In a perfect world, you wouldn’t have to do this! Spending work time and professional-development money traveling would be accepted by colleagues and supervisors as a matter of course; after all, the information professions claim to value lifelong learning. Here in the real world, though, colleagues may be envious or your self-improvement regimen may make them feel self-conscious or even inadequate; supervisors may be skeptical or see no benefit in your plans.
If you have significant input into your periodic review, for workplaces that have such things, it is a powerful weapon in your arsenal. Add learning goals to your commitments for the next period. Chances are your supervisor will assent (not least because reviews are awkward for supervisors too), and you will have official written documentation that you are entitled to work at learning.
If you need to convince a supervisor outside of the review process, prepare an elevator pitch for what you want to do. The pitch should contain a description of your learning goal that your supervisor will understand—do watch out for jargon!—how you plan to reach that goal, how much it will cost in time and money, and finally, the most persuasive expression you can create of how your workplace and those your workplace serves will benefit from your learning. If your workplace has a strategic plan, fit your learning into it. If your supervisor has known pain points or difficulties, and what you are learning will help, talk about that.
Whether in a periodic-review meeting or giving your elevator pitch, be prepared to bargain! Have some bargaining chips in mind: “if you pay for this course and give me work time to complete it, I’ll handle the planning for the fall event.” You may even wind up shifting your learning goal; ideally, you and your supervisor can agree on a goal that makes you both happy.
If what you are learning may lead to a significant change or a new initiative in your workplace, you and your supervisor need to plan its introduction very, very carefully. Change management is out of scope for this book; suffice to say that if you are perceived as the messenger of a change the workplace does not approve, you will shortly be the shot messenger.
Gauge your colleagues’ acceptance of change carefully before you decide whether or how to talk about what you are learning. Consider also their level of self-confidence. If they are confident in their own ability to learn, grow, and change, then you can feel free to talk about your learning process, show them what you have learned, and work with them to implement new and useful tools, techniques, and ideas. If they are not self-confident, it’s not necessarily their fault—because the information professions do not approach reskilling systematically or well, they overemphasize hiring new skills instead of building skills from within, which is legitimately disheartening to established professionals—but you will still have to take extra care that your learning does not make them feel threatened.
Dealing with disapproving colleagues tends to be far from straightforward, sadly. A few workplaces are so poisonous and stale that keeping your learning out of sight as much as possible is the only way to survive. Even in less-horrific workplaces, suggestions that learning is shirking “real work” are much too common, as are covert or overt accusations of brown-nosing. Expressions of disbelief or even horror at the content you are learning, especially if it could be perceived as cutting-edge or highly technical, can sap your confidence if you’re not mentally prepared. Whatever happens, whatever they say, remind yourself as often as you need to that you are not doing anything wrong.
Some of the chaff may fade if you make it clear that your learning has been approved by the powers that be in your workplace, though beware of others’ resentment going underground to express itself as sabotaging your daily work. Finding mentors, allies, and fellow learners certainly won’t hurt, especially if your workplace normally forms cliques. Outside your workplace, social-media friends in the profession may well be your safest, surest source of support and the occasional boost over a rough spot.
Do not give your detractors any hold over you when you can avoid it—I can say from experience that some people who feel threatened by you or what you know will look for anything at all they can use against you. Keep your temper by whatever expedient necessary. (I would not have survived one workplace without a “shield ring” I wore to meetings so that I could pretend it shielded me from all the nonsense.) Avoid spreading gossip, though it is wise to hear as much gossip as you can in self-defense. Lock down your social media, and do not “friend” suspected detractors. On social-media platforms that allow pseudonyms, use one; it can also help to set up an entirely harmless or even empty second account under your wallet name.
If worst comes to worst, document what’s going on, and do your best to be the first inside your supervisor’s door, as you need to be the one to frame the situation. Always pitch everything in terms of wanting work to function smoothly and without fuss. Ask a Manager, the “work” tag in the Captain Awkward advice column and The Evil HR Lady can sometimes help you think through ugly work situations and uncomfortable talks with supervisors.