Career secrets I wish I knew at 20...

Updated: May 16, 2019

Your 20s are a fantastic time in life. You might be moving out of home, travelling, and exploring the workforce. Many will be impatient for success and progress. It’s energising! But the early phase of your career can also be overwhelming.

Sharing a few of my lessons learned, career secrets, and truth bombs that I would tell my 20-year-old self.

1. Focus on identifying your passions

Find what gets you excited. If you enjoy what you do, then success and money will come later. One approach is to list everything you love and define what motivates you. This includes hobbies - such as meeting people, video games, solving puzzles, cooking, or drawing. List it all! Then brainstorm ways to integrate these passions into your work. Ask yourself - “what would I love to do each day, even for free?” Identify the related skill. As an example, if you love gaming (because you’re into competitiveness, quick thinking, and zero-sum game), then perhaps trading is something to consider. But you must make this assessment holistically against all your priorities and the market.

2. Solve problems

I’ve made some big bloopers at work. After being yelled at by top executives (imagine Devil Wears Prada moments), I learnt to focus on solutions, not problems.

"Be a person of value. People tend to remember that you solved an issue, even if you caused the issue."

The key - bring a service based attitude and leave your ego at the door. This step alone will put you miles ahead of peers. It’s so easy to complain about problems. But if you have a consultative approach, provide ideas, and focus on your stakeholder needs - you will be hard to replace!

3. You have choices

There are many types of work environments. I've experienced the following, each with pros and cons. You need to find what works best for you, at each stage of your growth.

The work environment is a mutually-beneficial relationship. When it no longer feels like this for either side – time to move on or let people go. Remember that you have choices as you grow! But you must be ACTIVE in attracting opportunities into your life. One trick is to...

4. Network strategically and build your personal brand

This is the single most important tip I'd give to myself at 20. Be known as someone who delivers! Your reputation is your brand. Build on it with intention and mindfulness. You will develop your network naturally through consistent and strong performance.

"I’d recommend seeking out great leaders and asking for advice. Find out their secrets to success and where they failed."

Industry events are a great way to meet people. However, this method is more effective later in your career or if you’re building a brand or business.

Large organisations can be a fabulous training ground, launch pad, and place to network! Get a sense of the environment and culture. Be aware that on the worst days, it can feel like a really long episode of Survivor or Game of Thrones. At school, we’re not taught that there is a political element to the work environment, which compliments solid performance. It took me a long time to realise this. Don’t feel bad about this aspect. This is not an idealistic world. To thrive I encourage you to find a sponsor, build friendships and alliances, negotiate, know when to get noticed, and know when it’s time to fly under the radar. If you are not conscious of this reality, you might get voted off the island… or even worse... find yourself at The Wall feeling stuck with nowhere to go. One way to counter-balance this is to...

5. Be proactive with getting noticed

Your network plays a big role in how you progress. Talented people can be overlooked for opportunities because of mindset - "I've been here the longest, I worked the hardest, and I've earned it". Sadly, many work environments don't support a merit-only system. So make sure the right people know WHO you are, and WHAT you've achieved. Be strategic in your approach. Here are few examples that can be applied to all scenarios, from start-ups to MNCs...

  • Be proactive in scheduling 1:1s with the leader.

  • After you've delivered a great project, be sure management promotes it.

  • Ask executives or influential contacts to "make a phone call" if you're going for the next opportunity or a promotion.

  • When working remotely, send regular updates and be visible.

  • Bring solutions and well-presented work to the team.

  • Escalate issues professionally, don’t waste time with complaining on trivial matters. 

  • If you really want something, put a compelling proposal together and pitch for it!

You won't get everything you want, every time. But I assure you, taking a consistent proactive approach will attract opportunity into your life.

6. Plan two roles in advance

A professional coach once asked me - "what role do you want two positions from now? Visualise what you are doing in 8 years. What does life look like? Your next role should develop the skills you will need". I LOVE this approach!

"Visualisation is a powerful tool in manifesting your own reality."

When you’re looking for the next gig, it's a good idea to plan in advance. It can take time to find the right direction! Around 6 months ahead - seek advice from mentors, speak to your network, let people know what you want, and stay focused till you get there.

7. Deflating fear of judgement

I was terrified of failure during my first big career change. In my mid-20s, I started a creative business and thought people would laugh at me for giving it a go. It was a big departure from my job at the time. There was a lot of self-doubt and negative internal talk. One day my sister said, "Get over yourself, no one cares enough to be laughing at you”. A little bit brutal. But also the most liberating feedback ever! So I got out of my own way and went for it 100%. If you pursue a dream with authenticity and integrity, then any negative energy can just roll past like a "bad smell in the breeze" (another one of my sister’s fabulous comments). What matters most is that you give it a go. Start small and simple. Build with baby steps. Just do it.

8. Find people who inspire

Seek out people who inspire you - at work, in your relationships, and through your hobbies. Invest time with people you can learn from. Simultaneously, limit time with negative or cynical people. Find a mentor. Find a coach. I’m grateful for the impact incredible leaders, coaches, and mentors have had on my life and choices. Wisdom is a trait I deeply admire. This group can help you to overcome obstacles, provide direction, share ideas, play devil’s advocate, and connect you to influential people. This is the game changer!

"It's never too late to start implementing change."

Hopefully there is something here that you can action immediately. Wishing you all the very best with creating a fulfilling career, and if you have any questions or feedback please connect.


Sarah Lal is a Life & Executive Coach, supporting high performing people to access their inner resources, so they can thrive. As Co-Founder & CEO of MyLifehouse, her mission is to increase awareness of the practical uses of coaching and access to top quality coaches. Sarah believes everyone can live a purpose driven and fulfilling life. She connect clients with tools and techniques to discover and design a meaningful life, build a rewarding career, and/or embrace change.

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