Summer and learning.

If you’re like me, these two words may strike you as opposites.

From the earliest of ages, the traditional school calendar quietly taught us a destructive message. It’s taught us there are times of the year for learning (boring Spring and Fall) and there are times of the year for basking in the sun and letting our minds wander (wonderful Summer).

We’ve been conditioned to treat our downtime as a kind of anti-learning time. As if learning and leisure are mutually exclusive. As if they’re destined to fight each other for supremacy in our lives — each giving way for a time before storming back to take center stage.

This is a limiting thought process.

And it runs up against a concept called lifelong learning. You’ve probably heard of it. The idea that learning isn’t just for designated seasons or phases of life. But rather than it’s central to our daily, human experience.

Lifelong learning rewrites the script on the whole learning concept.

It’s a true tragedy that, for many of us, the experience of the school system and the act of learning have become synonymous. We think learning has to involve a stuffy classroom, stiff chairs, and a teacher droning on ad nauseum.

In reality, we all love to learn. We find ourselves pulled along by the force of interest and excitement into topics we never even knew existed.

The difference looks a little like this . . .

What lifelong learning is not:

  • another item on your infinite to-do list
  • a pressure cooker of learning demands
  • a beginning-to-end textbook trudge

What lifelong learning is:

  • fostering your natural curiosities
  • casting a wide knowledge net
  • blending learning and life

With that in mind, it’s time we merged the warmth of summer with the amazing benefits of lifelong learning. And the timing couldn’t be better.

If you’re taking a vacation this summer, it’s easier than ever to grab some brain gain along the way. And if you’re not, you’ll likely have fewer meetings and projects as your colleagues head off for some needed time away from work. So set aside some of your summer downtime to learn.

And guess what? You can do it at the beach in a lawn chair. You can do it in a cabin in the middle of the woods. You can do it anywhere.

For the rest of this article, I’m going to outline four simple skills you can pick up over the length of a summer. This is far from an exhaustive list, but it should provide a spark if you’re not sure where to start. And remember, lifelong learning is about the journey, not the destination.

1. Programming Fundamentals

Computer programming. The ones and zeros that make our digital world go round. Every piece of software — be it a website, an app, a video game, or a cloud service — starts as a series of codes.

But you probably knew that already.

Unless you work in a technical role, you may not know why the code exists. The purpose it serves. And the countless decisions that go into writing the most basic of programs. That’s where an understanding of fundamentals comes in.

Learning programming fundamentals is not about becoming a programmer, although you may find that spark. Instead, it’s about peeking behind the curtain of the tools you use every single day.

It’s also about learning how programmers think. I.e. in a logical progression. This happens. Then that. Oh, wait there’s another fork in the road. Software is infinitely complex and requires an analytical mind to construct.

So, even if you never plan on setting foot in a technology company, or writing a line of code in Python, there’s still value in learning the fundamentals. You’ll walk away with a better understanding of how current tools work and where the world is headed.

Start here:

  • For fundamentals, you want to head to Harvard. The university makes its CS50 (Introduction to Computer Science) course available for free. You can take it as a MOOC on edX, where you’ll engage in some light coding practice of your own. Or you can head on over to YouTube where the lectures are available for viewing.
  • Once you’ve taken CS50, there are tons of paths to continue your learning journey. Code Academy is one of several sites that allow you to practice programming at your own pace, with helpful hints along the way.

2. Project Management Tactics

The business world runs on projects.

Does your company need to update its new hire training? Project. Do they need to bring in a new software tool to support the sales team? Project. Do they need to coordinate major updates to the company’s platform? Project.

Alongside good communication, project management is essential to success in pretty much every role. The ability to organize around a key deliverable, plan out the steps to success and keep everybody on track. Yeah, that’s important.

But, unfortunately, we’re not born with natural project skills.

Exceptional project management talent takes time to develop. A good project manager, for example, knows when to push and when to step back. How to build in cushion within the project to account for setbacks. And how to have tough conversations with a partner who isn’t carrying their weight.

So it makes sense to invest in some PM essentials, especially if you’re newer in your role or newer to the project space. By diving into the world of project management education, you’ll equip yourself with frameworks, tactics, and language that can help ensure every project you run goes smoothly.

