The day has come.
I have officially reached that point in my career at which I can reflect back and say, “Ah, yes. I’m so glad I did that when I was 25. It sure is paying off now.” And on the flip side of this very coin, I’m also at the “Oh, man. Why did I not consider that 15 years ago?” stage of life.
While there is plenty that one does not need to have all figured out in the early career years, there are a few things that every 20-something professional should get a handle on sooner, not later. Why? Because they may very well lead to big-time dividends by the time you hit your 40s (trussst me.)
1. Be Less Afraid to Approach Mentors
Most early career professionals I’ve worked with are somewhere between pensive and paralyzed when I suggest approaching a later-stage professional about mentorship. Stop that nonsense. Many seasoned (and successful) professionals welcome invitations to share their expertise. Most of the time, they’re flattered to be asked because they remember being in your shoes once upon a time.
The best people to approach are those doing what you want to be doing in 10-15 years, and doing it well. You can learn so much from the people who have already trod down the path upon which you’re embarking. Not to mention, they may be super helpful when it comes to opening doors.
2. Establish Yourself as a Thought Leader, Early On
Think you couldn’t possibly be viewed as any kind of authority on that thing you do professionally? Think again. As you build expertise, you will benefit (enormously) if you begin a regular habit of making people aware of your passion for and knowledge of your particular field. Thanks to social media, you have a bunch of relevant platforms (especially LinkedIn) through which you can post articles, pose questions, and share news about what you’re doing. Or, consider launching your own personal blog.
Staying top of mind is half the battle for all of us as professionals. Start early, and stay on people’s radar as one who knows your stuff and loves what you do. Why? Because people just might think of you first when great opportunities related to your area of expertise come their way.
3. Make Sacrifices and Take Risks While You Have Freedom
This is one of those things people warned me about, and I didn’t listen. And now, I wish I had. Often, when you’re in your 20s, you have relatively few responsibilities and obligations. Yes, of course. You have rent (or a mortgage) and bills to pay, but many don’t have spouses and children (and dogs, and aging parents, and lacrosse games, and track meets, and…) to factor in when it comes to taking a big career gamble, or working endless hours, or making other lofty sacrifices. You also have tons of runway left front of you, so if you err in your risk-taking, there’s plenty of time for a mulligan.
I’m not suggesting that you be reckless or ridiculous here. Be thoughtful, for sure. But these are absolutely great years to be a risk-taker with your career. It could really pay off by the time you reach your 40s.
4. Take Advantage of Company-Paid Training
This one is huge. If you work for a company that pays for training or certifications, grab at this opportunity. I mean GRAB at it. Ongoing learning is vital for every professional’s growth. So if someone is offering to foot the bill? For heaven’s sake—run with it.
Not sure what training might be beneficial for you down the road? Do this: Review a handful of job postings for roles one or two notches up the food chain from where you’re at right now. Take a look at the required and preferred skills. If you see any skills, certifications, or credentials called for that you don’t have? These are likely the very classes you should consider first.
5. Stay in Touch With People Along the Way
I can’t tell you how many times people from my past jobs have looped around and become my mentors, confidants, clients, and allies over the years. It’s literally dozens. I have recruiting clients today who hired me because we worked together 15 years ago. I just did the resume of a former co-worker’s son. I booked a substantial outplacement project through a former boss, who now works at a firm that was going through a reduction in force.
Had you told me 15 years ago how valuable my colleagues from years past would be, I suspect I would not have believed you. Fortunately, I still stayed in reasonable touch with my peers and supervisors (thank you, LinkedIn), and today it’s paying off handsomely. It just may for you, too.
When you’re early on in your career, trying to figure out which seeds to plant (and when) can be confusing and overwhelming. For some, it may also feel so far out that these foundational moves couldn’t possibly matter. But as both a long-time career strategist and a 40-something professional, I’ll tell you straight up: Deliberate, strategic moves today can (and very likely will) put you well ahead of the pack in the long run.
And the view from the front? It’s pretty much always nicer than the rear.