A product company like Apple invests heavily in research & development (R&D) to maintain its competitive advantage. One of the ways you can tell a CEO is managing for short-term results at the expense of long-term sustained success is when he or she cuts back on R&D investments.

In the workforce, there are two kinds of workers: 1) manual laborers hired for their hands and the strength of their back; and 2) knowledge workers hired for their knowledge.

Needless to say, in the age of the knowledge worker, the latter kind of work pays much better and is a lot easier way to earn a living.

If you’re in the knowledge worker category, it’s critical that you do not take that advantaged position in life for granted. The key to sustaining an advantaged position is to invest in the knowledge worker’s equivalent of R&D.

The knowledge worker’s R&D and the key to long-term career success is continually learning new skills.

Yup, R&D = Learning New Skills

I personally invest a ton of time and energy in learning new skills.

I remember about 20 years ago, my brother paid me what I considered a great compliment. He said, “Vic, it’s annoying competing against you. You work your *ss off and you keep improving.”

(We competed a lot with each other as kids growing up.)

I liked it when he said that 20 years ago, and I hope it is as true today (if not more so) than it was 20 years ago. This is not to say that I’m special in some way and can’t be beaten. It’s more that I made a conscious and deliberate (read: strategic) choice to be hyper-competitive in my career of choice.

As I recently turned 40 years old, I’ve been doing a lot of thinking and self-reflection. I guess it’s what “middle-aged” people do. Some friends have been asking if I think I will have my midlife crisis. I laughingly told them that I’m a type-A super achiever and already had my midlife crisis in my early 30’s!

In any case, I’ve been thinking about the first half of my life and looking forward (hopefully) to the second half of my life. As part of this process, I made a list of the things I did in my 20’s that I still do now that I turned 40 years old. I think the list of activities is instructive and I’ve shared it here:

I STILL read a lot of books.

I STILL take notes on what I read, study them, and reflect on them.

I STILL seek out the best teachers in the world and jump on planes to learn from them.

I STILL consider myself a student, even though most people these days consider me a teacher.

I STILL work hard (though not as hard as in my 20s).

…and not only do I STILL devote a significant portion of my time to learning, I actually devote a higher percentage of my time to learning new skills today than I did when I was in my 20s.

Yes, I plan to make it extremely annoying to anyone who chooses to compete against me. (By the way, from a strategic planning standpoint, what I’ve just described is: 1) a strategic decision, about creating and sustaining; 2) a competitive advantage.)

Advantages are not free. You pay for them one way or another.

I prefer to pay to maintain the advantage than to pay the costs associated with having no competitive advantage.

That’s a choice you face too. Since most tradeoff decisions are based on personal preference, either choice is valid. What I do think is a mistake is to ignore the issue entirely and not make a conscious, well-informed choice.

(It’s strategic to make decisions explicitly. It’s a poor strategy to let key decisions “make themselves.”)

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