The 12 pieces of career advice I wish someone had told me in my 20s

The transition from your 20s into your 30s is a major one. For many of us, the decisions we make in those pivotal years end up defining our trajectory throughout the rest of our careers.

As I observe my friends navigating this shift, I can’t help but reflect on the advice I wish I’d had in my 20s before hitting 30. So I asked a few people already leading successful careers what their advice would be, and combined it with some of my own.

Here are a dozen pieces of advice I wish I’d known at 20.

1. Choose a career you like, not the one that pays more

This is a very common piece of advice. If you’re just trying to be successful just for the sake of it, then you’re going to have a difficult time being happy in your career. That alone is a measure of failure for many people.

“If you’re thinking of starting on a new career path, try the Passion-Talent-Market framework,” said Vikas Kalwani, partnerships manager at the digital publication-relations company uSERP. “Start by thinking about everything you’re passionate about, then choose the passions you’re good at (those are your talents). Finally, see if there’s a market for those talents. You’re bound to find a niche where you can grow a business or a career that will make you happy in the long run.”

2. Never lie or exaggerate on your resume

If you’re going to lie on your resume, why bother applying for the job in the first place? You might think you can get away with a little embellishment here and there, but more often than not, someone is going to catch onto it.

Plus, employers will usually see right through it and know that you lied on your application form, possibly even blacklisting you for future positions. Avoid this at all costs.

3. Take risks

When you’re young, you can afford to take risks because you have plenty of time and energy to get back on your feet if things don’t work out. In those cases, you’ll be wiser than before. If they do work out, you’ll be more successful than before, so it’s a win-win situation.

If you’re thinking of investing your money in the stock market, changing jobs, switching careers, or even moving to a new city, go for it! If there’s a chance that doing something will bring you closer to your goals, that’s a good risk to take at this time in your life.

4. Don’t be afraid to apply for a job you like, even if you don’t meet all of the requirements

This is a piece of advice that I wish I’d taken when I was in my early 20s, as it would have probably resulted in me landing a job I liked a lot more than my first one.

“If you’re applying for a job and not feeling too great about your chances, you should still apply because it’s always worth a shot,” said Aniruddh Nagodra, co-founder of factoHR, a payroll software company. “You’ll be surprised by how flexible recruiters can be regarding requirements.”

Job postings are usually just a wish list of the skills they think are more relevant, but there are many other things that determine whether or not you’ll be a good fit, so they always consider candidates who don’t necessarily have all the hard skills on the list.

5. You can always change careers later

I made the mistake of overthinking my career at first. I thought I would be interested in something for my entire life, but it turned out to be just a phase. The good thing about being in your 20s is that you have plenty of life ahead of you and can afford to make some mistakes in choosing your career path

“Even if you don’t know what direction you want to go,” said Jake Eisenberg, COO of SMB Compass, a small-business financing company. “It’s better to start working now and change careers later than sitting around collecting unemployment experience.”

6. Start networking early

One of the keys to success is connecting to the right people, which is why networking is so important. The thing is, you may not know who the right person is until later in life, which is why it’s so important to meet as many people as you can and to keep in touch as frequently as possible. 

“Send them a message or give them a call every now and then to keep up with their progress and offer help whenever you can,” said Alladdine Djaidani of the entrepreneur blog Hustler Ethos. “You never know: The next CEO at your dream company could turn out to be someone you’ve been networking with for years.”

7. Never stop learning

The most important thing to do when starting any new project or goal is to keep learning. You can never know everything about something, so there’s always plenty of room to learn more.

“To continually grow as a person, you should be constantly reading and seeking out information on topics that interest you,” said Deepak Juneja, CEO of the website design firm Tech Webers. “It will make the difference in how you approach other projects and subjects which you may not be as familiar with.”

8. Reach out to people you admire

I used to be so afraid of being rejected that I hardly ever reached out to others — even those people I admired in my own industry. But that gradually changed, and looking back on it now, I can only wonder: Why didn’t I start reaching out to people sooner?

“Being more social would have helped me advance my other projects much faster, and helped me to build up a network, too,” said Waqar Azeem, CEO of the social-media management company ContentStudio. “I’ve learned now that social networks grow exponentially — just like compound interest — so it’s worth putting in the time early on.”

9. Don’t let your job define you

A lot of people put so much energy into their jobs that when they come home at night they don’t know who they are anymore. It’s important not to let work consume your whole life and identity. You should also try to experience things outside of work, because it will give you more perspective on what your job is really like.

10. Take a year or two to experience what it’s like working in another country

I spent several years traveling around the world, and what I’ve learned is that the grass often is greener on the other side. I can tell you from personal experience that visiting different countries and being exposed to different cultures, work ethics, and values really does change your perspective on life and your career. 

I wouldn’t give up those experiences for the world.

11. Don’t let your job be your sole source of income

A lot of people think that having a job is the only way they will make a living, but this isn’t necessarily true, especially not today. There are tons of side hustles you can do from almost anywhere that can fit around your schedule to help you earn more money and worry less about what would happen if you lost your job. Securing a good passive income stream is also a great way to free yourself from traditional jobs.

12. Decide for yourself what success looks like

I left this one for last, but it’s one of the most relevant pieces of advice I can offer. In your career and in life, you should always run your own race. For me, success is defined by my personal happiness and work-life balance: enough money to live a comfortable life and to travel, time to spend with friends and family doing things we enjoy together without guilt or exhaustion from overdoing anything -— whether work or leisure. Once you know what your idea of success is, then take those first steps forward toward getting there as soon as possible!

The bottom line

You should decide for yourself what success looks like and work toward that goal by choosing a career you’re passionate about. Networking from an early age will go a long way in terms of opening new doors and bringing great career opportunities. Fight financial stress every way you can by managing your personal finances. This advice will help you achieve a more balanced lifestyle that has you feeling more fulfilled both at home and on the job.