17 Ways To Invest In Your Career Without Going Into Debt

Career Improvement For Less Than $1000

If you were handed $1000 to invest, where would you achieve the greatest payoff?

Let’s consider a few popular options:

  • Savings Accounts. Annual interest rates are 1-3%. Not much to get excited about there.
  • Dividend Stocks. A more interesting option with potential for growth, unfortunately there is also greater risk here. The S&P 500 dividend yield in 2015 was under 3%.
  • The classic ‘safe’ investment for many investors. Returns are sometimes better than savings account and sometimes less.
  • Your Career. Learning additional skills and growing your network? That could boost your income by 10%-20% this year.

Earlier this year, I read The Last Safe Investment by Michael Ellsberg and Bryan Franklin. The authors make a compelling case for investing in skills and networks instead of traditional financial assets. Yet many people have an overly narrow definition of what it means to invest in their careers: going for a MBA degree, professional certification or high priced bootcamp.

If your goal is to work at Goldman Sachs or McKinsey & Company, then an Ivy League MBA is your best bet. Potentially, you could make the case for student loans though one needs to keep the drawbacks in mind (see the New York Times: Student Debt in America: Lend With a Smile, Collect With a Fist). For everybody else, there are other options that will provide a faster return with a lower upfront investment.

Before you sign up for a crippling student loan or pour hours into studying for the GMAT, use these 17 strategies to boost your career.

Lay A Foundation For Success: 5 Daily Career Habits

Habits are a fascinating topic that I recommend everyone study. When you leverage good habits, you are able to make steady progress on your goals each day without giving much thought to them. The investment in this case is in changing your daily practices. Use the Tiny Habits approach to get started with habit development.

1. Read Your Annual Goals Each Day Before Writing Your Todo List

What’s the first thing you do each day at the office once you log into your PC? If you’re like me, you probably login to your PC, fire up Outlook and scan through email. In my case, the login procedure to the corporate network takes several minutes. That’s a golden opportunity to plan the day in less than 5 minutes. Here’s what you do.

  • Read through your annual performance goals.
  • Reflect on where you are making progress and where you are falling short
  • Write three “mini-goals” for the day that will move you toward achieving your goals.

2. Work On “The One Thing” For Your Job For The First Hour Of The Day

After you review your goals, what’s next? It’s time to invest an hour in a high value activity before anything else comes up. After all, the work day will only become busier.

For sales professionals, that could be a mix of following up on leads and calling prospects. For technology professionals, it could be designing a test for a new high impact feature.

Resource: Not sure what your most important goal should be? I suggest reading “The one thing : the surprisingly simple truth behind extraordinary results” by Gary Keller and Jay Papasan.

3. Ask For Micro-Feedback

Feedback is helpful yet few people seek it out. Even fewer take that feedback into account and improve their daily work. If asking for feedback feels scary or uncomfortable, start with micro-feedback:

  • How did that meeting go?
  • Did the analysis I delivered yesterday answer your question?
  • How can we improve the customer experience?

Resource: The 5 Best Times And Ways To Ask For Feedback

4. Ask For The Bigger Picture

Specialization is a double edged sword. It creates value because you learn how to perform tasks better than a generalist. However, it also means you miss out on understanding what other people do. I recently learned that a monthly report I produce for another department is directly tied to $100,000 of annual revenues. I had delivered the report month after month for over a year before I asked how it was used. This insight helped me see this task in a new way (“oh this report actually has a revenue impact!”).

Here are a few ways to ask for the bigger picture:

  • What do you do with this document?
  • Who reads the report?
  • If I stopped doing this task, what would happen?

5. Record Your Daily Wins

In late 2015, I started to make daily notes about the work tasks I accomplished in Evernote. To remind myself, I set a reminder alarm for 4:40pm and it has been helpful. This practice is helpful in at least two ways: first, it motivates to have three worthy items to put into the log each day. Second, I periodically review the entries and look for patterns and gaps. It’s interesting to see a mix of small daily tasks and building up wins that relate to larger goals. Here are a few ways to put this habit into action:

  • Use Evernote (tip: if your company blocks Evernote, you can use the Evernote app on your iPhone – that’s what I do)
  • Use a text document (make sure that you back it up!)
  • Use a habit reminder app to remind yourself (I like Coach.me)
  • Make sure one of your daily wins relates to your One Thing

Investing $1,000 (or less) In Your Career: Little Hinges Swing Big Doors

Targeted investments in your career have tremendous power to grow your career. Choose two methods from this list to grow your career for less than $1,000 (most of the strategies will are under $200) this summer. Think of these approaches as a way to become an angel investor for your career.

