6 career lessons every 20-something should know

Source: Francesco Marconi

This is not just another read on how to succeed. I should know. I spent years plowing through book after book on success.

The problem was that most of what I read didn't really apply to a 20-something young professional. These books were written by people who were at the apex of their careers, light-years removed from their early days of climbing the proverbial corporate ladder, and a little out of touch with folks like myself who were still on a journey to make an impact at work and in the world.

So I decided to take a stab at writing my own "success" story — a story that is still being written. Instead of a polished retrospective from the mountaintop, so to speak, I've drafted my own personal playbook of tested, real-time observations along the way. The result is these six bite-sized rules meant to cut through the noise of career clichés. They are the byproducts of a process of trial and error, my own social experiments and research as a young professional.

Rule #1 You're on your own

Craft a clear strategy for accomplishing your goals

"If you don't design your own life plan, chances are you'll fall into someone else's plan. And guess what they have planned for you? Not much."Jim Rohn

When I was a student, my professors paid attention to me, my work and aspirations. I thrived in this environment of constant encouragement, not realizing that when I entered the workforce this could change completely. Suddenly, my ideas were no longer "brilliant" and no one was particularly interested in what I had to share. The reality? Professors are paid to support your dreams and train you to accomplish them. You step outside that classroom into the office, and everyone else appears to have their own problems and agendas and little time for you.

Don't be discouraged, there's a way around it! A research study conducted by a Professor at Dartmouth College found that people can improve their performance and become better at what they do by simply choosing the right people to spend time with. In his analysis, Professor Bruce Sacerdote observed that students could improve their grades by simply choosing higher scoring roommates. You too can boost your life satisfaction by carefully selecting a support network.

THE TAKEAWAY: Craft a clear strategy for how you can accomplish your goals with little help from others. But remember that going alone is never the fastest way to the top. Build a support system, a network of people who get excited about your ideas and that can encourage you to accomplish more. I still keep in touch with many of my mentors, not to mention my family and some of my past supervisors.

Rule #2 I ink, therefore I am

Write down your goals

"Life isn't about finding yourself. Life is about creating yourself."George Bernard Shaw

Everyone tells you that you need goals in order to succeed. What they don't tell you is just how difficult it is to define your professional goals.

As a child, Thomas Edison had an incredibly imaginative mind, so much so that he was not able to focus in the classroom and had to be home schooled by his mother. He made it his life's ambition to make her proud. Edison tried many jobs before finding his true calling—something that allowed him to draw on his dynamic imagination. Over a thousand inventions has made Edison an icon for entrepreneurship. Edison chronicled his plans for new tools and technologies—from the electric light bulb to the motion picture camera — in more than 3,500 notebooks.

Growing up I spent my time drawing, writing and sharing my creations with others. Unfortunately, my first job as an economist was quite the opposite of that. After slogging through many unhappy hours at work, I had an epiphany: I had to recreate my childhood. Not literally, of course, but I had to find a way to draw from those wells of creativity, curiosity and communication. My answer was the media industry, where I could stick to my values and rediscover my true passions. I joined a large news organization, and now, a few years later, I have a defined professional goal: to become a senior executive in a news media company — and maybe even start one.

THE TAKEAWAY: Psychologist Gail Matthews at Dominican University found that you are 42 percent more likely to achieve your goals just by writing them down. If you don't know what you want to do with your life, think about the things that made you happy as a child and map them against potential careers. Write them down and be as specific as possible. While the goals you share publicly might be more realistic, don't be afraid to dream.

Rule #3 Moonlight

Find a creative outlet to enhance your overall performance

"The cure for boredom is curiosity. There is no cure for curiosity."Dorothy Parker

Many successful people use their creativity to propel projects from point A to point B. But where do those creative juices come from? According to Carol Kauffman of Harvard Medical School, one answer is hobbies. Hobbies, Kauffman says, can enhance your creativity, help you think more clearly and sharpen your focus.

