Most people in their twenties struggle to learn career lessons that are really pretty simple. I know I did. I was bullheaded about doing things my way, first while leading women’s programs at Ohio University, and later as a lawyer in Washington, DC.
It was not until I entered my 30’s that I discovered how good it feels when an experienced mentor can speed your way along the learning curve by sharing wisdom that she may have discovered the hard way.
These days I am an executive coach, which gives me a window into the careers of many people, from recent college grads to senior leaders. I often see talented young people trying to navigate their way through complex challenges with little guidance. But I also know compassionate teachers, generous mentors, and caring managers who want to help their team members grow.
After working with hundreds of high-achieving professionals, I have learned that you cannot predict where your career path will take you. But you can prepare for it. While you are in your twenties, you can build expertise, observe smart workplace strategies, and gradually develop qualities that will bring you success.
You don’t have to do it by yourself. Even if you don’t have mentors when you need them most, you often can learn the easy way by reading about the experiences of other professionals, like those who write here on GenTwenty.
My new book – which is full of advice I learned the hard way — is called “Find Your Happy at Work: 50 Ways to Get Unstuck, Move Past Boredom and Discover Fulfillment.” The whole time I wrote this book, I was talking in my head to twenty-somethings who can use a little guidance.
Sometimes I was speaking to certain of my clients from over the years. But often I was also talking to my own young self, a person who could have avoided a lot of pain by searching for and accepting practical advice.
10 Keys to Joy and Success in Your Career
1. You can grow.
You have tremendous power to change, develop, and create a work life and long-term career filled with joy, meaning, and success. Humans are learning machines, and if you put in the effort throughout your professional life you will keep increasing your skills, your know-how, and even your intelligence.
You can also grow personally, developing more confidence, grit, and resilience. If you’re determined and keep trying, you will gradually become more like the person you want to be.
2. Work can feel more like play.
It’s true that some of the dullest tasks are the ones you face early in your career, in your twenties. Tasks become more interesting as you develop deeper expertise, have a better sense of the big picture, and feel closer to your employer’s mission. But sometimes, even when you are just starting out, the difference between work and play is your attitude.
Both work and play are more satisfying if you approach them with a positive mindset and considerable effort. Think about how you tackle a pastime you love, whether it’s tennis or cooking.
Notice how your play is more fun when you are all in, you build your skill and and you try your best. If you take that same attitude and apply it to your job, you will begin to cultivate deeper enjoyment from your work.
3. Care for yourself.
It’s difficult to thrive at work if you’re exhausted, unhealthy, or trapped in negativity. Doing your best work—and loving what you do—may start with cultivating well-being and caring for your physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual fitness.
These four realms of body, mind, spirit, and heart are so tightly connected that when you take better care of any one of the four, your whole life might benefit. If you are dragging or struggling at work, look for ways you might take better care of your whole self, like getting more exercise, eating better food, or reaching out to a friend or counselor about your worries.
4. Keep a journal.
I tell my readers that they will get more from my book if they write about the topics I cover. That is because research suggests you are more likely to master and integrate a new idea into your behavior if you write about it in your own words.
When you write about something, your brain processes information in a more thorough way than it does if you are simply reading or listening or noticing. And “expressive writing” can be healing; studies show that you may recover more quickly if you describe your feelings after a health crisis or some other type of trauma.
5. Change your habits to boost performance.
Much of your life is shaped by learned routines you follow mindlessly. Your automatic habits save time and limit the pressure of making decisions about questions you encounter frequently, like how to start well understood tasks.
But some habits — like mindlessly searching online or gossiping with negative colleagues – can keep you stuck in patterns that aren’t fulfilling or effective. By observing your current habits, finding ways to tweak some of them, and consciously building new ones, you can gradually reshape your work life.
6. Tiny steps can take you far.
You can accomplish big things and create sweeping change if you commit yourself to moving forward in little steps. The secret is establishing a pace of small actions and sticking with it.
Your change process will be more powerful if you step back and look at the big picture, identify a long-term vision, create some near-term goals, and track the action steps you take each day. If you want to manage stress by getting more exercise, your starting commitment might be something as easy as walking ten minutes every morning. As you build and track your walking habit, you will gradually pick up momentum and move toward a healthier you.
7. Self-confidence starts with action.
A lack of confidence can hold you back and make you miserable at work. When you feel unsure, you might hesitate to approach other people or go after interesting projects.
When leaders sense your lack of assurance, they might be reluctant to offer you exciting assignments. But you can build your confidence. The secret is taking action, particularly when it means stepping a little out of your comfort zone.
Try taking a tiny risk, like talking with someone who makes you feel shy. When you have a little success you will feel good, and that will empower you to take another tiny step.
8. Success follows happiness.
You don’t have to choose between a meaningful, happy life and a successful career. You are more likely to succeed at your job if you have a positive attitude and feel happy. Remaining upbeat helps you spot opportunities, stay motivated, be healthy, and get along with other people.
Positive emotions – and the chemical changes they bring – alter the way your brain operates. They help you make more neural connections, which allows you to solve more problems. And happiness helps you be creative, partly because you become more open-minded and receptive to new information.
9. Choose positivity.
You can become more optimistic and upbeat, even if times are hard and you were born a pessimist. One useful technique is to reject the negative voice in your head and replace repetitive internal comments with more optimistic language.
For example, if you hear yourself repeating, “I’m so lonely,” replace that phrase with “it’s time to reach out to other people.” Among other ways to cultivate positivity are being kind to someone, summoning up a feeling of gratitude, celebrating a small success, journaling, or taking a walk outdoors.
10. Relationships matter.
Humans are hardwired to need connection with other humans. To be well and perform at your best, you need relationships with other people.
Building and nurturing your network of relationships is critical to your happiness and the success of your career. A large, diverse network will help you find opportunities, build resilience and keep learning.
If you are not loving your work, it’s time to make some changes. And that does not necessarily mean changing jobs. You have the power to get more from your career by adjusting your attitude, enhancing your skills, broadening your network and reinventing the way you approach your life.
By Beverly Jones
Bev works with leaders to spark engagement and productivity in their teams, and helps professionals to grow and thrive in their careers. Her work focuses on building resilience, enhancing performance, managing time and energy, improving communication, or navigating transitions.
Bev’s clients include entrepreneurs and leaders in companies and government agencies. She is also a Visiting Fellow at the Voinovich School of Leadership and Public Service at Ohio University. Bev writes and speaks about many issues related to leadership, collaboration, professional growth, and well-being:
- Her new book, “Find Your Happy at Work,” is a roadmap to finding more joy, meaning and success at work.
- Her book on career resilience, “Think Like an Entrepreneur, Act Like a CEO,” is available around the world, and in languages including Simple Chinese, Arabic and Vietnamese.
- Her NPR podcast, “Jazzed About Work,” features lively conversations and practical tips to help you thrive in your career.