I was recently interviewed by the amazing Courtney Lynch, founding partner of LeadStar, and one of the questions she posed has stuck with me, in part because no one ever asked me it before. She wanted to know what people should focus on career-wise during each decade of their life: twenties, thirties, and beyond.
Now, I’m not a big believer in the “five-year plan” or getting too far ahead of yourself in terms of career plotting. After all, success so often results from staying loose on one’s feet and being willing to pivot and adapt. But I also believe you need to be a relentless architect of your career, and there are certain strategies that make sense at key points in your life.
In your twenties, it’s important to be out in the world exploring as much as possible, being a mercenary for experience and the knowledge that comes with it. When I was writing one of my career books, I made an interesting and unexpected discovery. Most of the successful women I interviewed had figured out what they wanted to do professionally not by racking their brains, but by bumping into the answer in the outside world and experiencing a eureka moment. So if you’re not sure what you want—and even if you are sure—get out there and see what the world has to tell you.
Exploring in my twenties definitely helped me nail down my career goals. I loved the idea of working in magazines, but other areas seemed to beckon as well. So during the years I was a young magazine writer and editor, I also worked one night a week at a small cable television station, first as a writer, then as an evening news anchor (thank God they only had about 27 viewers!) During another period I was the nighttime volunteer coordinator in a political campaign. Those stints helped me rule out both television and politics as career paths.
As you gain more experience, you’ll begin to pinpoint what you love and what feels fulfilling, and that will help you narrow down where you want to put your professional energy. Suddenly you’ve got a clearer idea of what your area of expertise should be, or in other words, your personal brand.
Thirties: Build Skills
Ideally by your early thirties you’ve figured out what you love doing (at least for now), and you’re saying yes to opportunities that enhance your brand, and no to those that don’t. But you also need to keep building skills. Maybe you could use more expertise in finance or stronger tech skills. One of the smartest things I did in my thirties was begin to take public speaking courses.
Another great tactic for this decade: do some career math. Look at the people in your field who you admire and want to emulate. At what age did they hit certain marks in their career? When I was in my early thirties, I wasn’t certain whether I wanted to be an editor-in-chief one day, but just for the hell of it I did the math. From my calculations I realized that every female editor-in-chief in the business had snagged the title by the time she was in her early forties. I could see that I needed to step up my game if I wanted to get there one day. That was part of the reason I took the public speaking courses.
This is also the decade to raise your hand, time and time again. Suggest big, bold ideas to your boss. Don’t wait to be tapped for projects or promotions or a new job. Go after it! If the next fabulous job for you doesn’t exist in your company, suggest its creation. Use your mentors as sponsors, people who will open doors for you as well as give advice.
And if you don’t love what you’re doing, make a change now before you become too entrenched.
Forties: Don’t Relax
This can be the decade where all your hard work really pays off for you, but you don’t want to rest on your laurels. During the years I ran magazines, I often saw people in their forties make the mistake of getting too comfy in their jobs. You need to still be kicking ass, taking names, and generating those big, bold ideas.
Sometimes we run out of steam because we’re bored with what we’re doing, and that boredom saps even more energy. Force yourself out of your comfort zone and come up with a fantastic project you could tackle—or leave the company for an opportunity elsewhere. A brand new job may seem scary if you’ve stayed somewhere for a long time, but you’ll be glad you changed.
And as important as it is to think ahead, you need to be looking behind you as well. Recognize what younger staffers are bringing to the table. Do you have the skills they do? You need a “millennial mentor” in your life, someone who will share information about new technology, new approaches, and new attitudes.
Fifties: Keep Innovating
Your fifties can be wonderful. If things have worked out, you’re going gangbusters and bringing home a sweet paycheck. But you’re also vulnerable. When companies start downsizing, they often focus on older employees making big salaries who can be replaced by younger people who will do the job for less.
Don’t slack off. You still need to be coming up with innovative ideas and solutions. If you’re 55 years old and haven’t made your boss say “Wow” in a couple of weeks, you need to get busy. Keep your ear to the ground and pay attention to rumbles in your industry.
This is really the time for reverse mentoring. If you don’t have a millennial mentor, get one immediately.
Though I don’t believe in the five-year plan, your fifties is a good decade to think about how you’d like to be living your life in your sixties and later. I used my fifties to write books (murder mysteries and well as non-fiction), laying the foundation for me to eventually leave a corporate job and have a life as an author with a ton of personal freedom. It ended up paying off for me. The only word for my work life now: delicious.