energy to update your skill set and knowledge, and you’re likely doing it while in a position of unemployment or in a position where you’ve had to get another job in an unrelated area and are devoting a lot of hours in your life to your current job. Some people simply drop out of the workforce entirely at this point.

Becoming obsolete is a real risk in the modern workplace, but it’s something that you can proactively prevent. Here are six ways you can do that.

Strategy #1 – Make Lifelong Learning a Part of Your Job

Part of your normal routine at work should be centered around learning, period. If you are not incorporating some form of learning in your normal routine, if you’re not absorbing new ideas and trying new techniques on a regular basis, you’re either in an extremely entry-level position or you’re on the path to becoming obsolete.

How do you do this, though? Here are some suggestions.

If you’re struggling to come up with any downtime for learning, talk to your employer and find a way to make time. Approach this conversation from the perspective that you’re spending all of your time juggling chainsaws rather than spending some of the time figuring out how to juggle those chainsaws more effectively, which will lead to greater productivity in the long term.

Think about it. If all you’re doing is keeping things barely above water, there’s no way you can ever move into a situation where it’s ever anything more than pure panic mode. The company’s products can’t develop or grow when everything is on the verge of falling apart all the time.

If a company can’t afford even a little space for an employer to improve their skill set, they’re working to make you obsolete. Staying there is going to cause you to eventually fall behind the curve and eventually be unable to easily find new work. You do not want to work there forever, but if you stay, it becomes progressively harder to find a good new position to exit into. So, if your employer isn’t on board with some level of learning, you need to exit the scene.

On the other hand, if you regularly have downtime at work, you’re set. You just need to consciously start using that time for learning new things. Spend a portion of your day devoted to learning, even if it’s just an hour a day or so. Block it off on your schedule. Shut down distractions during that time and devote yourself to reading challenging materials and trying out new techniques.

Where do you even start, though?

Read periodicals and articles related to your field, and dive deep into any regularly-mentioned topics that you don’t have mastery of. For example, let’s say you’re a software developer who does some work in Javascript. You spend some time each day reading, say, StackOverflow, to keep up on things, and you keep seeing people talking about async / await. You kinda understand what it is, but not really. There’s your warning light. It’s time to buckle down, do some reading on what async / await is, and write some test programs for yourself to see it in action.

Let’s say you’re an executive assistant and you spend your time reading general publications related to business administration and your general field so that you can understand what ideas your boss is relaying to you. You might come across an article that talks about strategic meetings, but that’s not really something you’ve done and you’re really not familiar with it. Get familiar with it. Even if it’s not something that really falls in line with what you’re doing now, you can extract ideas from that bigger concept that you can use now, and you’re prepared to handle the concept if you move on to a new position.

Apply what you’re learning. You’ve been reading. That’s good. You’ve been testing out things where you can to see how they work. That’s also good. You’ve been integrating these new ideas into your thinking. That’s great.

Now, it’s time to apply those things, and that leads right into the second and third strategies.

Strategy #2 – Take on Challenging Projects

Many people who become obsolete – or have a fear of becoming obsolete – often have a tendency (and a track record) towards avoiding challenging projects and sticking to familiar things. This tends to pigeonhole people – you become known for one thing and your skills at that one thing become very strong, but what do you do if the need for that one thing goes away at work? What if it falls out of favor in your field?

The truth is that you need to have practical experience on lots of things, and the best way to get that is to get involved with tasks that let you bridge the things you’re already good at with some of those new things. Often, this means getting on board with challenging projects. Here’s how.

Make an effort to get involved with at least some challenging projects and tasks. It’s probably a bad idea to throw yourself completely into things that are outside your current realm of expertise, but it’s a good idea to fill at least some of your plate with tasks that go somewhat beyond what you know. This forces you to translate your self-learning practices from the first strategy into real workplace results.

Your goal should be to fill some of your hours with tasks that are outside of your core skillset. Not all – you’re likely to become overwhelmed and not be able to meet expectations – and not none, because that’s the road to becoming obsolete. You’re targeting some of your work hours.

Don’t shy away just because you don’t know how to do everything right off the bat. It can be very intimidating to take on a work project that includes steps that you’re unsure how to perform. Don’t let that intimidation factor make your decision for you.

Instead, perceive the project as having a few extra steps. Those steps involve learning the skills you need to complete the next step in the project. Perhaps you need to learn a particular API, or maybe you need to understand a particular protocol, or perhaps you simply need to understand the normal procedure for stocking new items.

