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Steep Learning Curves: The Opportunity to Grow in Business

Being a paramedic during the formative years of my working life, I’ve been surprised at how many of the lessons that I learned on the job have translated to the business world.

As I look back at my career and how I got where I am today, there is a consistent theme – learning. Way back when I entered college, I was convinced that I was going to be a surgeon. That was the career path that I knew I was destined to follow. Some of it made sense; I had had a strong interest in science since I was a kid, and my natural empathy led me toward medicine. Combine those with a desire to be challenged, and surgery was it.

I went to EMT school because I wanted to see if I could handle the blood and other aspects of medicine. I handled the classwork and clinical hours pretty well, so it made sense to leave the world of retail jobs and try my skills in the real world. I got a job with an ambulance company and started my training to help to transform what I learned in class into skills that applied to the street.

The learning curve that EMS threw at me was intense. My first few weeks were pretty mellow; I was too young to work full-time on the ambulances (couldn’t be insured until I turned 21), so I was doing part-time shifts on off hours and picking up special events. Then there was the concert. I expected a quiet evening to see a couple of bands I had never seen before, get paid, and maybe hand out a couple of Band-Aids. Instead it was chaos.

Before that night I had seen a few calls and transported a few patients, but I had never experienced anything like what I faced that night with the rest of the team of EMTs and paramedics that worked that show. We saw everything. Drunk and/or high concertgoers fighting with each other and with us. Various states of overdose. And, unfortunately, a person lost their life that night after we did everything we could to save them.

The challenge to my skills was drinking from not the fire hose, but the fire hydrant. I used every skill I had learned in school and was asked to go far beyond that comfort zone as we struggled to keep up with the flow of patients. By the end of the show I was completely drained, physically and mentally, and fell asleep on the floor of the rig as we rode back to HQ.

As I have moved forward in my career I have faced similar challenges, though perhaps not as intense. I’ve moved from one type of job to another, and the ramp-ups have been variously challenging. My transition to consulting after all of those years in various industries was that kind of challenge. There was so much to learn while still trying to be effective at the job. As I’ve grown into the role over the last few years, I’m finding that it’s the never-ending learning is one of the things I love the most about this career. Each assignment and each client is a new opportunity to develop a skill or learn something so that I can improve professionally and personally.

I am by no means unique in this passion for learning. Its part of our biology as humans – we are effectively hardwired to seek out new opportunities to learn, and are rewarded in our brains when we do so.[1] We as leaders need to be providing these opportunities lest we lose our top employees.[2] Employees that get bored disengage, yielding losses in productivity and profitability. By recognizing each person’s innate desire to grow and learn, we can help to maximize performance while increasing job satisfaction.

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