4 Career Revelations From My 20s

I graduated from college more than 10 years ago and like every new graduate, I felt fear, anxiety and confusion course through my body from the realization that I had absolutely no idea what I was doing. Working as an assistant at a market research company, surrounded by market analysts who were highly regarded as experts in their fields, I wondered what it would take to rise through the ranks and be as admired and respected as my colleagues were.

In particular, I marveled at the female analysts with whom I worked. On telephone calls with the media and onstage at conferences, they exuded such confidence and were so knowledgeable on their topics of study. I wondered: Would that ever be me? Do I have what it takes? What should I do to try to get there, or anywhere, for that matter?

This was before the days of LinkedIn, Facebook, About.me and any other online directory. So you might wonder: how did a directionless but motivated 20-something, new to the working world but determined to make good professional choices, secure much-desired career guidance without the benefit of studying (for the purposes of emulating) the biographies of those she admired?

This is how: she identified people who intrigued her. She approached them and very simply, yet earnestly stated, “My name is Stephanie and I feel lost. I want to know about your life. I want to know what you did right. I want to know the things you would have done differently. I want to know what you wish you would have known when you were my age. Can you spare a moment in your busy schedule to speak with me?”

After sharing this story with a friend, he quickly concluded, “Oh cool, you sought out a mentor early in your career.” While this is technically true, I felt that this label missed the mark. A mentorship implies a structured and focused course of discussion. Contrarily, what really took place were freeform, nearly meandering conversations, which yielded some of the most important revelations in my life. Moreover, I still keep these life lessons in mind as I navigate my career and my life.

My favorite revelations from these conversations:

1)   Most career paths are more circuitous than they may appear.

We are groomed to always have, know and cultivate our “story”—to pitch our lives as if every step in our careers was planned and purposeful. In an age where we carefully edit our life experiences on our online profiles, we forget that people move from zigging to zagging (and then right back to zigging like they were before!). In my conversations with colleagues they often admitted, “I tried this for a while, and I hated that. So, then I thought, maybe this! I did that instead and that turned into this other thing…” This helped me to realize that plans are sometimes unplanned and come into existence by accident or unintentionally. Choices are never permanent and within reason, you can change your mind, change your direction, make a mistake and correct the course you initially chose to take.

2)   Life can be better understood by evaluating options that are not chosen.

Each of our life stories is an aggregate of the choices that we have made. However, the value of life can be understood in a richer context by examining the unchosen choices, understanding the reasons why they weren’t selected and conjecturing how things might have turned out if they had. I enjoyed hearing my colleagues describe the potential paths their lives could have taken: the jobs they didn’t take, the partners they turned down, the decisions they delayed, and the options they abandoned altogether. It helped me to better understand who they were and how they ended up in their current roles. Also, I realized that my life would be a “Choose Your Own Adventure,” and only I could choose the next exciting turn of the plot line.

3)   Serendipity plays a big role in how things play out.

In a meritocracy, we like to believe that hard work drives what we accomplish. We prepared for an interview and got that dream job. We worked very hard and were promoted to a higher-level position. Yet, the truth is: sometimes things around us happen and we are merely the lucky recipients of these unpredictable occurrences. My colleagues shared circumstances that were outside of their control and led to developments in their careers. For example, someone vacating a position enabled him or her to advance in a new role. Meanwhile, someone else quickly landed a job where the original description of that role changed completely. This made me feel hopeful and it made me realize that I should focus on what I could actually control while being open to, and ready for, any luck that may come my way.

4)   Everyone struggles in their 20s. Everyone.

A lucky few realize exactly what they were put on this earth to do at a young age. In fact, I remember having a conversation with the college counselor at my high school when I was younger, and she rather snarkily observed, “People who know exactly what they are meant to do at a young age are just doing exactly what their parents have always told them they should do!” If given the chance, I suspect that any sophisticated, accomplished professional will tell you, “I was a mess when I was your age!” and then detail an existence rife with befuddlement or distress that eerily mirrors your current situation. Hearing this admission helped me manage my insecurities and fears. It was also comforting to know that I wasn’t alone in my experiences.

Working at Simply Hired, where effort is focused on making the job search process efficient and fast through technology, it may sound strange for me to extol the merits of putting down technological devices and reaching out to one another as human beings. But what I’m trying to say, and I hope you will agree, is that important details can be missed and facts can be misrepresented or misinterpreted in an online-only world. These minutiae can only be discovered, digested and savored if we stop, turn to one another, and casually say, “Hello.”