Over the next few months, I’ll be rolling out a series of articles with career hacks I wish I knew in my 20s, 30s, 40s and so on. Learning by experience is great but it’s also helpful if you can short cut the process by learning from others and applying these hacks to your own career. So, let’s start at the beginning.

My twenties were great. I was young and ambitious with few responsibilities and plenty of opportunities, I had the world at my feet. In my first real job as a university lecturer I thought I knew it all. My career was just going to happen (or so I thought) but boy, was I wrong. I had a head full of book smarts but I hadn’t yet cultivated the street smarts to drive my career, which I could only learn through life experience.

Now, looking back with the benefit of hindsight (and years of experience as a career coach), I realise I could have made life easier for myself.  Don’t get me wrong, I regret none of the decisions I made back then (they have led me to where I am now) but I wish I knew then what I know now.

1.      Get to know your adult self

Your school years give you a great knowledge base. But building a successful career requires more than book smarts. One of the greatest skills you can cultivate in your career is self-awareness. This starts with knowing yourself: your strengths, your limitations, what engages you and what you find a turn-off.

As a young person, starting their career, be mindful of not painting yourself into a box ‘I am this but I am not this’ because in your 20s, you’re still discovering and developing your capabilities. For example, in my 20s I was a fabulous teacher but lousy at research (which was part of my job).

You might be great at computer programming but perhaps your communication skills need a lift. That doesn’t mean you’re not capable of being a good communicator, it just means you need to work on it. The critical part is you understand this about yourself (I call these your blind spots) as it will help you make the right choices about which jobs suit you, what type of training you need and help you choose the employers where you best fit.

I hear so many people saying “I chose the wrong course at university and now I hate my career”.  This happens when you don’t understand your strengths, values and the roles best suit you.

If you can’t get a clear picture about your strengths and blind spots, ask for feedback. This could be from friends, colleagues or your boss. Or, you can work with a career coach trained in helping you gain a better picture of yourself.

2.      Work Overseas

One way to get to know yourself is to travel and work overseas. Your 20s are a great time to do this because:

  • There are more opportunities (eg working holiday visas for under 30s)
  • Often, you have fewer commitments, like mortgages, family, which makes it easier to pack up and go

Working overseas takes you out of your comfort zone and helps you develop your soft skills, like communication. Also, it’s exciting to meet new people, work in different environments and see new places! And, it can be a great way to make and save money. Many older people I speak to cherish their memories of living and working overseas in their 20s and the work and personal benefits it brought them.

3.      Seek great leaders

Young people are fantastic in the workplace. They bring new ideas and enthusiasm.  But what any young person lacks (because they haven’t worked previously) is experience.  That’s why it’s important to seek out a great leader to show you the ropes. A great leader knows how to guide you, to harness your ideas and give you the direction and support you need to be successful.

It’s okay not to have all the answers on day one. In fact, any reasonable workplace will expect you to make mistakes. Learning by experience can be great as long as you approach your work with a growth mindset. That is, see each experience as an opportunity to learn rather than punishing yourself for not getting it right every time.

A great leader will also help you navigate the grey areas of the workplace. In an ideal world, everyone in the workplace would be supportive and encouraging but unfortunately, that’s not always the case. During your career, you will encounter difficult people and a great leader can help you build the skills you’ll need to manoeuvre around difficult people while maintaining your professionalism.

4.      Invest for the future

As I mentioned above, your 20s is often a time when you have fewer responsibilities, like a mortgage and family. It frees you up to work full-time and grow your earnings.

While retirement may seem a ridiculous concept, it creeps up on you faster than you imagine. So, your 20s are a good time to start saving, for both short-term goals and long-term goals. The Australian Securities Investment Commission (ASIC) has a great superannuation calculator on their moneysmart website. It allows you to plug in your circumstances (age, salary, superannuation and whether you make additional contributions) and predict how much money you will have when you retire. You can use this calculator to make alternative scenarios and decide if you want to sacrifice a small amount of money now so you have retirement savings to live on later. With compound interest, small voluntary contributions to your super can make a big difference. Of course, I’m not a financial advisor and this is just general advice, so speak to someone qualified to get specific advice for your circumstances.

Money isn’t the only investment that will pay dividends for your future. Education is an investment that brings life-long benefits. In my blog Build Your Knowledge, Build Your Worth, I reference research from the Australian Census which shows people with post-graduate degrees earn more than school leavers or graduates with bachelors degrees.

Learning more doesn’t always mean doing another degree.  Having a growth mindset and learning from your mistakes is also important, as is cultivating your soft skills. In fact, US-based EQ training company, Talent Smart, says 90 percent of top performers have high EQ and earn USD$29,000 more per year. They also say 80 percent of low performers have low emotional intelligence.