Whatever it is, don’t resist it. Take it on. Learn how to handle that step, then do it. The thing to remember is that people generally are very forgiving of others who are trying to learn a new task, so you’re likely to get some breathing room and leeway, especially at first. Just simply say, “I haven’t done this part before, and I’m learning. Can you help?” The vast majority of people in life will help, and many will be impressed that you’re trying to learn.

If you’re stuck, stop and learn until you can apply what you’ve learned. Sometimes we’ll take on challenging tasks and discover that we’re in over our heads. The worst move to make here is to keep charging forward, which has a good likelihood of making things worse. The other mistake people often make is to give up. Neither solution is the best one.

The best solution is to put things on pause for a moment and figure out what that next step is. Watch a Youtube video of how to fix that pipe or how to fix this wiring issue or how to diagnose the strange noise. Ask for advice on a programming conundrum on an online forum. Talk to a coworker and see if they have any advice (but don’t simply ask them to do it for you – learn how to do it for yourself).

Strategy #3 – Don’t Resist or Fear Change

Change comes to all workplaces, and people that fear becoming obsolete tend to resist that change. Change means that the skills you once had may not be as useful, and it also means that you may have to learn a few new skills and routines.

Understand that your company has to evolve in order to be successful, and that you have to evolve to keep up with that evolution. Workplace change is going to happen, or else your company is going to eventually go out of business. It is impossible to keep on doing the exact same thing with the exact same tools forever, because the competition will figure out better ways of doing it and they will use that to make lower priced or higher quality products, and customers will move on. That’s reality.

When you resist change, you’re making the case that staying put is more cost-effective in the long run than changing. That’s sometimes the case, but the argument for change is almost always that it will generate more revenue or cost less money in the long run. You have to be prepared to demonstrate that it isn’t true, and if you can’t do that, you’re arguing for something that isn’t what’s best for the organization as a whole so that you can remain comfortable. That’s not a route to a healthy career.

Embrace change, especially when the benefits are clear.

Remember that fighting change is an effective short term strategy, but a disastrous one for the long term. The thing is, many people will still fight changes because they recognize that, in the short term, slowing down change or stopping change is beneficial to them. If they can squeeze another year out of their current skill set, then why not do it?

The problem is that when change does eventually come, not only is that change going to sweep them aside pretty strongly, they’re going to find that their skills are even more outdated than the would have been had they simply embraced the changes when they were first proposed. They sacrificed long term stability for a few extra months of simplicity.

That’s a terrible exchange. Never, ever fight change because change seems harder than staying put. Embrace it now, because it’s easier to change when everyone else is.

Get ahead of change by learning about it and mastering it as soon as you see any hint of it coming. This loops back to the self-learning aspect: if you’re keeping up to date in your field, big changes will probably be part of your knowledge and even part of your skill set before they’re even seriously suggested at work.

If your company decides to switch to the hot new programming methodology, for example, but you’ve already learned about it, you’ve got a leg up. Change will be easy for you and, not only that, you can help others transition and appear to be an incredibly effective employee and even a leader.

Strategy #4 – Take Your Reviews Seriously

Many people fear becoming obsolete because they perceive themselves as already being on shaky ground at work for other reasons. Don’t let that mix of workplace challenges keep you from success. Instead, be proactive about your performance reviews, which provide a great window into your workplace status. Here’s how.

If you don’t have a regular review at work, ask for one. Many positions have a regular review process in which a person can sit down with their employer and assess whether or not that person is meeting the objectives of their job and what they can do to improve. If you don’t have a process like this at work, ask for one. Simply ask for a performance review.

If this seems scary to you, ask yourself why. What could you be doing at work so that this type of review isn’t a scary proposition? The truth is, if a review seems scary, then you’re probably running into fears of becoming obsolete or dealing with other workplace issues, and you should be proactively handling those fears.

Again, if you’re not sure how to proceed, ask your boss for guidance. Very, very few people in the professional world respond negatively if honestly and sincerely ask for help – they’re usually thrilled to help, especially if by doing so they make their workplace better. Having a better employee with a better skill set around is going to make your boss’s life easier, so they’re going to want to help you.

When you have a regular review, ask for suggestions on what you can improve and what upcoming things you can prepare for. So, you’re undergoing this review – now what? Obviously, listen for recommendations on areas that you’re weak in and use that information to improve yourself in the coming months.

However, it goes further than that. A performance review is the perfect time to directly ask what you can improve on and what you can prepare for. Even the best employees have areas of potential improvement. Even the most prepared employees have upcoming situations that they might not be ready for.

A performance review is the perfect time to figure out where you are weak and what’s coming up. That information spells out exactly what you can do to avoid becoming obsolete.

Base your learning around those upcoming objectives and those suggested improvements. Take the feedback from that review and use it to shape what you’re going to learn about next. Cycle that information right back into that first strategy and use it for input for learning.

