Psychology Sociology

What I Learned in my Twenties

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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45 comments

  1. Your advice is solid and will prove invaluable to those who follow it-assuming they are young enough to do so. Even at an older age, there is great wisdom in what you have written. Although there are no “do overs” in life, if I had one, I would have grabbed onto # 1, and developed # 2 more fully. Number 3 has been with me since I can recall. Speaking from personal experience as a boomer, I have sought most of my adult life what I was best meant for and how to harness that insight and develop the passion and guts to pursue it. I am just now coming to terms with all of this. P.S. Thanks for following my blog. I am honored.

  2. Great post! I graduated with a BA English but like you, pursued a career in the medical field because it had high demand. I subsequently dropped out 6 months before graduating as I had an epiphany one day, asking myself if I’d be happy and fulfilled reporting to an operating room everyday and standing in long cases ( it was a Surgical tech position).
    For awhile I dabbled in pursuing an MFA in English/Creative writing but the return on investment doesn’t seem to be there. It might be a lauded pursuit academically but definitely not financially, as the last school I was considering would be $755/ credit. A full load of 12 credits is roughly $9K and some change.
    After talking with professors who wrote my letters of recommendation and peers who already have an MFA, I decided to save the money for now. But I think writing is a great cathartic past time for sure. But it’s not easy to make a living off it. That’s what no one really tells you in college.

  3. Oh I wish I had all the writing skills you all have.
    Coming from Europe and English being my second language I know my vocabulary it is not as big as Yours all is for sure…
    Kind of decided not every one has the same knowledge and that is ok for me….
    But I truly enjoyed reading your post on follow your passion and let the passion follow you in a more simpler way than yours Steve.
    Love your post
    Thanks for sharing it with us

  4. Thank you, I am enthralled by the accuracy of your intuitive thoughts and perception. Seriously I wished I had taken what you wrote very seriously. Yeah I developed my passion as but however wasnt into it. I’m getting to the big third 0 this year and I am bit dissapointed in my accomplishments. There is always room for adjustments and improvement.

    Thanks for sharing

  5. Great advice for anyone in their 20s who is trying to determine their life’s direction. Self-investment can be hard and reward is often a time coming however it is something that is necessary for any individual looking to be the best they can be. There are many individuals in the world today that do not understand this concept. Thank you for your intelligent and helpful insights.

  6. Reblogged this on Tannachton Farm and commented:
    This insight has probably been around since the beginning of time; but this is the first time i listened! Had i listened when i was twentysomething – it surely would have resulted in a great deal more wisdom and wise decisions.

  7. So, is your suggestion of investing in yourself better than watching your friends rake in the cash and living large? This is a great post and i’d like to reblog it on mine if’n it’s okay with ya. 😉

    1. I would say that investing in yourself is the best route, but it does not necessarily mean being poor. Sometimes your route to self-investment can be quite lucrative, as in getting an entry-level job that pays well and offers a great deal of training.

  8. Steve, I smiled as I read your post, for many reasons. Your focus and determination is unusual. I hope you’ll be open to one faint cry from the other side of the hill (as in the hill I’m over) and that is, leave yourself open for serendipity. There are so many unexpected paths life can take us down, and sometimes it’s on the unexpected path that we meet ourselves.

  9. Steve… brilliant and inspiring! Thank you for sharing your story and what you have learnt… I think a lot of people (myself included) will connect with this and encourage them to pursue their dreams!

  10. Borrowing some wisdom from Delorese Ambrose: on the path of Power, we start isolated, form associations, and gain the rewards of achievement. Then people learn how to do what made us unique, and we fall off the pedestal (usually the “middle-age crisis”). Then comes a time of introspection in which we realize that our success was actually rooted in the creation of our self. Possession of that skill means that we can do anything we want, which leads to a period of power based upon a chosen purpose, pursued with a focus and determination that entrain behind us those seeking meaning. The last stage of power is wisdom, which Ambrose characterized paradoxically as a state of influence that is yet dependent upon others to implement our visions.

    That long introduction aside, I hope that you’ll see the compliment in this: Steve, I hope that you find a fulfilling purpose!

  11. because you haven’t realized yet that your forte, Steve, is writing, you’re still vying for something else, something else that you feel might be more achievable, valid, less ephemeral, I can hear it in every sentence, reach for your star, but don’t stop writing, that’ll be your path to getting there, cause, Steve, you can really write – all the very best, Richard

    1. Steve: I’ve written professionally for 30 years. I agree with Richard that you’re an excellent writer (and equally important to success: you seem to have a good sense of what people want to read). That still doesn’t equate, in my mind, to writing-as-career. Writing for broad audiences is one of the finest tools in a scholar’s kit. It makes the difference between the scholar who can influence a culture and the scholar who remains locked in the academy. And from where I sit, here in the US, the conceptual framework you bring to your doctoral work is unusual enough that we’re lucky to have you lecturing at E. Michigan. Keep digging and keep writing. We all benefit from a wider view of the truth.

  12. Sounds like you went throught what E.Erikson called Identity vs. Role Confusion stage in your twenties, and the thing is that that stage is supposedly for the teenage years, but people are delaying growing up in this day and age, which, is why a lot of people who are now in their thirties are still trying on the various identities to see which one suited them best, but i’m glad that you found your direction in life.

  13. Great writing. Great advice. At my old age, I regret few things for the regrets would be too many, too late and futile. That said, it would have been nice had I grown up a lot sooner than I did. I have been consistently impressed by your posts and, I admit, more than a bit envious of your writing skills.

  14. Sound advice. I wish someone had told me this back in my 20s but I stumbled upon it anyways by being dissatisfied in other jobs and knowing I wanted to be my own boss. I later started my own business by simply using my skills which I learned to market and got a pretty extensive client base which has kept me in business the past 18yrs. But I’m ready for a change now so I’m in the process of switching gears as I pursue another passion which I hope can earn me a decent living way into my golden years.

      1. My writing. Happy new year to you too!

        Let everyday be a mini celebration of something or for someone important in your life and by the time 2016 is over you would have lived a full year abundantly hopefully with no regrets!

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