Cultivating self-awareness and strong emotional intelligence in your 20s will pay dividends as you progress through your career.

5.      Establish your personal brand

A personal brand is a trade mark of your most distinctive values and characteristics, as observed and assessed by others.

Everyone has one. Consciously or not, how you talk, think, interact with others, execute your work and even how you dress are all part of your personal brand.

You will have a big advantage in your career if you start early to understand and make conscious choices about how your build your personal brand.

Personal branding strategist, Dr Dra Natalia Wiechowski, says that personal branding is about managing other’s impressions of you.

“If you position yourself in a great, in a positive and impressive way, people will choose you. And not the other individual. Because they know what they will get when they work with you and what you stand for,” said Dra Natalia Wiechowski.

In my blog Why Personal Branding is Important for Your Career I provide a four-step process to build your personal brand. Use these steps to think about your personal brand early in your career, make conscious choices about how your build your personal brand and you’ll reap the rewards.

6.      Nurture your network

In your 20s, you may not appreciate the importance of building your professional network. Your professional network is comprised of your colleagues and former colleagues, managers and ex managers, alumni (if you attended TAFE or university), industry groups you belong to, online connections, such as LinkedIn and others in your circle of influence.

The best career opportunities are not always advertised. Often, it is word-of-mouth and a generous endorsement from someone in your network that leads to your next promotion.

According to Ohio State University Professor, Tanya Menon, you are more likely to find work opportunities through acquaintances than your immediate friendship and family group.

“Most people don’t get their jobs through their close ties…their father, their mother, their significant other…they instead get jobs through their weak ties, people they’ve just met…the people you’ve just met today are your ticket to a whole new social world” said Ms Menon.

In my article 5 Ways to Stay Connected to Your Network, I talk about how easy it is to get caught up in the daily grind, prioritizing your ‘to do’ list over less urgent tasks, like reaching out to people in your network. But this thinking is short-term. It’s not great for your relationships (or personal brand) to only contact people when you want something. Instead, make it a habit to check in with your network regularly, and also give them a hand up when the opportunity arises.

7.      Speak up for Yourself

This is a big one I wish I understood in my 20s. As a junior employee, it’s normal to feel that you operate off a lower power base than more experienced and senior members of your team. However, that doesn’t mean you have to tolerate rude or aggressive behavior in the workplace. No workplace wants nay-sayers but being a pushover won’t earn you respect either.

In my blog ‘How to Speak Up for Yourself at Work” I give advice on how to speak up for yourself in a way that makes you credible, likeable and builds your authority. Knowing how to speak up for yourself at work is a critical career-building skill, particularly as you climb the ladder into leadership positions and I urge you to learn this vital skill in your 20s as it will help you throughout your career.

8.      If it’s not working, fix it

A friend of mine, let’s call her Amanda, held an ambition since high school to be a medical researcher. It was her quest to find a cure for cancer. Fortunately for Amanda, she did well academically and was accepted into medical school. She loved the theory but as she progressed through her studies, she moved into practicals. This involved dissecting cadavers. The sight, smell and thought of cutting up dead bodies made Amanda’s guts churn and sparked anxiety. It was fight or flight, so Amanda soon realised she had to get out of medicine and find a career that didn’t involve blood and guts.

The point is, you may start on one path and realise along the way that it’s not right for you. It was hard for Amanda to let go of her dream to cure cancer but she had to face the truth that she couldn’t work in a medical environment. It was far better for her to realise and accept this than stick at it and feel anxious every time she saw body parts. Likewise, if you discover you’re not suited to the career you chose at school, ask yourself if it’s something you want to do for the rest of your life. If not, your 20s is a great time to change careers before you feel trapped by financial responsibilities.

9.      Find a Mentor or Coach

If you have a great boss, consider yourself lucky. Not everyone is fortunate to have a generous leader who helps them develop their career. If your boss isn’t that interested, don’t give up on finding someone who cares about your career. Look for a mentor, someone from your industry who’s more experienced and can provide you guidance based on their own experience. Alternatively, a career coach can help because they are trained in how to give you career advice. Rather than speak just from their own experience, a career coach uses tools to give you more objective advice.

These are just a career hacks I wish I knew in my 20s. The main thing to understand is you don’t have to have all the answers. If you’re feeling uncertain about your career, I offer a free 45-minute my career conversation where you set the agenda. You can ask questions about the small stuff, like how to write the best resume, or talk to me about big career challenges like changing direction. Big or small, I’m happy to help.