Here are three things I’ve learned one should do in their twenties in order to avoid regret and disappointment later on in their professional life.
1. Gain insight into your strengths
I didn’t realize I was going in the wrong career direction until I started looking at my strengths and seriously listening to feedback from those around me. My strengths are slowly processing abstract information, writing, and a strong interest in highly niche philosophical areas. Becoming an academic researcher and university professor plays to my strengths. The problem was that for most of my life I had my eyes set on a career in policing because it was a secure route with a good pension and I couldn’t think of any other career ideas at the time.
At one point I also took an office admin job that I had failed at quite miserably. With its fast-paced multitasking and lack of intellectual stimulation, I can honestly say I found it easier to do a doctorate in sociology than to work in that role. Rather than trying to fit in with what everyone else is doing or what you may be expected to do, play to your strengths, even if it results in taking a less conventional route.
Knowing your strengths and weaknesses is key to setting yourself up for success later in life. Take a serious look at your life, beginning from your early childhood. What types of things have you always been drawn to? What type of temperament or personality traits do you have? How can you use these to your competitive advantage? Sit down with someone you trust to give you honest feedback on your strengths and weaknesses. The sooner you start playing to your strengths, the more time you will have to build on your competitive advantage and set yourself up for success in your thirties onward.
2. Develop a passion through specialized skills
There are no shortage of millennials trying to “find their passion.” twenty-somethings in America are enthralled by entrepreneurial pursuits that can bring meaning to their work-lives. The problem is that with this increasing level of flexibility there is also an increasing level of uncertainty.
Rather than trying to “follow your passion,” I say, “make your passion follow you.” This means knowing your strengths and putting in the work first, then your passion for that work will likely grow as you progress in the area. Passion is earned. Vocations are not handed to the amateur, they are achieved by walking the path and doing the work. Vocations can be shape-shifters, outlets for one’s craft that don’t necessarily take on a stable or specified form.
In So Good They Can’t Ignore You, Cal Newport urges us to be like craftsmen of our skills. The craftsman mindset allows passion to serendipitously emerge through one’s work, distinct from the passion-centered mindset which fixates on a pre-existing set of ideal conditions. He gives the example of Steve Jobs’ “messy” career path, stating, “Steve Jobs was something of a conflicted young man, seeking spiritual enlightenment and dabbling in electronics only when it promised to earn him quick cash.” He became passionate in the tech business only after developing his skills in this area and walking the path to mastery.
As I neared the end of my doctoral degree in sociology, I have discovered how relevant this advice truly is. Throughout my grad school career, I have been asked repeatedly, “what are you going to do with that degree?” To which I always replied, “the only job available for someone with this degree: research and teach in a university setting.” As much as I would love to land a tenure-track professorship, I now recognize that my passion for writing, analytical inquiry, and strategic problem-solving are not dependent on the university context. I am now broadening my horizon by contributing to projects outside the walls of academia. When your passion is based on your skills, losing your job can’t even take that away. Your passion will follow you so long as you put in the work.
3. Grind, hustle, and live simply
If you want to be on track in your thirties onward, your twenties should be a time for massive investment in yourself. By this I mean gaining the skills, knowledge, and networks that will lay a strong foundation for your career and social life. This requires a long-term mindset. Like the game of monopoly, the goal is to invest, invest, invest, and wait for the payout.
Long-term investment in yourself during your twenties is made all the more difficult nowadays when bombarded with social media posts making it seem like everyone else is super rich and traveling all the time. Delayed gratification is a true virtue when laying the foundation for your future success.
My own version of self-investment was nine years of university education packed with reading, writing, and re-reading abstract sociological texts, coupled with rapidly consuming a large chunk of content coming out of the personal development genre. Along the way I witnessed others around me rake in the cash at their “real jobs,” traveling the globe, and stocking designer wardrobes. Submitting to the process requires short-term sacrifices, but you will look back in your thirties and beyond, thanking yourself for laying a strong foundation for your own definition of success.
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