The 5 Best Pieces of Career Advice I Learned in My 20s

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I'm bowing out of my 20s. Not by choice, but because 30 is mere days away and trying to escape it is like running the wrong way on an escalator that keeps speeding up. The weirdest thing about turning 30 is that when I was 20, 30 seemed very, very old. But now that I'm here, it feels more like 30 is the number that should come after 20. Which is to say, I don't feel very old at all. That said, my 20s have been a wonderful time for reckless love, shoe-string budget travel, and of course, gaining valuable life lessons.

I might not yet understand the stock markets or have a solid grasp on retirement plans, but I certainly have gained a lot of valuable experience when it comes to career. Having already switched careers in my mid-20s, from lawyer to writer, I had to learn the hard way a lot of things I wish I'd had someone write down in list format for me. Which is why I'm writing those things down in list format, because everyone deserves the honest career advice that doesn't necessarily come from teachers, employers, or your parents. So here's some advice based on what I learned about careers during my 20s.

1. Don't Work for Free

There's a difference between exchanging your inexperienced labor for experience, and working for free. Early in your career, you need to be acutely aware of this, especially when you're applying to unpaid internships, or volunteering any of your creative work on a pro-bono basis. A lot of "internships" exploit their unpaid interns, and will have you do grunt work like photocopying, image editing or running returns for them. I once had a "writing internship" where I was put in a corner all day to re-size photos. No one spoke to me or took the time to teach me anything I didn't already know.

Basically, jobs that won't give you any industry knowledge or practical skills, but are happy to lump you with the menial tasks that none of the actual employees want to do, are a waste of your time. Internships should always be an exchange. You're not there to do things you're already adept at. You should be offering your free time in exchange for learning about the industry you're in, the job you're doing, and the roles of those around you. That's how you're paid at an internship: with tangible, practical, real-life experience you can take away with you and use to gain paid work.

2. You Can Leave If You're Not Happy

If you have a job you're not happy with, it's okay to walk away from it. Don't be irresponsible and walk into nothingness: have a plan. Know you can rely on savings or supplementary work. But don't be afraid to quit a job if it's not working out, whether you've been there for three months or three years. People of this generation are expected to change jobs constantly, so it doesn't "look bad" on your resume if you've left a job after a short amount of time. As someone who has also employed staff to work for me, the best interviews are always the most honest. If someone can articulately explain to me why they've left a job, taken a gap year, etc., it can be very impressive. Fluidity is something that's a new and progressive concept in careers, and unlike our parents' generation we don't have to tie ourselves to one desk forever. And someone who is looking to improve themselves and their career can be a very compelling candidate for a job, especially in creative industries where challenging and innovating is more important than maintaining a stale status quo.

3. You Don't Have to Decide Now for the Rest of Your Life

Look at me: I'm 30 and I still have no idea what I want to be when I grow up! If you're someone with an intense passion, and you're lucky enough to be able to do the thing you love for money, good for you. But not everyone falls in love with their career right away, and it's okay to experiment and embrace change when it comes to your career path. I'm currently going back to school for my MBA, because I think in the future I might like to deviate from writing, perhaps getting into the not-for-profit sector. Who knows? I certainly don't. Always be open to learning, and if your career naturally adapts from one direction to another, that's okay too. You're never too old, it's never too late, there's always time and opportunity, especially if you're hardworking and willing to make it for yourself.

4. College Doesn't Define You

I went to law school, and I would never take it back. I loved every second of it and I made some of the best friends I've ever had in my entire life there. I also have a media & communications degree and as mentioned, hopefully soon an MBA. And yet I could wind up being a yoga instructor. Your education is valuable not just for your career, but for broadening your mind and challenging you. If you study one thing, and wind up working in another area, embrace it. You don't have to be married to your degree for the entirety of your career.

5. Persistence Is Essential

The most important thing to remember is to never be deterred. When I was in school I was always top of my class. Through university, it was a similar story. Every internship, job, campus-based project got a big "YES" stamped to it as soon as it fell out of my mouth. Out in the real world, there's a whole lot of "NO." Don't let all the "No" get you down, because you're probably going to hear it a lot. There's a lot to be said for persistence. If you want something in your career, never take "No" for an answer. Whenever you hear "No", that means, "Try again." Work hard, take responsibility for your mistakes and keep going back for more when it comes to your career. Eventually, something will stick. On the flip side, nothing is ever going to come together if you just quit trying after a letdown. Be your most diligent, resilient, elbow-greased self and good things will come, even if sometimes it feels like they won't. I promise you, if you work for it, it will come.

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