6. Attend Local Events

Going to events is a powerful way to grow your network, spark creativity and add new insights. What if you can’t afford to get on a plane and visit a conference in person? Are there other options to consider? Yes! Here are ten ideas to help you find local professional events to grow your career:

  • Meetup.com: Meetup is a great place to connect with other people. For business, I find Meetup is strongest in the area of technology, startups and marketing. You might be out of luck if you want to find a supply chain management group (though you could always start your Meetup group for a small fee).
  • Ten Thousand Coffees. This one-on-one social network is designed to bring together people interested in meeting over coffee. I’ve used the service and found it interesting.
  • Local Chapter of the Project Management Institute. With over one hundred chapters in the United States and Canada (and more around the world), local chapters are an excellent way to learn new project management methods like agile, find out about project management software and more.
  • Eventbrite. This popular ticket platform has many different events and it takes some digging to find good ones. For example, you can find Discover Your Personal Brand, an annual event in Toronto that costs less than $200 and packs plenty of value.
  • Chamber of Commerce. Most cities and towns have chambers of commerce or business associations. In Toronto, I have benefited from attending Toronto Board of Trade events. Like other organizations mentioned, you don’t need to buy a membership in order to attend events.
  • Alumni Association Events. Many colleges and universities have alumni associations which are great learning resources. Over the past few years, the University of Toronto has put on excellent career oriented programs covering networking, communication and other topics through their Shaker event series. Check with your institution to see what they have available.
  • Charity Events. Attending a charity event is an interesting way to connect with other people in your city and industry. There are many different options to consider ranging from museum fundraisers to charity auctions. Start by looking for charities you already support and ask what events they have/
  • Guided Events/Tours. How much of your city have you explored? Exploring your city on a tour is an interesting way to expand your knowledge. Toronto has ROM Walks that cover different parts of the city. While this type of event is not limited to business professionals, you never know who you will meet. The new perspective you gain will boost creativity.
  • StartupGrind. For those interested in the technology industry, StartupGrind is an interesting organization to explore. Founders of companies in ecommerce, apps and other fields regularly give presentations about their firms. At the time of this writing, StartupGrind has a presence in 200 cities covering more than 80 countries.
  • Hack Events. There is a whole category of events with “hack” in them that are worth exploring. Finding these events involves spending a bit of quality time with Google search. Start by searching “CITY hackathon” (e.g. New York City hackaton).

7. Obtain Your DISC Profile To Understand Your Strengths and Weaknesses

Through my study of Manager Tools’s excellent podcasts, I have found great value in the DISC profile. This assessment helps you to better understand your communication and interpersonal strengths. That’s valuable for two reasons: you will better understand how to focus on your strengths. Second, you will find out where you have gaps relating to others.

Tip: A significant amount of conflict can be traced to different communication styles and preferences. DISC (and Manager Tools’s podcasts) will help you to reduce that miscommunication clashes.

8. Join Toastmasters

Few international organizations match Toastmasters in value and longevity. For under $100 per year, you can improve your career by giving short speeches, running meetings and taking on leadership roles. I was a member a few years ago and I’m thinking to join again.

Resource: How To Become Successful With Toastmasters

9. Take An Online Course

Online courses have received mixed reviews due to widely varying quality and content. On the one hand, there are well respected offerings such as Cornell, Coursera, Lynda (free through Toronto Public Library and other institutions) and Udemy. On the other hand, “Trump University” has triggered lawsuits from highly disappointed students (e.g. Former Trump University Workers Call the School a ‘Lie’ and a ‘Scheme’ in Testimony).

