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20 Pieces of Career Advice I Wish I'd Known In My Twenties

Mariah MacCarthy

Posted on November 01 2016

Let’s get to it. Here’s 20 bits of career advice I wish I’d known in my twenties:

Know your worth

Before you take on an unpaid (or under-paid) internship, ask yourself: What do I want from this? (“Meet people in my field” is not a sufficient answer.) What do I want to be able to do after this internship? (“Put it on my resume” is not a sufficient answer.) Approaching these experiences with some concrete goals in mind will keep you from wasting your time and screwing yourself financially for no reason.

Beware the credit monster

Wait to get a credit card until you’ve gotten used to living on your own. And once you get one, don’t put anything on it that you can’t pay off that month, unless it’s a legit emergency. (“Legit emergency” means that someone’s life is in danger. “I planned poorly and now all I can eat is ramen” is not a legit emergency.)

Don’t kill your idols

Give your mentors and idols space. Don’t follow them around like a puppy. Don’t contact them incessantly but stay in contact. When you have a favor to ask, find the most succinct and courteous way possible of asking for it. Respect their time. They’re busy.

Get offline

Deactivate Facebook a few hours or a few days when you need to get shit done. Or just install StayFocusd.

Ask for raises

And ask for more than the number they offer for your starting salary. Most offers have some wiggle room built in for negotiation. GetBullish has some fantastic advice about asking for more money. Start with this as early as possible; the more money you make now, the more money you’ll have later, and your future self will thank you!

Don’t be too green

When you are very green, many will see your greatest assets as your combination of enthusiasm and willingness to do menial tasks. Do not get so good at enthusiastically doing menial tasks that they become your calling card. Remind yourself and others about your long-term goals frequently.

Covet your energy

Your ACTUAL greatest asset, especially in your early twenties, is your tremendous energy and resilience. This will go down significantly by 30, trust me! So ask yourself: What am I going to do with this surplus energy to make sure I don’t need to work so hard in ten years?

Tell yourself that it’s okay

It’s OK not to know what you want to be when you grow up. It’s OK to think you know but then change your mind a million times. But no matter what, save money like a motherfucker. There is no possible life path where having some savings in the bank will be a bad thing. And with the plethora of savings apps out there now, it’s never been easier to save.

Practice moderation

Just because you’re at a bar doesn’t mean you have to drink. You’ll save yourself a lot of money and hangovers if you’re judicious about only drinking when you genuinely want to drink, not just when you’re around people who are also drinking. (And when you do wake up with a hangover? Unflavored Pedialyte, my friend.)

Make calls

If your bank ever charges you an overdraft or bounced check fee, call them and try to get it removed. If you know you might be late paying a bill, call and try to get an extension. Ask nicely but assertively. (This works 95% of the time for me.)

Find happiness at work (and home)

If you specifically seek out work environments where you can be yourself, you’ll save yourself a lot of time and energy (and be happier!). It’s not always possible (like if you’re an elementary school teacher who really likes to wear shirts with profanity on them), but remember that a work environment does not have to be stifling by definition.

Never forget your passion

If your passion is something that by its very nature tends not to make much money, is there something else you can do that will use similar parts of your brain but actually make you money? (Example: I’m a playwright, but then I branched out into writing articles like this one and YA fiction, and teaching playwriting; others have gone into TV writing or copywriting.) You might think you’re fine with keeping your “day job” and “career” separate, essentially having two full-time jobs, but you might not feel that way in ten years, or if you start a family.

Play dress up

Clothes can help you create the life you want, even if you (like me) don’t care much about keeping “on-trend” or “dressing for success.” Example: I bought myself a “disco adventure suit.” I bought it because it was too amazing not to get. I almost didn’t get it because I thought, “When will I ever wear this?” Then I thought, “Well, I’ll just get it and then make excuses to wear it.” It worked; I have since found many glorious excuses to bust out the disco adventure suit, and my life is much better for it. This works on a beer budget, too: thrift stores are full of crazy, wonderful clothes that your life will be better for finding an excuse to wear.

Be honest about your finances

It can be easy to assume you’re the only one who’s broke, but you’re definitely not. If the thought of spending money on socializing is stressing you out, be honest about your financial position and suggest some budget options to your friends. Chances are, they’ll be relieved because they’re in the exact same situation.

Ask questions

Ask the people in your field who are a few (or many) years ahead of you lots of questions about the concrete realities of their jobs and industry. Some people who you will assume are making bank are actually making negative dollars. Sometimes the company you think you want to work for is actually a horrifying place to be. Do your research.

Be a friend

Don’t *just* spend your time trying to get the attention of higher-ups. Your peers, your fellow interns and minions and “early career”-ists, are the industry leaders of tomorrow. Befriend them.

Make new friends

Networking can be as simple as just making friends. It doesn’t have to be douchey or stressful. Spending time with the people in your field that you like? That’s networking.

Eat well

Eat a fuckload of produce and drink a fuckload of water. You’ll feel better, and have more energy for your life.

Have goals that tap into your joy

From time to time, actually write down a list of the things that bring you joy, and make sure your life is allowing you to do those things with regularity. If it’s not, change something.

Clean up

Keep your room clean, or at least walkable. (This one took me many, many years to get the hang of.) You’ll be amazed at how much more productive you are when it doesn’t feel like a bomb went off in your room.

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