David Rockefeller, former chairman and CEO of Chase Manhattan Corporation, collects beetles. Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon,is building a clock inside a mountain in west Texas that clicks once a year. My hobby is to water paint. I sit at my desk and study my pet fish, Sushi, for inspiration. Then I draw different shapes and colors, an abstract exercise, until I enter a "zone."This helps me relax and be more creative in my workday tasks.

THE TAKEAWAY: A hobby always makes for a great story, especially if you can find something memorable. It can also yield better work performance and stronger personal and professional relationships. If you don't have one yet, find one. It will help you be more productive in your day job and spice up office small talk.

Rule #4 Know why you do

Tell people the meaningful aspect of your work

"People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel." — Maya Angelou

Even as a college student, Elon Musk knew how to describe his mission. The founder of online payments portal PayPal, electric car maker Tesla and space exploration company SpaceX gave up pursuing a Ph.D. to follow his entrepreneurial interest in areas that he says will "most affect the future of humanity in a positive way" — the Internet, sustainable energy and space exploration.

When people ask me what I do, I follow Musk's example. I don't say I work for a news company. I tell them I work for a company that "promotes democracy through news and information."

THE TAKEAWAY: When asked what your profession is, explain your job function and its emotional dimension. For example, maybe you work for an insurance company, and your job title is financial analyst. But your role, what you want others to know about what you do, is to ensure people sleep well at night because they know they are protected from loss.

Rule #5 Become a Ninja

Take time to disconnect and recharge

"To be yourself in a world that is constantly trying to make you something else is the greatest accomplishment."Ralph Waldo Emerson

Ray Dalio practices meditation every day. The philanthropist and founder of investment management firm Bridgewater Associates believes taking time to disconnect and relax for a brief period makes him more efficient in his personal life, helping him "feel like a ninja in a fight." Research supports the idea that meditation leads to stress prevention: the David Lynch Foundation has seen a 10 percent increase in test scores and a 40 percent reduction in stress in children who sit quietly for short periods of time.

Every morning I sit in a red chair in my room and close my eyes for 20 minutes. I use this time to regroup my thoughts and visualize the day ahead, and slowly I let go of any stress from the day before. Since I've started this simple routine, I feel much more calm, focused and creative.

THE TAKEAWAY: Take time to be with yourself and disconnect from the buzz of your phone, email and Twitter. Even if it's only for 15 minutes, start your day by sitting in a quiet room with your eyes closed. Use this time to recharge and think of what you need to accomplish during the workday. You will come out refreshed and ready to tackle what's ahead.

Rule #6 Save your strength

Eliminate unimportant decisions in your life

"If somebody offers you an amazing opportunity but you are not sure you can do it, say yesthen learn how to do it later!"Richard Branson

In 2012 President Barack Obama revealed to a Vanity Fair reporter the secret to his success: "You'll see I wear only gray or blue suits." Obama realized that making decisions impairs our ability to make later decisions, what psychologists have called "decision fatigue." For the president this means avoiding spending mental energy on what he will eat or wear so that he is better equipped to make important decisions: "You need to focus your decision-making energy. You need to routinize yourself. You can't be going through the day distracted by trivia." In his book "The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less," psychologist Barry Schwartz agrees, arguing that fewer choices can actually make us happier.

I find that putting one small part of my life on auto-pilot has had enormous benefits for the rest of my work day. Every morning for the past three years I have followed the same routine, including the way I get dressed, the bowl of fruit I eat, and the route I take to work. Waking up and getting ready this way, habitually and efficiently, starts my day off right and leaves me energized to make decisions when I arrive at the office.

THE TAKEAWAY: Take the president's advice and "routinize yourself," eliminating as many decisions as you can from your life. With the remaining decisions, don't waste your time pondering — just decide.

What is your life purpose?

Commentary by Francesco Marconi, strategy manager for The Associated Press and fellow at Columbia Journalism School.

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