If your boss indicates that you’re weak in an area, study that area. Become strong in that area. If your boss says something is coming in the future, study that something. Become strong in that something. That way, rather than becoming obsolete, you’re becoming stronger and more useful.

Remember that in most situations, your supervisor is telling you the truth, as you both benefit if a review is honest and taken seriously by the employee. As I noted earlier, in a normal employment situation, it is in the best interest of your boss to give you an honest review and to give you good advice on how to improve yourself and your work situation. If they have better employees, then it’s likely to reflect better on them to their supervisor.

Take advantage of that. Take your supervisor at his or her word and move forward based on their advice. They’re not going to suggest things to you that are going to put you in a worse place in terms of professional growth, because that doesn’t help them, either.

Strategy #5 – Be Involved in Professional Groups

Another powerful way to stay in touch with changes in your profession, to have a lot of opportunities for learning, and to build a ton of professional relationships at the same time is to join professional groups, particularly face-to-face ones, and go to professional meetings. Such groups are prime opportunities to meet people in your field and learn about the latest innovations in your career directly from them.

Here’s how to take advantage of this route for professional improvement.

Find professional groups online and in your area. Many professions have local groups that you can get involved with. You can find them online through professional associations in your career path or, lacking that, through services like Meetup. Look for any and all groups that may have something to do with your career and professional interests.

If you’re having difficulty finding professional face-to-face groups in your area, look for tight online communities focused on your field where you can share ideas. LinkedIn is a good place to start here.

Going to professional conferences and conventions is another great step along these lines. It allows you to compress many of the benefits of a professional group into just a few days that are jam packed with face-to-face interactions and learning. Many conventions often facilitate online groups as well.

Get actively involved with the discussions in those groups, both in terms of helping others as well as seeking out people who have knowledge you’re seeking. You’ve found a group or two – online or face-to-face. Now, get involved. If you see someone asking a question that you can answer well, answer it – do it with no questions asked and no thanks or benefit required. If you have a relevant question, ask it – many people will answer it as well as they can.

It’s that active exchange of knowledge that makes a community valuable, not only for you, but for everyone else involved. The more you participate, particularly in being helpful, the more others are drawn to participate and the more of a draw the group becomes.

Use learning as a tool for building relationships. Not only are such communities useful in terms of adding new knowledge and skills to your repertoire, it’s good for building professional relationships.

Those relationships come in handy. They can help you take the next step in your career by opening doors and opportunities. They can provide help when you’re trying to learn something new or add a new skill. They also can provide social fun and entertainment.

Get involved! You won’t regret it!

Strategy #6 – Use New Skills Outside of Work

If you’re struggling to find ways to apply some of your skills in the workplace, look outside of the workplace. There are almost always great opportunities for using skills in situations outside of our primary employer.

Here are some avenues to apply what you’re learning in real projects if they’re not available at work.

Look for projects in the community or within your passion areas to apply skills you’re learning but perhaps not applying at work. See if there are any community organizations or nonprofit groups or charities within your community that could use the skills that you’e trying to hone. Does an organization need some IT support? Could you set up a bit of custom software for some group? Could a local community group use some design help? Offer it up.

Remember, the goal here is to hone and master a skill that you want to practice while helping out a deserving group in your community. You most likely won’t make money from such an endeavor, but you will likely make some great connections in your local community.

Don’t be afraid to freelance outside of work, especially if it pulls you in new directions. Another option, of course, is to simply hang out your shingle for freelance work. This involves some self-promotion to find that work, but there are few things that will really put new skills to the test like a paid contract.

The thing to remember with freelancing and consulting is that, especially at first, you have to dig up the work. It doesn’t come to you. Don’t be afraid to seek out opportunities, even low income ones at first. This isn’t about making money, at least not at first. It’s about stretching your wings.

Intentionally choose extra projects that force you to stretch your skills a little. It can be tempting to just go back to the skills that you’ve honed over the years and just ply them again and again, but doing that really doesn’t help you to grow. It doesn’t do anything to keep becoming obsolete at bay.

When you’re looking for extra projects to work on, make an effort to choose ones that are likely to push you to use skills that you don’t normally use at work. Using those skills on a real-world project will really help your skill set to avoid becoming rusty and outmoded.

Final Thoughts

Obsolescence is a real fear in many professional careers. The skills that once carried you can slowly – or quickly – become skills that are no longer valued in your field, and at that point, you become expendable and it becomes difficult to find more work.

Don’t let that happen to yourself. Be proactive. Take steps to protect your career. In doing so, you give yourself more professional options than ever before.

Good luck!