You’ve probably seen the Forbes “30 under 30” lists that are published every year for each industry. Perhaps you’ve read the bios of the twentysomethings who started companies, created innovative medical technology, or changed education and every other sector of society. At times these lists and success stories can be inspiring, encouraging you to chase your dreams as others your age have done. But such lists can also be detrimental to your understanding and expectations of work in your twenties.
Drew and I meet with countless twentysomethings who genuinely think they’ve messed up their entire lives because they haven’t changed the world in their first year or two out of college. They’re willing to throw in the towel and give up completely (and many actually do). They wonder if they chose the wrong job or industry because, in their words, they “haven’t made a difference.” Their frustration is almost always rooted in misconceptions about what work in their twenties should look like. Unrealistic expectations about the dimension of work usually end in disappointment.
Here’s what work in your twenties is (typically) not:
I’m going to love work every day.
I’m going to land my dream job before I’m thirty.
I’m going to find a job that pays me lots of money and gives me lots of flexibility to travel.
My boss is immediately going to see how amazing I am and create the perfect job to fit my strengths and skills.
I’m going to get promoted in the first few months.
Everyone is going to like all my ideas.
Anything worth doing takes a lot of work. Do it long before it’s popular. Discipline matters. Mother Teresa once said, “Don’t look for big things. Just do small things with great love.”
Do the small things. Fail often. Each time, fail a little better. No, you probably won’t change the world in your first year or two of work. You probably won’t change the world in your first decade or two of work. In fact, it’s actually not about changing the world at all. It’s about being faithful in all the little things.
Perhaps one of the hardest things to do in your first decade of work is to take a long view. In a season where you can feel in over your head, where you may feel less sure about work than you did in college, you may wonder how you’re going to keep showing up for thirty or forty years. If you don’t have clear goals or know where you’re headed, you can feel as if you’re lost in one of those rooms with all the mirrors at the county fair and can’t find your way out. And you just ate a funnel cake that isn’t agreeing with your stomach.
Vision and hope are two vital components in a long view of work. If you don’t have them, stop and do whatever it takes to get them, because vision and hope will sustain you for a lifetime.
Work is a topic that involves so much emotion and angst for twentysomethings, Drew and I decided to ask a group of thirty- and fortysomethings to share the things they were grateful they learned in their twentysomething work experiences. Their responses encouraged us, and we hope you’ll be encouraged too.
I didn’t know what the best career path was for me for the entirety of my twenties. Looking back, I’m grateful for that. I worked in areas that I knew weren’t the right fit, but I learned so much about myself in those jobs. I was stretched and challenged in ways that have made me better at my work now.
I had a few challenging conversations with my boss, where I was basically told I needed to work harder. At the time I was hurt and angry. Now, [I realize] that was one of the most important conversations for my career.
In my twenties, I used to long for the day when I was promoted to the level I’m at now (in my forties). It was good motivation to keep at it. Looking back, I’m thankful I didn’t get promoted as quickly as I wanted. The combination of the motivation and time made me more prepared for the promotion when it came my way.
When I was in my twenties, I felt so discouraged and stalled out by my career. It didn’t make sense at the time. I had no idea where I was going. Looking back, I now see that every step along the way wasn’t a meaningless waste of time but was really great preparation for what I’m doing now. I needed something from every one of those experiences to do good work in my current job.
Remember the wisdom of author Jill Briscoe:
Go where you’re sent.
Stay where you’re put
Give what you’ve got.
Do so until you’re done.
And above all . . . serve the work.