10 Career Commandments to Learn in Your 20s

Modern life is rife with opportunities to make your mark, forge your own path or even fall flat on your face.  As knowledge work becomes the norm, there is no playbook for young professionals who have yet to learn how to manage their careers and personal brands in the information age.  Also, as competition for promotions and positions goes global, managing your professional reputation starts the moment you sign up for a Google+ account.  Now more than ever, careers are planned looking forward but understood looking backward.

How can early career professionals ensure they are following the North Star and building a truly successful foundation?  I’ve cobbled together some hard learned lessons that I often share with younger movers-and-shakers.  Take a read and let me know what you think of these 10 Career Commandments.

10 Commandments 20 Somethings

1. Reputation is everything.  There isn’t a short cut to building integrity but there are innumerable ways to cut your time short by breeding mistrust, dishonesty and conflict.  Stay far away from grey areas even when they seem shiny.  Remember, today’s emotional outbursts can easily be tomorrow’s missed opportunity.  People talk. (See earlier blog post: “3 Steps To Discovering Your Personal Brand“)

2. Fry the big fish first.  Contrary to popular opinion, it’s easier to start at the bottom of a world-class company than to squeeze in mid-career.  Intense competition only gets hotter in the most desirable industries and corporations.  If the Fortune 500 are on your hit list, don’t be afraid to start actively pursuing relevant opportunities via internships or entry-level assignments.

3. Mo’ money, mo’ problems.  After graduating from Florida A&M, I relocated to the NYC area and discovered my marketing coordinator salary didn’t go far in the Big Apple.  I worked hard and got promoted. Then I worked hard because I was promoted.  And so on.  As income increases so do expectations, visibility, rewards and risks.  Building wealth through employment isn’t impossible, just be sure what you’re signing up for.  How much you save is far more important than how much you earn. (Required Reading: Stop Acting Rich)

4. Don’t read your own press.  The biggest career blunders I’ve ever witnessed were the result of too much pride and not enough reality.  One former peer who worked in sports and entertainment marketing was so enamored of the celebrity lifestyle of his clients that he actually began to believe he was one of them.  He flaunted his Rolodex and glitzy relationships to anyone who would listen.  Then one day his wealth of unfulfilled promises became the very weapons of his demise.  Let your work speak louder than you do.  Never gauge your self-worth simply by work performance because failures are inevitable.

5. Bust your butt.  When I was a 20-year-old intern at Footaction USA, the CEO shared a simple, yet powerful piece of advice: “Bust your butt in your 20s.”  Hard work doesn’t guarantee greatness but nothing great was ever accomplished without hard work.

6. If you’re explaining you’re losing.  Unless sincerely requested, your boss’ s boss needs enough information to make decisions and anything more is wasted time.  Your confident communication of the right amount of information goes a long way in instilling trust in your abilities.  Like a former CMO said, “When I ask for the time don’t tell me how to make a watch.”

7. Know your role.  Were you hired for your digital creative chops or experience with Six Sigma process improvement?  Is your team positioned to launch a new product line or turnaround a lagging division?  It’s critical to know both your official and informal job duties from the lens of leadership.  If you want to change paths, let someone know and be sure you’re using your skills to solve an actual business need, not simply a personal passion.  As Greg McKeown noted, “At any one time there is only one piece of real estate we can “own” in another person’s mind.” (Required Reading: The #1 Career Mistake Capable People Make)

8. Work horses vs. show horses.  Busting your butt and working hard are now requirements to keep your job, not to thrive.  The “work horse” efforts of your 20s are the building blocks for more visible, far-reaching “show horse” projects.  Work horses manage projects, events and details.  Show horses may focus more on people, expectations and strategy.  We’re all called to be both at various points in our careers but knowing when is the key.

9. Define success for yourself.  No career nightmare is worse than pursuing someone else’s dream.  A book, conference, blog post or webinar can provide perspective but the job of discovering and pursuing your purpose is all yours.  Decide what you stand for, what’s important and where you’re headed.  Then deliberately work towards it with focus, fervor and flexibility.  (Required Reading: How Will You Measure Your Life?)

10. Opportunity knocks when you’re ready.  Professional and personal doors are rarely opened when we want them.  More often than not, I’m resigned to wait, listen and learn in preparation for what I thought I was ready for.  Thank God.  Sometimes the closed doors are there to protect me from an ill-conceived idea or an unknown, invisible threat.  Other times the closed doors are there for me to showcase exactly how bad I want something.  Knowing one from the other is crucial.

What qualifies me to create 10 career commandments?  I’m a former 20-something know-it-all turned 30-something student of life.  Let me know what you think.

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5 Comments

Filed under Leadership, Learnings & Insight

5 responses to “10 Career Commandments to Learn in Your 20s

  1. rcadden

    Interesting #8. When I was working at a dry cleaners in high school, the owner had a well-known speech we called ‘The Thoroughbred and the Mule speech’.

    Essentially, you have thoroughbreds, who get the job done really fast, but not always as accurately as you want – they’re focused on speed and speed alone. The mule, on the otherhand, is far more concerned with getting the job done right – if that means it takes all week, then so be it.

    I *think* the point (in the context of tagging clothes at a dry cleaners) was that you should be somewhere in the middle – if you rush through, you’ll make costly mistakes, but if you focus too much, it’ll take for freaking ever and you’ll never get done.

    Not sure if that really applies here, but the horse reference brought it to mind, either way.

  2. RC – Love it. It’s really about balancing today’s events with tomorrow’s strategy so you’re solving the right problems. Didn’t know you worked in a dry cleaner before…. begs all sorts of follow-up questions. 🙂

    • rcadden

      Yeah, I worked there for 3 years of high school. In fact, I *almost* went to TCC instead of ACU after the owner offered to basically give me one of his stores to run and then eventually own. Good thing I declined.

  3. Daryl

    Great word man. So true. As I read through I can see us, and some of those guys you were describing. It really did prepare us…

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