Deep Thoughts

4 Essential Tips To Build A Great Career In Your 20s

Ok, folks, we’re going to get real about building a career in your 20’s.

There are a lot of myths, lies and confusing statements out there, so we’re going to debunk a few and focus on what does work.

Here are a few things we’re going to explore.

  • Why following your passion is terrible advice.
  • Why you don’t need to have it all ‘figured out’.
  • You can choose not to do something you studied.
  • You don’t need to know what you will do in the next 5 years.

Don’t follow your passion

Of all the thoughts that derailed me the most and seem stupid now, I’m in my late thirties is the notion that we need to follow our passion.

It’s closely followed by another ill-conceived bit of advice on chasing happiness. But, we’ll leave that tale for another day. I imagine you think that I must be crazy at this point.

You’ve probably heard the regurgitated advice of following your passion all your life.

The problem with this advice is its lack of specificity.

If we all followed our passion and were highly skilled in those passions, the world would be unbalanced. 

Those who recommend this advice are typically in the 1% of careers, e.g musicians, actors, CEO’s and such. They don’t represent 99% of the population.

This is why such advice is dangerous in the career game.

As a learning and performance strategist, I’ve spent the past two decades advising, mentoring and coaching others in various stages of their career journey.

And can you guess the most popular question that emerged all this time?

I don’t know what I’m passionate about.

This is something I’ve covered in depth in my How to win in the Careerverse playbook. Don’t worry, I can reassure you that’s absolutely fine. 99% of the world has no idea what they’re passionate about. Especially when it comes to earning a living from that.

Let me share an example with you.

I’m passionate about keeping physically fit. I have my garage gym, keep up to date with the latest health insights and purchase products in this space.

Although I’m passionate about this space, I would be the worse personal trainer. Why? Simple, my skills don’t fit that world. I’m pretty introverted, so having to speak to other humans for more than 2 minutes already makes me feel exhausted.

Passion doesn’t predict what we’re good at doing.

We all have different passions. You may not label them as passions, yet they are things of interest to you. Generally, we love them because they are a break from our work.

However, 99% of the time, trying to find a passion and make money from it is a bad idea.

It works for some, yes. But let’s treat these as outliers to the game of careers. If you want to build a rewarding career that might well turn into something you become passionate about and bring moments of happiness, then I have a suggestion for you.

Professor Scott Galloway on the deception of passion

Dump passion, do this instead

We’ve framed the problem.

Now let’s explore a solution.

Open a word doc or grab a notebook, and write down the answers to these questions:

  • What am I great at and why?
  • What do I enjoy and why?
  • Where is that combination most valued?

The purpose of this exercise is to think deeply about what you’re good at, and what gives you joy and find the place where you can maximise those.

This is a far better use of your time than trying to find ‘your passion’.

Your career doesn’t need to be something which you’re 100% passionate about. Trust me, no matter how passionate you might be about something. We all have days where we hate it and love it.

Too many people are obsessed with finding their passion whilst friends and family pass them by building their careers. 

Don’t be that person.

To close this section. Here’s one of my favourite quotes to share from an old mentor of mine:

“True happiness beats in your chest. Work out what you like to do best and try to do more of that. Don’t torture yourself pondering the purpose of life. It’s here, it’s now & it won’t last forever, so enjoy it.”

I don’t know the plan, do you?

From a young age, society puts a stupid amount of pressure on us to figure out big life choices early.

In our early school years, we’re asked to choose the major subjects in which we’ll study so we can progress to higher education. Once we reach higher education, we’re forced to figure out what we might want to do for the rest of our careers.

I mean, pressure, much?

I don’t know who came up with this system. But, to ask those under 18 “what do you want to do for the rest of your lives” and “You need to pick the subjects to study to get there now” is crazy.

Most of us are trying to fight our teenage hormones and all the drama that brings whilst juggling the latest popular Netflix shows. Do you think we have any idea what we want to do for the rest of our lives at that age?

The truth of the matter is you don’t need to have it all figured out.

You will find that very few people sit in a career for which they studied.

Again, outliers exist to this but for the 99%, most will be doing a role that they were not educated for. And that’s fine.

When you pick your majors, college or university and first job. You don’t need to have it all figured out.

Life is a crazy ride; many things reveal themselves the deeper you go.

As the famous Roosevelt quote goes “Do what you can, with what you have, where you are”. I’m paraphrasing that but you get the idea.

Don’t put pressure on yourself to have it figured all out.

In reality, no one does. We’re just all trying to figure out what we should do next based on where we are today. That’s not always so apparent in your 20s when you just start.

You can detour from the degree

A lot of people, and I mean a lot, don’t end up in a career that has anything to do with their degree.

That’s not a problem.

People change, motivations change and so will what you want to do long term. There’s nothing worse than studying a subject and then going to do the actual thing to only find out it bores the hell outta you.

It happens, yet we have choices.

Having spent my career with large retailers and technology companies in both the corporate and start-up world, I’ve come across a lot of intelligent and well-educated people.

I find few who are in a career that their degree was designed for.

That doesn’t mean they failed.

It just means we have a disconnection between degrees and the world of careers (I’ve written more about that before).

The world of careers and the skills required to navigate this world move fast. Sadly the world of education does not move as fast.

Many careers today didn’t exist 10 years ago.

Pivoting to a role that wasn’t what you trained for is not a bad thing. In many cases, it could be a good thing.

The world needs more people who have deep expertise in a variety of skills and not just one core area. These people, often referred to as T-shaped professionals, will have greater currency in the career market.

I think of degrees as a ticket to the career show. It’s an admittance only. You have to figure out what you’re good at and what’s best for you once you’re in. The good news is time is on your side.

The future is Tuesday morning

Conversations on career development planning make me very excited.

To help another person structure their thoughts from aspirations into a plan to make those a reality is incredibly rewarding. I also find it to be an equally cathartic experience for the person seeking guidance.

A common misconception that arises, even to this day when I speak with those in their 20s, is the need to have a 5-year plan.

I don’t know what genius thought this was a good idea (perhaps it was a marketer actually) but it doesn’t serve us well in practice.

Many of us struggle to know what we want to do in the next 6 months let alone the next 5 years. This type of timeline is not worth investing in.

Instead, I’d encourage you to think about your career in mini-sprints.

In almost all ways a career is a marathon. They can go on for 50–60 years or more. No one can know what the entirety of that journey will look like and how boring would it be if we did, right? 

This is why I find it useful to break down your journey into what you do know today and what you can see.

Don’t try and plan more than 6 months ahead, do less if needed.

Life moves so fast that what you thought last week might be different next week. 

This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t have a structure in place. Guardrails for your career are useful. That doesn’t mean you need to have a long-term bulletproof plan.

As we’ve already covered, make moves based on what you know today.

Recognise your capabilities and identify areas where you need to make improvements in the short term. You’ll find that all those little things can add up to big wins. Don’t be afraid to grow slowly either. Remember, it’s a marathon, not a sprint.

Before you go… 👋

If you like my writing and think “Hey, I’d like to hear more of what this guy has to say” then you’re in luck.

You can join me every Tuesday morning for more tools, templates and insights for the modern L&D pro in my weekly newsletter.

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