We’re all for flexibility. Going your own way. Paving your own path. Doing what works for you (and not doing what doesn’t).
We’re also big fans of not putting a timeline on things. We’ve even said that there are plenty of things you don’t have to have by 30 (or 40, or 50, or ever...).
But when it comes to your career, there are some things that we do recommend getting started on sooner rather than later. Not because some all-knowing career god out there says you have to, but because you’ll make your professional future—not to mention day-to-day work life—a whole lot easier.
So, do you need to check every box off this list by the time you’re 35? Definitely not. But, consider it a list of suggestions that, if taken, can have a really big impact on your career.
1. Really Refine Your Elevator Pitch
While it will obviously change from time to time, you should never have a hard time answering, “What do you do?” In fact, you should be so good at it that people will never forget.
So, really spend some time figuring out what message you want to get across when people ask about your career. Communication expert Alexandra Franzen has an exercise to help.
2. Know Your Superpower
Or, in other words, know the one thing that you’re truly amazing at.
Serial entrepreneur Tina Roth Eisenberg says that all the most successful people she’s met know exactly what they’re best at: John Maeda, who led the MIT Media Lab and Rhode Island School of Design, responded with “curiosity.” Maria Popova, who curates the popular Brain Pickings blog, said “doggedness.” Eisenberg’s own superpower is enthusiasm. See how to find your own super power, here.
3. Know Your Weakness
On the other end of the spectrum, it’s key to know what you’re not so great at. Not to make you feel bad—not in the least!—but to help you know who you should hire and work with to complement your skill set and what tasks you should delegate (so you can spend more time on what you’re great at).
On that note:
4. Learn How to Delegate
No one can do it all, and especially as you climb the career ladder, you’re going to need to know the difference between the things you should be spending your time on and the things you shouldn’t.
And, perhaps more importantly, be able to effectively and comfortably delegate to others—interns, staff members, your partner, your childcare provider, you get the picture. These 10 rules of successful delegation will help you do it right.
5. Know Your Career Non-Negotiables
You’re going to have a lot of opportunities come your way in life, and you don’t want to waste energy agreeing to things that really don’t line up with what you want to be doing.
So, really be honest about what you want and need out of your career, and then come up with a list of non-negotiables that you can use as a guide next time you’re making a career decision. Writer Andrea Shields Nunez has some tips on creating them—and then actually enforcing them.
6. Do Something You’re Really, Really Proud Of
Whether or not it’s something you’ll be known for forever, something you get paid for doing, or even something you really want to do with your life, make sure you have something on your resume that, deep down, you’re really proud of.
7. Learn From Something You’re Not So Proud Of
We were going to add “fail at something” to this list, but that’s silly. Because, let’s face it, we’ve all failed miserably at one point or another.
What’s more important? Learning from that blunder and taking that lesson with you productively into the next stage of your career.
8. Stretch Your Limits
You know you can manage a 30-person meeting, but a 100-person multi-day travel conference? That might be stretching the limits of your skills.
Actually—this is exactly the type of stuff that you should try once in a while. After all, you’ll never really know how good you are until you step a bit outside of what you know.
9. Do Something That Really Scares You
This takes stretching your limits a bit further—we’re talking going way out of your comfort zone here.
Whether it’s speaking at a conference, going for a (big) promotion, or finally writing that memoir, why not try something that terrifies you at least once in the early stages of your career? As they say, big risks can lead to big-time rewards.
10. Get Comfortable With Getting Feedback
Hillary Clinton once said that her biggest piece of advice to young professionals is: “It’s important to take criticism seriously—not personally.” Meaning: Knowing where you’re not meeting expectations is the only way you’ll learn and grow as a professional, but taking every harsh word to heart is a fast way to make your confidence crumble.
So, take it from Hillz, and start taking feedback like a pro. Here are a few tips that’ll help.
11. Get Comfortable With Giving Feedback
Whether it’s telling your boss that his hourly drop-bys are really killing the team’s mojo or letting your direct report know that arriving to meetings on time is, in fact, required, giving feedback is a necessary part of getting what you need and being a happy professional.
Learn how to give it well, ideally sooner rather than later. Here are some pointers.
12. Get Comfortable With Saying “No”
For just being two measly letters long, “no” seems to be one of the hardest words in the English language for many of us to say. But it’s actually incredibly important for our careers (and our sanity!) that we learn to use it and stand behind it.
13. Have a Broad Network of People You Can Trust
We’ve said it before and we’ll say it again (probably at least twice a week for as long as we’re in business), the greatest asset you have in your career is your network.
And building relationships takes time, so start now. Here’s how.
14. Have a Couple of Specific Career Advisors
We’re not saying mentor here—because finding the right mentor shouldn’t have a timeline on it and because there are plenty of ways to succeed without one—but having a couple of people in your corner who can advise you on everything from a terrible boss to a career 180 is incredibly valuable.
And yes, this group of people can include your mom.
15. Scrub Your Online Presence
Increasingly, what shows up in Google and on your social media profiles is the first impression someone has of you. So, take some time to clean ’em up!
Change the privacy on any old or questionable photos. Delete any Facebook or Twitter posts that could be incriminating. Game your Google results to make sure the things you want showing up at the top do.
16. Perfect Your LinkedIn Profile
Speaking of those things you want showing up at the top, your LinkedIn profile is perhaps your most prime piece of online real estate. When a client, future employer, vendor, or professional contact is looking for you, guess where he or she will turn?
Yup, LinkedIn. So make sure your profile tells the story you want it to tell (our complete guide to a perfect LinkedIn profile walks you through the process).
