A DIY Guide to Professional Development: Learn New Skills for Free or Cheap

May 06, 2015 - Joe Matar
We all know it’s a mistake to rely on your company for your professional development. A 2013 Accenture survey of executives at large companies found that only 52 percent reported receiving formal training. Funding for professional development is highly variable, and tends to plummet when the economy tanks — exactly when your job may be most at risk. If you’re going to keep your skills current, you have to take professional development into your own hands. But can you learn the skills you need without breaking the bank? Sometimes, formal study is necessary — particularly if you want to transition into a field that requires a degree, such as law, or earn a professional certification, such as becoming a Certified Financial Planner. But often, one of the best ways to learn is through creating your own personal curriculum. Here are a few strategies you can adopt to work toward your professional development goals: (Click here to tweet this list.)


Bay-Area attorney John Corcoran has used podcasting as a vehicle to gain new insights about business. “It’s professional development as marketing,” he says. “I’m learning and educating myself as a business owner, and yet for the hour I spend learning, I can then take that recording, package it up, and send it out to the world as a podcast that will exist for infinity for other people to benefit as well.” Most important, “The value to doing podcasts is relationships,” he says. The interviews for his show Smart Business Revolution give him an excuse to connect with interesting guests and have enabled him to build a powerful network.

Listen and learn

Not ready to create your own content? Another professional development strategy is identifying free information sources you like, and bingeing on them. On my website, I’ve compiled more than 400 free articles that I’ve written covering marketing, branding, leadership, personal branding, and more. Many authors offer similar archives, so discover your favorites and dig into their sites. One of my goals this past year was to learn more about online marketing, so I’ve made a point of listening regularly to a number of excellent free podcasts like Smart Passive Income, Entrepreneur on Fire, and more. Once you find sites or podcasts you enjoy, you can listen almost endlessly; Entrepreneur on Fire alone has 450 hours — and counting! — of free audio content about business strategy.

Take classes

Sometimes the right choice might be a paid degree program, but your needs could also be filled through à la carte classes at adult education centers or university extension schools. Prior to launching my consulting business nine years ago, I took adult education classes on subjects ranging from graphic design to how to understand balance sheets, so that I’d be prepared for my new role as an entrepreneur. The classes cost $100-$200 apiece — a bargain compared to the money I saved by avoiding costly mistakes.

Study online

If you’d prefer a structured course, you could learn online via a MOOC — or make your own reading list. Josh Kaufman essentially earned his own “degree” by reading the top business books on his own. He chronicled his efforts in the popular book The Personal MBA. You could do the same with your chosen field, and in the process, become vastly more knowledgeable than most people who simply read what others tell them to or assume they’ll pick up what they need to know by osmosis.

Apprentice with someone you admire

In my first book, I wrote about Joanne Chang — now a successful Boston restaurateur — who started her career as a dissatisfied management consultant. She wrote to a dozen prominent chefs, explaining her story and expressing a willingness to do anything and start at the bottom. One well-known chef’s prep cook had just quit, and she was willing to give Chang a chance – leading to an eight-year partnership in which Chang learned the ropes and eventually gained enough knowledge to open her first widely acclaimed bakery. Finding the right mentor and apprenticing yourself to him or her, even if it’s only on nights and weekends, can be a powerful way to learn.

Just do it

Finally, you can learn simply through doing. “I think the best training is almost always going to be hands-on training,” Nate Silver, the famed prognosticator of presidential elections, told Harvard Business Review. “Getting your hands dirty with the data set is, I think, far and away better than spending too much time doing reading and so forth.” If you’re curious and willing to work hard, you can teach yourself what you need to develop your niche and get to the next level. Developing your professional skills is necessary — but it doesn’t have to be costly. With these strategies, you can stay ahead of the curve and take control of your career. Dorie Clark is a marketing strategist and professional speaker who teaches at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business. She is the author of Reinventing You and Stand Out.