Career

How To Use Your 20s To Set Up A Successful Career

There’s one thing everyone going through their ‘20s realises at some point: nobody has any idea what they’re doing. You ride a rollercoaster of expectations from “YOLO” to “should I be saving for a house?” and it gets a little exhausting at times.

“Throughout your ‘20s it’s this strange transition phase where you’re sort of figuring out the rest of your life,” says author and screenwriter, Michelle Law. “You’re expected to stop being a child immediately, you’re supposed to take advantage of every opportunity that comes to you, but also learn how to handle a mortgage and get a full time job.”

Doing all those things at once can be overwhelming, but there’s stuff you can be doing throughout your ‘20s to set yourself up for a successful career – one that you might actually enjoy.

#1 Figure out your true passion

This one seems simple in theory, a little harder in practice. Your childhood dream of winning a Grammy might be shattered when you realise you’re magnificently tone deaf, but that doesn’t mean you have to settle for a career doing something you’re meh about. Loving what you do is often touted as the key to professional success, so if you’re not Adele and need other options, dabble in different areas until you find something so interesting it sticks.

Having just turned 30, entrepreneur Lee Crockford says trying a whole bunch of things is a good way to find out what you’re good at. Starting his career in project development, he has most recently co-founded Spur Projects, an Aussie start-up focussed on men’s health and suicide prevention. “I just took opportunities as they came,” he says, “because it’s that typical thing where you never end up doing what you thought you were going to do. Experiment through the years and once you’ve worked out what your passions are, what you’re good at and what challenges you, think about how you can pull them together into a career.”

Social entrepreneur Simon Griffiths agrees. He went from working with NGOs in his university years to founding projects like Melbourne’s bar with a conscience SheBeen and Who Gives A Crap, a toilet paper company that donates 50% of its profits to Water Aid. He says you should try as much as you can before putting your eggs in one basket. “The most important thing is figuring out what you’re truly passionate about, because if you’re working on something that you don’t care about, you’re not going to be putting in your fullest. Find that passion.”

#2 But don’t panic if you don’t find it straight away

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Griffith warns against the idea of a ticking clock. “Finding your passion might not happen in your ‘20s ­– it might happen in your ‘30s, it might happen in your ‘40s ­– but in your ‘20s you’ve likely got the luxury of being able to take all the risks without having a mortgage or kids that can hold you back, so it’s the best time to try and experiment.”

Adam Troyn – the managing director of social networking app Kampus – thinks the best approach is to “look at yourself and understand who you are as a person. What are your strengths and weaknesses? Then put all your chips into your strengths and don’t worry about what you suck at.”

#3 Think strategically about job experience

It’s also important to avoid the trap of experience for experience’s sake. Simon Sheikh was the National Director of online activist group GetUp!, before starting Future Super, Australia’s first fossil fuel-free superannuation fund. But he was doing a lot of things before these roles, including working in the corporate sector at Telstra and in the public service for the NSW Treasury.

Sheikh believes the best way to ensure confidence and success in your ‘20s is to gain experience across several relevant sectors. They just need to be vaguely connected to what you’re interested in. “There really is no point sitting around just to get experience,” he says. “It is important to make sure that experience is something that you are still passionate about.”

And there’s a dual benefit to this. Aside from building up a lot of varied contacts and relationships – which helped when he went out on a limb and started his own thing – Sheikh knew that if it failed, he would always have other options. “It’s really exciting because this background means that I’m confident about the future,” he says.

#4 Fear is a waste of energy

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“I think it’s really important to be fearless,” says Omar Musa, who knows a thing or two about taking a leap of faith as a poet, author and rapper. “[Don’t] take no for an answer, and be reckless. Just go out there, hell for leather, ferociously pursuing what it is that you’re passionate about.”

At just 31, Musa has been a Q&A guest panellist, received a standing ovation for his 2013 talk at TEDxSydney, and published a debut novel, Here Come The Dogs. But that doesn’t mean it’s all been smooth sailing. “Along the way you’ll encounter some pitfalls, you’ll probably make some enemies and you’ll probably screw up many, many, times, but it’s all going to be worth it in the long run.”

#5 Embrace failure as a learning tool

Nothing is scarier than failure, the culprit behind many abandoned dreams. But you may be surprised to discover that some of the world’s biggest and most famous success stories have failed in the past. It’s how you respond to that failure that defines you. “You’ll probably learn more when you fail than when you don’t,” says Dr Niraj Lal, a Renewable Energy Agency Research Fellow at ANU, who just quietly, received his PhD from Cambridge. “The only person holding you back is you most of the time, just give it a crack and see where it all takes you. Sometimes when things don’t work out, you realise it opened up a different opportunity.”

#6 Work hard and make connections

Ollie Henderson, whose ‘20s have seen her travel the world as an international model and  set up activist not-for-profit, House Of Riot, has some simple advice: meet people. “Having connections and maintaining those connections is really important,” she explains. “I always felt a bit shifty about ‘networking’ because it has a certain stigma around it, but essentially, you’re just making friends.”

Law – who’s also written for the Sydney Morning Herald, Daily Life and frankie magazine – says it’s important to make alliances with people who have similar interests. “Especially if you’re a young woman, support each other instead of competing … Because it’s such a limited field that you need to be there for each other.”

As an advocate for more females in surgery and other professional fields, cardiothoracic surgeon Dr Nikki Stamp says networking is something women in their ‘20s often neglect. “I think networking and mentorship are two really important things and I think it’s something that women do pretty badly. It’s really important we start encouraging women to do that.”

Dr Stamp – who is one of only nine female cardiothoracic surgeons in Australia – says having a strong work ethic in your ‘20s can set you up for future success. “It’s really important because it is noted by people and it does really affect whether or not you’re going to be given opportunities.”

(Images via Stocksy)