17. Have a Portfolio of Your Best Work
Whether it’s a printed collection of articles, marketing campaigns, or annual reports you’ve worked on or a personal website showcasing your skills, having a portfolio ready to go will make it easy for you to show your boss (or future boss) what you’ve got.
Here’s more on why you need one, plus some easy ways to get started today.
18. Know How to Sell (Yourself or Something Else)
Yes, even if you never envision a career in cold calling. The truth is, whether you’re pitching an idea to your boss or writing a cover letter about why you’re the perfect candidate, you’re going to be selling something to someone at some point.
Get started on your own personal sales education with these tips.
19. Know How to Negotiate
Because, in most cases, it’s the only way you’re going to get what you want and deserve.
If you’ve never done it before, we recommend starting small (asking your boss to, say, pay for a pricey upcoming conference), and checking out these articles that are jam-packed with actionable advice (and motivation).
20. Know How to Manage Up
It’s a common misconception that you have to grin and bear it through a superior’s assignments, working style, or way of doing things, paying no regard to whether his or her demands are reasonable.
In fact, being able to manage up—or, communicate with your boss and advocate for what you need to do your job best—is a crucial job skill. Molly Donovan offers some tips for doing it well.
21. Know How to Send a Killer Email
You should never send an email that you’re not proud of (or wouldn’t be proud of if your boss saw) again.
So make sure you’re really putting care into the professional messages you send! Erin Greenawald has some tips from an editor’s perspective on how to write ones that are flawless. It may sound like a lot of effort, but we promise it’s worth it (and will get easier the more you do it).
22. Master Your Handshake
This sounds small, but a handshake is the quickest way to make (or break) an impression. (Fact: A Fortune 500 CEO once said that when he had to choose between two candidates with similar qualifications, he gave the position to the candidate with the better handshake.)
Learn how to do it right from an expert.
23. Find a To-Do List System That Works for You
Whether you need your list synced across all of your devices or you’re more of a pen-and-paper kind of guy or gal, commit to finding a to-do list that helps you manage your workflow in the best way possible.
Yes, you might change methods as you switch jobs or new apps are launched over time, but knowing what works, what doesn’t, and what you like and don’t like will make sure that you always have what you need to be your most productive self.
24. Know Your Energy Levels—and Use Them
There’s nothing worse (or less productive) than trying to work when you’re not at your best. You shouldn’t spend any more time wasting your peak mental hours—or forcing yourself to work when you’re in an energy slump.
So, really understand and accept when you work best, and then use productivity expert Alex Cavoulacos’ advice to map out your ideal day.
25. Know How Much Sleep You Need—and Commit to Getting It
We hope you learned this lesson in college, but if not: Sleep is important. Whether you need seven or nine hours, know your number, and get it regularly. Your health and career depend on it.
26. Know How to Manage Stress
Stress can really rule and ruin your life, something you don’t want to let it do for long.
If stress is an issue for you, nip it in the bud as early as possible. Career coach Lea McLeod has some advice for how to start mitigating your stress, but if it’s really becoming overwhelming, consider talking to a professional who can give you strategies.
27. Stop Over-Apologizing
You may think you’re being polite or strengthening your reputation, but apologizing too much, especially for small things or things out of your control, could inadvertently instill doubt in your abilities and undercut your professionalism.
Make sure you’re saving your apologies for when you really messed up—not when your co-worker asks you to go back a slide in your presentation. Check out Lily Herman’s tips for making sure you’re saying what you really mean.
28. Get Over Impostor Syndrome
Whether you’re just getting started in a new field or you’ve been climbing the promotion ladder at your company since graduation, impostor syndrome can plague any professional.
29. Have a Career Emergency Plan
What would you do if you got laid off tomorrow? If you don’t have an answer (or your answer is “Freak out! Panic!”), it’s time to come up with a career emergency plan.
A crisis, like being let go or having your company go under, isn’t something you ever want to think about, but if it happened, wouldn’t you rather have a ready-to-go action plan than be running around like a crazy person trying to get anyone to hire you? Here’s how to get yours started ASAP.
30. Pick Up a Side Project
Ever wondered how you’d do at consulting? Thought about opening up an Etsy store or restoring and selling old cars? Try it out. At best, you’ll find a new career or source of income, and at the very least you’ll have some variety in your day to day. Here’s how to make time for a side gig.
31. Invest in Your Retirement
We know: In the early stages of your career, it can be hard to fork over any of that precious paycheck. But savings compounds over time, so starting early means you’ll have exponentially more in your later years (to, you know, live it up on a boat sipping mai tais all day).
Here’s everything you need to know to get started.
32. Invest in Yourself
Today’s working world is changing faster than ever, and to stay on top of your professional game, it’s important to continue to grow your skills.
Oh, and this doesn’t have to mean going to grad school. Here are 45 free online classes you can take to add some professional development into your routine.
33. Invest in the World
Whether it’s volunteering your skills to a nonprofit in need or mentoring a junior employee, little feels better than giving back to the world. Here are a few ideas you may not have considered.
34. Know What You Don’t Want
You don’t have to know what you want to be when you grow up by 35 (or, hey, 95).
But, assuming you want to have a job and career you love, it’s important to at least keep thinking about it—if not actively chasing it.
And, often, the first step to knowing what you do want is ruling out what you don’t want. Don’t want a dictator for a boss? A sales role? A management position? Great. Whittle away some options, and you’re at least getting closer.
35. Give Yourself Permission to Go After What You Do
Oh, and if you do know what you want? Start taking steps to go after it. Yes, careers are long, but why spend one more day than you have to not doing what you want? You have our permission. We hope you have yours, too.
Photo of person writing courtesy of PhotoAlto/Eric Audras/Getty Images.