Most people hit their stride in their thirties and forties. Studies show that major life milestones previously reserved for twenty-somethings , like marriage, buying a home and starting a family are occurring later in life.
But that doesn’t mean that the twenties aren’t an important decade for personal and professional development. Instead, they are a time when character development occurs and choices set a course for the future.
Let’s look at 20 life changes highly successful people made in their twenties.
1. Try Different Industries like Martha Stewart
Martha Stewart worked as a model and then as a stock broker on Wall Street before beginning the catering business that led to her eponymous company. All of that experience led her to be successful.
“There were very few women on the time on Wall St. … I never considered myself unequal.”
Of course we know she met uber-success with her lifestyle brand, but those early experiences in modeling and stock brokerage imparted important lessons. So don’t be frustrated if you aren’t in your permanent profession yet!
2. Build Sweat Equity like Oprah
It might be hard to remember a time when Oprah wasn’t a superstar. But she paid her dues as a radio television news reporter in Nashville, Tennessee, and Baltimore, Maryland, bouncing between different stations to learn the craft after college. After 5 years, she was given her own show in Baltimore, which lasted 8 years. Next came a morning show in Chicago. The Oprah Winfrey Show wasn’t nationally syndicated until 1986, after 15 years of work in broadcasting.
“What other people label or might try to call failure, I have learned is just God’s way of pointing you in a new direction.”
Don’t be frustrated by being the “low man on the totem pole.” Everyone needs time to learn and grow outside of the pressure of the spotlight. Even Oprah.
3. Learn from Hitting Rock Bottom like Tim Allen
For some people, hitting rock bottom puts the future into clear focus. Comedian Tim Allen, now starring in the ABC sitcom Last Man Standing, was arrested for cocaine possession and drug trafficking in 1978.
“When I went to jail, reality hit so hard that it took my breath away, took my stance away, took my strength away. I was there buck naked, humiliated, sitting in my own crap and urine — this is a metaphor. My ego had run off. Your ego is the biggest coward.”
If you’ve recently made a mistake, remember that a little perspective and humility go a long way! Turning that mistake into a learning experience shows maturity as well as personal and professional development.
4. Find the Right Life Partner like Kelly Ripa and Mark Consuelos
Kelly Ripa and Mark Consuelos married in 1996 when they were both in their twenties. She went on to huge fame, starring in the Regis and Kelly Show (now Kelly and Michael Show), and he starred on All My Children and now Alpha House.
Finding the right partner offers a foundation for both your personal and professional life.
“He is the person I was meant to be with forever, and I think he feels the same way. We really do have quite an allegiance to one another. No matter what, we support each other in everything we do.”
5. Make Your Own Education like Steve Jobs
Staying in school is clearly the safer path to success. But for some young entrepreneurs, college is not necessary. Steve Jobs famously dropped out of Reed College and started Apple Computers with Steve Wozniak in a garage. At his 2005 commencement address to the graduates of Stanford, he explained:
“After six months [at college], I couldn’t see the value in it. I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life and no idea how college was going to help me figure it out. And here I was spending all of the money my parents had saved their entire life. So I decided to drop out and trust that it would all work out OK. It was pretty scary at the time, but looking back it was one of the best decisions I ever made. The minute I dropped out I could stop taking the required classes that didn’t interest me, and begin dropping in on the ones that looked interesting.”
6. Take a Risk like Marissa Mayer
Marissa Mayer was given 14 job offers after graduation at Stanford University. One of those was from Google – at that time the company only had 19 employees and no women on staff. But she went on to be a part of some of the most successful Google products before transitioning to Yahoo to act as CEO.
“I helped build Google, but I don’t like to rest on [my] laurels. I think the most interesting thing is what happens next.”
7. Start a Business like Jay-Z
Sean Carter had rapped under the nickname Jay-Z for many years, but it wasn’t until he founded Roc-A-Fella Records with two friends that he became a star. Under his own label, Jay-Z released Reasonable Doubt, which is now widely thought of as a classic hip-hop album.
“There’s not a lot of people who have come of age in rap because it’s only 30 years old…As more people come of age, hopefully the topics get broader and then the audience will stay around longer.”