Start here:

  • If you already have a few years of project experience, you can take on the Project Management Professional (PMP) certification. This cert is an industry-standard that looks great on your resume.
  • Alternatively, if you’re brand new to project management, Google has a certification that doesn’t require prior experience. Like the PMP, this cert provides you with important knowledge and an experience boost.
  • Lastly, if you don’t want the hassle and pressure of certification, there are several project management resources on YouTube and via podcasts.

3. Basic Design Thinking

Design thinking may feel like the odd duck of this list. When you hear the word “design,” your brain may run to the stylish graphic designer. Or the tortured painter. You probably picture someone in the arts.

But design thinking is more universal than that. It’s a system for solving complex problems, and it has applications outside the world of Photoshop.

The Interaction Design Foundation provides a helpful definition:

Design Thinking is an iterative process in which we seek to understand the user, challenge assumptions, and redefine problems in an attempt to identify alternative strategies and solutions that might not be instantly apparent with our initial level of understanding.

With this in mind, we can begin to imagine business scenarios where design thinking would come in handy. Let’s say you’re tasked with identifying the solution to a problem — a critical piece of software your company uses has a nasty habit of crashing. What do you do?

It may be tempting to jump to an initial conclusion (buy better software). But design thinking would challenge you to think outside the box. To understand the nature of the problem, the issues and users at play, and alternatives.

In your career, you’ll be relied on to provide creative solutions. Use the design thinking framework to structure your analysis.

Start here:

  • If you’re flush with cash, IDEO is the name in design thinking. They have many courses and certificates available but beware of the sticker shock.
  • On the cheaper side, many of the major MOOC providers have courses in design thinking. Here’s one from Coursera and another from edX.
  • You can also look for a sale at Udemy. And LinkedIn Learning has a number of free options.

4. Public Speaking Expertise

Picture this scenario. You bring a deliverable to your boss after weeks of work. The two of you talk it through, with your boss providing some light feedback. But overall, she’s happy with the end product. As you wrap up, she says, “I’d like you to present this at our next divisional meeting.”

How do you feel at that moment?

If you haven’t spoken in public before, or haven’t in a while, you may feel your stomach jump into your throat. Fear and anxiety swelling up to overwhelm the pride that should dominate. You have to . . . talk?

Ok, now consider that same scenario if you’ve invested in public speaking practice. If you’ve taken the time to, at a minimum, get comfortable pushing through the initial panic that all speakers experience.

If you are confident in your public speaking skills, this request from your boss is a thrill. It’s a great chance for exposure to your senior leadership. And it’s a sign of trust from your manager.

Be ready for the moment.

Unlike the other skills on this list, public speaking has a pretty simple path to expertise. You need to speak. In front of people. A lot.

When it comes to public speaking, practice makes perfect. The speaking jitters are the primary source of your umms and ahhs, which can really distract from any core message. Of course, there are other tactics to speaking. But getting over your fear is half the battle.

So, you need at-bats. You need to seek out low-pressure opportunities to get in front of a group. Make your mistakes somewhere else, so by the time you get to the big show you’re ready.

Start here:

  • The most efficient way to refine your public speaking skills is by joining your local chapter of Toastmasters. Toastmasters is a non-profit focused on the art of talking in public. Their events are exactly the kind of low-stakes environment you want to practice in.
  • Whether you’re at Toastmasters or practicing at home, a simple technique that can really boost your public speaking is recording yourself. Set up your phone when you’re practicing at home. Or ask someone to record you when you take center stage at an event.
  • Lastly, continue to seek out speaking gigs. Reach out to your alma mater, your local nonprofit, or a professor at the local community college. Ask them if they have any need for guest speakers. Volunteer your time and build your skills.

Conclusion

Summer is almost here. As you plan out your vacation schedule, throw in a little dedicated learning time. This will help keep your mind sharp and your career growth.

If you’ve already got an area of interest in mind, go for it. Don’t fall into the age-old trap of thinking learning has to lead somewhere. The simple act of learning is its own reward.

And if you’re looking for some inspiration, consider picking up one of these four skills. The next time you have to manage a project or give a presentation, you’ll be glad you did.

(Oh, and one last thing . . . don’t forget to apply some sunscreen!)