Use these tips to evaluate online courses:

  • Course outline. Is there a course outline available? Does it cover topics at the right level of detail for your needs (e.g. introduction vs advanced)?
  • Reviews. Are there comments or reviews from past students? Are they detailed?
  • Goal alignment. Does this course advance your career goals? If you are signing up to study something “trendy” (e.g. cyber security) that does attract your interest, then be aware you may be facing an uphill battle in maintaining your attention.
  • Homework. Homework assignments are important if you are going to build a skill or acquire knowledge. Some of the best courses provide written feedback on homework or have “office hours” sessions where students can ask questions.
  • Instructor. Does the instructor have the right knowledge and capability to teach the course? Instructor credibility comes in different shapes and sizes. In a scientific field, holding an advanced degree may be helpful. In other cases, extensive research or publishing in the field may help. While learning from a top expert has value, there is also much to be gained from an expert who is a few steps ahead of you because they can better understand a novice student’s questions and concerns (i.e. reduced ‘curse of knowledge‘ problem).

10. Commission A Professional Photo For LinkedIn

A high quality photo for your LinkedIn profile sets you apart from other people. My LinkedIn profile photo cost less than $100 and it was great. I was fortunate to have a friend who gave me a great deal. Use the following tips to obtain a better LinkedIn profile photo:

11. Take A “Night School” Course With A College or University

I’m fortunate to live in Toronto where there are three universities and multiple colleges. Most of these institutions offer great continuing education programs. For less than $1000, you can take an introduction to accounting. Or you can take an introduction to wines. (Yes, I’ve done both of those!). If you want to boost the value of the experience, take a course in person, introduce yourself to the instructor and your fellow students.

Here are some examples to start your research process:

Improving Your Network

Every week, I have another conversation or read another article that emphasizes the value of networking and relationships. It’s important. Yet, the knowledge-execution gap persists. Here are a few tactics that will break down the “develop your network” into concrete actions.

12. Send Thank You Notes

This simple practice goes a long way. I suggest sending both thank you cards in the mail and sending them by email. Need to be convinced? Consider these findings from the Harvard Medical School on gratitude.

Did somebody help you with an Excel problem a month ago? Send them a thank you email right now (just a few sentences go a long way).

13. Introduce Two People In Your Network

This week, I’ve sent two introduction emails. One was introduce friends in the legal profession. The other was to introduce people in the banking industry.

If somebody asks you for help or information and you don’t have it, keep this tip in mind. Making introductions is an excellent way to help other people in a short span of time.

14. Do A “Get Back In Touch” Challenge

In networking, most people immediately put their focus on meeting new people (especially networking with powerful people). If you are looking to break into a new industry or if you just moved to a new city, that makes sense. Yet, this approach often means neglect for your existing contacts. What’s the solution? Take a page from Anna Runyan and implement the 4×4 challenge (reconnect with 4 past connections and meet 4 new people in a month.

15. Endorse Two People On LinkedIn For Their Top Skills

Skill endorsements are one way to show support for your connections on LinkedIn. There are some people who indiscriminately endorse people. Don’t be one of those people. If someone helped you design a better presentation in PowerPoint, endorse them for presentations or PowerPoint. Use these articles for further ideas on endorsements:

16. Ask For A Recommendation On LinkedIn

Asking for favors is part of networking. Asking a past client, manager or colleague for an endorsement is a great way to set yourself apart from other people. These short comments, typically one or two paragraphs, go a long way toward boosting your credibility.

17. Follow Up On Advice You Receive

Let’s say you meet the mentor of your dreams – the one with connections, power and knowledge.

She gives you one specific suggestion – read a strategy book, attend a conference, set goals or something else. What happens next? Based on my research, most people do nothing when they receive suggestions. That’s a lost opportunity.

Pause for a moment and think back to a suggestion you’ve received. Now, put that idea into action. Once you have some results, send an email to the person who suggested that idea about your experience. This method yields two benefits for your career: you execute helpful advice and you have an excellent reason to reconnect with a senior person.


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5 thoughts on “17 Ways To Invest In Your Career Without Going Into Debt

  1. Great article! I’m a current member of Toastmasters and also taking online courses from Coursera. Both are absolutely invaluable for personal development and strengthening your leadership skills. I’m interested in trying a couple of your other suggestions.