8. Take Advantage of Compounding Interest like Warren Buffet
Putting a few hundred dollars a year away now and letting compounding interest work its magic for decades until retirement will result in more money than trying to play catch-up with the same amount later in life. And with our collective credit scores hovering below average in a lot of places, that’s advice we should take. Warren Buffet had that figured out, since he started investing right after college.
“I will tell you how to become rich. Close the doors. Be fearful when others are greedy. Be greedy when others are fearful.”
9. Work in Sales like Howard Schultz
There is a lot that can be learned in sales that will teach lessons for future success: how to make a good first impression, how to persuade and convince others, how to take rejection well, among many other things. Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz started as a Xerox salesman. That led him to a job as a coffee machine salesmen, which is how he crossed paths with his current career.
In his book, Pour Your Heart Into It, Schultz writes:
“Cold-calling was great training for business. It taught me to think on my feet. So many doors slammed on me that I had to develop a thick skin and a concise sales pitch for a then-newfangled machine called a word processor. But the work fascinated me, and I kept my sense of humor and adventure. I thrived on the competition, trying to be the best, to be noticed, to provide the most leads to my salesmen. I wanted to win.”
10. Find a Mentor like Condoleezza Rice
Long before she became Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice took a class at the University of Denver taught by Dr. Josef Korbel (father of former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright). His leadership and passion for Soviet and eastern European politics inspired Rice to change majors and pursue that career path.
The two stayed in touch, the mentor encouraging his mentee to pursue a doctorate, which led her to a professorship and placed her on the radar of federal government agencies. According to this NPR story:
“To Rice, Korbel was a dazzling mentor, the person she cites as having inspired her to become a diplomat.”
11. Go to School like Eric Schmidt
If dropping out of school is part of the story of success for some, staying in school and learning as much as possible is a more common and sure path to achievement.
Eric Schmidt, former CEO and now executive chairman of Google, is among the richest people in the world. Schmidt spend many years studying, including an undergraduate degree at Princeton, a stint at the International House Berkeley, then an M.S. degree for designing and executing a campus-wide network of computers at UC Berkeley. To cap it off, he got a Ph.D. in computer engineering.
In an address to Berkeley students many years later, Schmidt explained that part of his inspiration came from campus life.
“Back then, back when I was, like you…it felt like a new world was being imagined right here on campus, in all the different labs and workshops and dorms. There was something in the air that made you think — something that made you dream.”
12. Be Willing to Work 24/7 like Richard Branson
Richard Branson, founder and owner of Virgin Group, got his start when he opened a record label in his 20s. For a man who is trying to launch one of the first commercial space flights, it might be hard to picture him pounding the pavement and worrying about making ends meet. His advice? Hard work pays off.
He said in an interview of his early years:
“Building a business from scratch is 24 hours, 7 days a week, divorces, it’s difficult to hold your family life together, it’s bloody hard work and only one word really matters — and that’s surviving.”
13. Work in Retail like John Steinberg
Similar to sales, retail offers a lot of life lessons that will serve you no matter which career path you choose. John Steinberg, CEO of Daily Mail North America, learned a lot working retail with his sister. He ran all over the store, selling lots of low cost items, while his sister stayed in the high-priced section and only sold a few pieces a day. But his sister had higher profits.
“I learned that…if you can work smart on items with high order value and high margin, you will always be better off than working hard on low value, low margin items.”
He also says he learned the importance of technical expertise and responsibility in that retail position.
14. Learn a Trade like Harrison Ford
It’s hard to imagine Harrison Ford struggling like you and me, but he did. After heading to California to pursue acting, the work wasn’t steady enough for Ford to pay the bills. He took up carpentry to earn extra money, learning from books and taking on small projects to begin. Eventually he was recommended to Hollywood and music industry executives and stars, which gave him foray into more acting jobs.
“I had helped George Lucas audition other actors for the principle parts, and with no expectation or indication that I might be considered for the part of Han, I was quite surprised when I was offered the part. My principle job at the time was carpentry, I had been under contract as an actor at Columbia and Universal.
