We've been called pre-adults, emerging adults, millennials, the lost decade. We're told our 20s are the "defining decade," that 80% of life's most significant events take place by age 35, women still make only between 66 to 91 cents to every man's $1 and hold only 4.8% of Fortune 500 CEO positions. To change that, we should Lean In, ask for the raise, but not be afraid to start at the bottom. Maybe while we're at it, we should choose a husband while we're still in college.
In reality, young women receive a lot of mixed messages about how to get where we want to go professionally and personally. We've seen lists on "20 Mistakes You Don't Want to Make" go viral and helped make it happen. One thing is clear: we're searching for answers.
A few years ago I moved to New York in pursuit of a dream, only to spend an embarrassing number of days existing on ramen and canned beans. Working from a "home office" translated to "homebound," because who had money for a $14 cocktail from the nearby dive bar? I could feel the judgment vibes from everyone who wrote me "We believe in you!" cards for graduation. The truth is, my 20-something experience isn't so unusual.
But as Diane von Furstenberg said, "I didn't know what I wanted to do, but I always knew the woman I wanted to be." So I turned to similar success stories and curated their No. 1 secrets of professional and personal success. If you worry whether you're teetering on the edge of the next big thing or on the brink of returning to your parents' basement, read on for the 10 top ways to make the most of your 20s … from the professional women leaders changing the world who shared their secrets with me.
1. Have a vision.
People who don't know where they want to go don't get there. Let yourself dream and imagine the type of life you would like to create, then write it down. That way, you'll expand your consciousness to be ready to receive the opportunities that cross your path. Executive coach, strategist, and writer, Cherylyn Harley LeBon, had great advice:
"View your life in decades and think about what you would like to accomplish in your 20s, 30s, 40s, and plan accordingly. This applies to your personal or professional life. For example, if you would like to be married in your 30s with children, then make smart decisions about your dating life, take care of your health, and put yourself in a position to meet a responsible life partner. If you think you would like to eventually have your own business, make sure you're developing overall entrepreneurial skills and building your network. Visualize how and where you'd like to be in the future and your 20s will be much more productive and enjoyable."
2. Start before you're ready.
As a 20-something working in a competitive landscape, I know there's a lot of pressure to "be the best" at your job. But this perfectionism often paralyzes women from taking steps toward attaining their goals. They see the big divide between where they need to be and where they are. Instead of focusing on being perfect, allow yourself to create, to discover, and to get messy. Play around to explore what professions and skills you really enjoy and excel at, or which you would like to learn. Make a list of those things and keep developing it. Take risks to get involved in those professions or build those skills, either by accepting a job offer outside your comfort zone or asking for more responsibility. Start before you're ready.
3. Be intentional.
Time is on our side, but we need to use it wisely. Gabrielle Jackson, president and millennial strategist at The Millennial Solution, shared with me, "We think things are just 'going to happen' whether it's a raise at work, fulfillment in relationships, or even that pile of laundry we've been putting off. You can't procrastinate on your own life. Your 20s are your time to take risks and start a business, learn a new language, try a different career and build the life that you want. Show up for your own success. When you hit 30, you won't be wondering where your 20s went, you will be excited about where your 30s will go." Although it may seem like a commodity to be enjoyed, the time in your 20s will quickly fly by and you'll be grateful for taking time to think through the decisions you make.
4. Choose a role model.
Although we still have a ways to go, women have more possibilities at their disposal than ever before. Because of that, women with vision "want it all." While it's great and permissible to have multiple passions, make concrete choices that help you wind up where you want to be. As career coach and author of "The Brazen Careerist," Penelope Trunk told me, "To make sure you have attainable goals, identify a woman older than 35 who you want to be. Make sure you're close enough to her to know what her personal life is like. It's a package. Then look at the sacrifices that person made to get where she is. Decide if you want to make those sacrifices as well. If not, then pick another role model. Don't let yourself go through your 20s with no idea where you want to end up."
5. Define your value system.
As women, we receive so many messages daily about who we should be, how we should look, and what we should do, through advertising, media, and even our friends. Our 20s are the time to answer the questions, "What do I believe and value? How do I want to be remembered? What will be my legacy?" As CEO and Founder of SHE Globl Media and SHE Summit, Claudia Chan shared with me, "Start developing and defining the values you want to base your life on. They can be about the kind of relationships you want to have and nurture, to what's required in the professional opportunities you take, to qualities you want to strengthen."
6. Learn to budget and save money.
For the first job or two out of college, it can be thrilling to get a real paycheck and instantly dream of the next swanky bar, restaurant, or chic outfit to spend it on. Budgeting is a real skill, and you want the zeros in your bank account to come after another number, not be the only number. Saving money gives you financial freedom to leave a job if necessary, start a side hustle, take a dream vacation (you can!), or plan for retirement (no, seriously.) As Rebecca Jackson, COO of "GoGirl Finance," shared with me, "Saving for the future can feel like you're restricting yourself, but alongside putting funds into a 401k or an IRA (and please do that), consider saving money as a gift to your future self for dreams that are unknown. Savings can be the means by which they unfold."
7. Choose your friends wisely.
We become like those around us. It's critical to build a tribe of friends who help challenge us to grow and become the best version of ourselves, which includes giving back to others. Multiple Emmy-nominated TV host and Founder & CEO of PowerwomenTV, Amy Palmer, shared with me, "The biggest lesson I learned in my 20s was to look around at the people I was hanging out with. Are they using their time and talents wisely? Have they decided what and who they want to be in life? Your circle of influence defines who you are." Many of the relationships we foster in our 20s will travel with us throughout life and continue to shape us. So we need to choose well.
8. Build a strategic digital presence.
Everyone is online. Learn how to use the digital tools available, like LinkedIn, to connect and network with potential employers, mentors, and clients. Ask for a recommendation, tweak the language in your executive summary, invest in professional head shots. This attention to detail can potentially pay lasting dividends, literally. Millennial expert and TV and Radio Talk Show Host, Chelsea Krost, is no stranger to the digital landscape. She says, "Your 20s should be a time where you build your personal brand and network network network. Millennials, Digital Natives, people in their 20s today have unlimited resources at their fingertips thanks to technology. The time is now to start building a presence online, and to create a LinkedIn account. Let your 20s be a time where you create, innovate, and collaborate. You never know what relationship or opportunity may lead to something bigger and better! I live by the motto, "It's always a yes until it's a no."
9. Know that you're more than your job.
In big cities, the first question upon meeting someone is often, "what do you do?" making it easy to define our success and value by our job title or paycheck. In reality, we have purpose and value for our own sake, apart from our padded résumé and stack of degrees. Amanda Slavin, CEO and Founder of Catalyst Creativ, sympathized with me, "It's easy to rush through life to get as much as you can as quickly as possible. We like to push ourselves to the limit, throw ourselves in the fire, and never think we're never going to get burnt. But we do. Instead, think about the fact that you're more than your job. You're a multifaceted person. Slow down, breathe, and take the time to realize you can create your own happiness in your life, and that doesn't just mean in your job."
10. Don't rush.
When you see your friends bragging about their 100-hour work week followed by a bedtime reading of "Moby Dick" like it's a badge of honor, don't imitate them. Sure, it's great to hustle, but you should rely more on your internal compass and limitations than on external expectations. New York Correspondent for E! News Alicia Quarles is no stranger to the fast paced lifestyle, but she said, "So many people in their 20s are in a hurry to get to where they want to be: graduated, established, promoted, in love. Your 20s are a time where it's ok to make mistakes as long as you learn from them. Don't be in a rush to be who you're going to be. Just enjoy being who you are."