Advice to my 23 year-old self

My baby bro turned 23 this month. He graduated from University last summer and is thus a fellow limbo-er. His approach to commencing a career, I must say, is the exact opposite to what mine was.

Like many final-year students, I began looking for graduate opportunities about 6 months before I graduated from my master’s degree. Everything was planned so that I would start my first role when I returned from my travels in Asia. Long story short, I stayed in this role for six months. I spent the following two years working in two different industries and living abroad before deciding to move back home and pursue a career in law.

My brother’s approach, as I mentioned earlier, has so far been quite different. He returned home from a ski-season in Meribel in March and has not yet begun to think about his future. He performs a pretty laxed daily routine that involves late mornings, playstation, food, exercise (as permitted by the virus-related-regulations) and more playstation. Pandemic or not, let me assure you that this would undoubtedly be his default existence anyway.

I don’t intend to criticize his mentality – I’m not in a position to do so; things didn’t exactly go according to plan for me. There are many aspects of my brother’s approach that I admire, and certainly a few things I’ve learnt from my own experience, so I want to share some pieces of advice that I would give to my 23-year old self.

1. Don’t base your career-decisions on what other people might think. Honestly, no one cares anyway (no offence).

Why did I study law? Well, I wasn’t sure what I wanted to be. I’m not sure now, how I could I have been sure 10 years ago? In all honesty – this decision was partly fear-based. Fear of not having a good salary, fear of not being recognised as someone credible and important, and fear of not living up to other people’s expectations.

I was categorised from a pretty young age as “the smart one”. People would say, “you could go anywhere”, “you’ll have a really good job” and “a really nice car” (side note – I hate driving). This expectation to be “successful” came with a whole lot of pressure. Would I not be successful if I didn’t make a lot of money, or live abroad in a big city, or do something that is deemed socially ‘important’? I never even defined what ‘important’ was for me.

On the other hand, my brother genuinely doesn’t care what other people think at all. Not being stressed with redundant thoughts like these allows him to appreciate a more realistic perspective and contemplate a broader range of options that I possibly wouldn’t even have considered if they weren’t deemed sufficiently ‘reputable’. Plus, the level of stress these fears have caused me are certainly not conducive to a healthy lifestyle, and for that reason alone, I’m trying to learn from my brother’s mentality.

The expectations I mentioned above aren’t actually expectations that others had for me. They’re expectations that I perceived others to have based on innocuous comments that were probably intended to encourage me. Nobody really cares that much about what other people are doing; they just don’t. People have their own lives to deal with. So don’t base your career decisions on what you think other people might think.

2. If you’re not sure what you want to be, think instead about the impact you want to have.

I watched a great TedTalk recently by Laura Sheehan. You guessed it, I messaged her on LinkedIn – and, yes, she replied; we video-called. Refreshingly, she didn’t ask me what I wanted to be, she asked me “If you could do anything, what would it be?” So many things came to mind! I didn’t know what one thing I wanted to be, but I did know the impact that I wanted to have. I want to inspire and support others, to lead change, to create…I want to be a helpful influence. The thing is, there are so many ways I could do this, in so many different roles. Why narrow my options to just one particular career?

Laura was actually a US-qualified lawyer, but spoke to me about the many different roles she had experienced. She advised me to view my career not as a ladder, but as a unique piece of art. Like a piece of art, your career is unique to you. It will consist of layers, each of which builds on the previous one. Make sure to enjoy painting each layer and learn from each experience; you don’t have to visualize the end product just yet, so don’t narrow your options. Being one thing now won’t prevent you from being a different thing later on in life.

3. Don’t do something just because it pays better

It’s hard for some of us to do. There’s nothing wrong with aspiring to earn a good salary (obviously), but if you’re doing something that you dislike or that’s not developing your skills the way you want, the role becomes an opportunity cost; between the salary and anything else that you’d rather be investing your time in, and that includes yourself! Especially at the start of your career, it’s worth considering whether it’s best to take a pay cut now for a role that will lead you to better things later.

There may even be a role that pays just as much and is better suited to you. The number of opportunities out there is increasing and the internet offers the possibility for people to take greater control over what, where and how they work. It also offers access to more information, more connections and more advice. So invest time in understanding what your options are.

Plus, remember that the best things in life are often free!

4. Network, network, network

The internet literally offers you the opportunity to contact just about anyone (worrying, but we’re focusing on the positives for now). The landscape for any industry changes constantly and the best way to learn about what working in a particular role is like is to speak to people who work in that role, that company or that sector; hear their perspectives and learn about their day-to-day.

Plus, you’d be surprised at how many people are happy to take your call and share their career journey with you. All you have to do is ask.

5. Don’t set a time limit for staying in a job.

Setting a maximum time limit is like going into a relationship already knowing it’s not going to go anywhere. It might be fine for a while, but you’re less likely to be willing to invest time and effort into it as soon as the slightest of problems arise. Work is work, you’re going to have to overcome problems and deal with things you dislike at some point. So give yourself a chance to prove you can do that.

If you set a minimum time limit, you’re more likely to feel like you’ve failed if you don’t attain your own expectation. You’re more likely to feel discouraged and less optimistic about the future, when you could instead feel excited about the opportunities you could consider. Like relationships, some jobs just aren’t meant to be.

There’s no right or wrong amount of time to stay in a job. You do you. Just learn all that you can and give yourself the best opportunity to make it work. If it doesn’t, you’ll have peace of mind that you did everything you could; it just wasn’t meant to be.

6. Know that you’re more important.

This is something I wholeheartedly admire my brother for. I have made myself miserable for years worrying over my future. Remember that your health, your relationships, your experiences and your happiness are all much more important than your career. Like my brother, choose to work to live, not to live to work.

Whilst it’s good to be pro-active, it’s not good to overdo it – allow yourself to gain some perspective!

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