I had a house at the time I wanted to remodel, a bit of the wreck of a house. I’d invest money in tools but wouldn’t have money for materials, so I realized this was another way of putting food on the table. And allowing me to pick and choose from the acting jobs that were being offered at the time.”
So don’t think a particular field or line of work is below you. Consider your talents and think about trade jobs. You never know where they may lead!
15. Share Your Good Fortune With Others like Steve Wozniak
Steve Wozniak co-founded Apple Computers with Steve Jobs and is often cited as the person who brought on the personal computer revolution.
When it came time for Apple Computers to go public, Wozniak thought some of the longtime employees were being left out of the stock option agreements. Unhappy with the distribution of the stock, he sold cheaply or gave away thousands of Apple shares to those he felt had been treated unfairly. Why? Woz, as he is called, said,
“I’d rather be liked than rich.”
16. Give Yourself A Timeline like Jon Hamm
The Mad Men star had a difficult time getting work when he started in Hollywood. John Hamm shared an apartment with other actors and found it difficult to get cast when he was in his twenties. After three years of no work, he gave himself an ultimatum: get work by age 30, or switch jobs.
Of that time, Hamm said:
“You either suck that up and find another agent, or you go home and say you gave it a shot, but that’s the end of that. The last thing I wanted to be out here was one of those actors who’s 45 years old, with a tenuous grasp of their own reality, and not really working much. So I gave myself five years. I said, if I can’t get it going by the time I’m 30, I’m in the wrong place. And as soon as I said that, it’s like I started working right away.”
Sometimes a change in perspective is the inspiration needed to be successful.
17. Remember Your Dreams like Ang Lee
Filmmaker Ang Lee (Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, Life of Pi, Brokeback Mountain), spend his twenties taking on odd jobs related to film and theater: working as an editorial assistant and helping crews with equipment while trying to write and shop his screenplays to Hollywood executives.
He took on “Mr. Mom” duties to feel like he was being a true partner to his wife, the family’s primary bread winner. When he was ready to give up, she encouraged him to always remember his dreams, and that inspired him to redouble his efforts. Lee wrote:
“Sometime after, I obtained funding for my screenplay, and began to shoot my own films. And after that, a few of my films started to win international awards. Recalling earlier times, my wife confessed, ‘I’ve always believed that you only need one gift. Your gift is making films.”
18. Pick A Solid Business Partner like Bill Gates and Paul Allen
We’ve already covered the importance of picking a solid life partner, but hitching your wagon to someone else’s in business is also important. Bill Gates started Microsoft with Paul Allen when they were both in their twenties after becoming friends in high school. Said Allen,
“Our great string of successes had married my vision to his unmatched aptitude for business.”
Despite the unraveling of Gates’ and Allen’s partnership after Microsoft was under way, Allen still admits that, in the early days, “We had an amazing friendship and an amazing partnership.”
19. Overcome Insecurities like Kristen Wiig
Most people who know Kristen Wiig from Saturday Night Live wouldn’t believe that she was terrified of public speaking. But she overcame that fear in her 20s by taking an acting class at the University of Arizona.
“I don’t really like talking in front of groups of people. Through high school if ever I had to give a speech, I would try to get out of it or not go to school that day… But I took the class, and I liked it, and the teacher was really encouraging for me to keep doing it.”
So use your twenties to conquer fears head on, instead of letting them grow and cause more anxiety later in life.
20. Let Your Failure Help Set Your Course Like Suze Orman
Most people turn to Suze Orman for financial advice without realizing she’s come by her knowledge of bankruptcy first hand. After waitressing for several years, she decided to open her own restaurant. She got backing from loyal customers, and without personal knowledge about investing, gave her money to a broker to invest on her behalf. A get-rich-quick scheme from the broker failed, and Orman lost all of her capital. Yet this experience led her to learn more about investing, and she went on to become a broker at the same firm. Now, Americans look to her:
“My job is to be the financial truth crusader. …Hope for the best. But plan for the worst.”
So if you’ve suffered a setback in your twenties, may you use it as inspiration to forge a new, better career!
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