If there is a time of peak importance for career management, it’s when you’re in your late twenties. This likely seems counterintuitive, as your peak earning years (unless you are a professional athlete) are likely to be later in life. So why, then, are your late twenties so important? Here are just a handful of reasons:
- You’re well out school and have been in the workforce for several years. You’ve maybe even had several jobs already or tried your hand at some different things. You’re a “real adult” now, and you have a better sense of what you want to do long term and what you don’t
- Career options are going to start falling away. This is natural. Some are just not going to be attainable. For example, most of us lost the option of being a professional athlete at conception. Some career paths won’t appeal to you. Some won’t pay you enough, and unless you left school with mountains of loans to repay, your financial expectations and obligations are likely more of a factor than they were when you immediately left school. Other career paths just won’t be offered to you in a job search. After all, companies are less willing to take a gamble on you than they might have been early in your career.
- Advancement opportunities start to become more limited. Even in your mid-to-late twenties, promotions are going to be harder to earn than they were when you were fresh out of school. After all, the pyramid gets smaller with each step up.
- You’re in a relationship, married, or perhaps even in the throes of parenthood. Work needs to be put in the context of the rest of your life – now as much as ever. Other people likely depend on you to manage your work-life balance. Or perhaps your partner lives in another city, forcing you to consider whether you maintain a long-distance relationship or agree that one of you gives up your current job and moves. Or one of you travels for work, meaning that the other needs to stay local to take care of the kids
- You’ve perhaps taken one of the traditional “buying time, keeping options open” paths, like consulting, banking, or accounting. Now is the time to consider whether you want to stay in those tracks or shift into something different. Don’t just stay in these “safe bets” just because they’re convenient or pay well. You’ll regret it later
- Or you went to grad school to earn a professional degree, develop skills or give yourself more time to figure out what you wanted to do. Now you need to do just that
For any one or more of these reasons, your mid-to-late twenties represent one of the most important inflection points in your career. It’s around this time when professional paths start to diverge. The stars emerge on a wholly different trajectory. The bold make bets, ones that may or may not pay off.
Most people start to coast or go on auto-pilot, even if they don’t realize they’re doing so at the time. This isn’t to say that you should “double down” on work and turn into a workaholic. Rather, the point is that now is the time to take your first real – and informed – step back and consider what you want in your professional life, even if it’s just looking out over the next 3-5 years.
Make Your Career Plan for Early 20s (and Beyond)
To position yourself for the years ahead, we recommend that you take five actions now, before you get any further into your career. Think of these recommendations as five things you should do before your fifth reunion.
First and foremost, take ownership of your professional life.
This is where you need to fully move beyond whatever expectations your parents had for you and take accountability for your career choices. Admittedly, this isn’t always easy.
The news recently included the story of Jane Lu, CEO of Showpony. After she quit her accounting job and began working on her start-up, she went as far as dressing for her prior role and commuting alongside her mother to a job she no longer had, to hide what she was doing from her parents. It wasn’t until her company blossomed into an almost $50 million business and she paid off her parent’s mortgage that she finally acknowledged what she’d really been doing.
While you hopefully won’t have to lie to or hide the truth from your parents, don’t leave things in the hands of them, your siblings, your spouse or partner, your friends, your manager, your company, or anyone else who may be trying to pull your career strings at the moment. Take charge if you haven’t done so already, and be the boss of your career from here onward.
Figure yourself out.
This is the time to really look inside yourself – what’s important to you, what you’re passionate about, what your strengths – or superpowers – are, how you like to work, how work fits into your life (at least for now), and your financial and other obligations.
This self-reflection gives you some structure to think about your desired industry, function, role, etc. as well as whether you want to work for a big company, a mid-sized one, or a start-up, or whether you should do your own thing, a side hustle, or maybe even a portfolio of things.
It also gives you a good idea of your tolerance for professional risk, like whether to quit your job and join a fledgling firm for the promise of equity, or if you can afford to step out of the workforce and travel for a period of time, as more and more twenty-somethings seem to be doing these days.
To better understand yourself, do whatever assessments you need to solidify your self-understanding. There are many options available, from Myers-Briggs and its many copycats, to DISC, Big 5, Holland, Hogan and others.
In addition to doing these self-assessments, ask your family, friends, colleagues to weigh in on what you are really good at, what you are not so good at, what lights you up, what brings you down, etc.
While they shouldn’t be the ones telling you what to do with your professional life, they’ll see a side of you that you might not see in yourself, which can inform your own judgment on how to manage your career and to minimize the risk of not seeing a blind spot you might have.
Develop a plan.
Write a career vision. It doesn’t have to be your ‘forever’ vision, but it’s your vision for now.
Alternatively, define your personal brand and how you want to be viewed in the world. Consider why you think you can be successful in pursuing this vision or personal branding, and what you need to do – especially over the next few years – to achieve it.
Write some career goals and an early career plan, one that covers this week, this month, this quarter, this year, etc. Set your plan aside for a while, reflect on your goal in mind, try it out on some people whose opinions you value, and refine it as you see fit (not how others see fit). Get others on board and get them committed to helping you.
Work out your rough spots and issues.
Get some coaching, see a therapist, address addictions, get your relationships in order, or cut out the toxic people in your life – whatever it takes to get you in as good a place as possible so you can focus on your success and not get derailed. This process is also about making peace with your life and getting comfortable in your own skin.
It’s really important, even if it doesn’t feel directly related to how you’re managing your career. Too many people ignore the need to work on themselves and end up sub-optimizing – or even torpedoing – their careers.
Therapy in particular can work wonders. A colleague recently described to me how therapy helped her thrive at work even as she was digging out of a very bad bout of depression. She indicated it also put her in a position where she finally got comfortable with herself and broke a pattern of being self-critical that had held her back in the past.
View yourself as a professional at what you do
Get a coach, just like a professional athlete would. Hiring a coach doesn’t have to be ultra-expensive. There are coaches out there at a very broad range of price points, and what’s most important is that you find one who is the right fit for you.
A good coach can make a world of difference. You can choose to see them only once per quarter if that’s all you can afford. Consider as well that you are probably already spending more money on coffee or wine, and their benefits are less durable.
In sum, your mid-to-late twenties are the latest point at which you should begin to embody the entrepreneurial notion of the Start-Up of You. It’s where you really start to pursue your purpose. And it’s where you commit to running your own race, not running the race others want you to run or getting obsessed with how your race compares to others on social media.
Again, this isn’t about making work your life. It’s about making work what you want it to be. It’s about being purposeful about what you do every day and intentional about the direction you want to head. It’s about owning your successful career, get to it.
Note: If you want to do a quick Career Health Check (something we strongly advocate doing annually), use our free Career Journey assessment and feel free to revisit it for comparison purposes in the years ahead.