Just How Important Are Your 20s To A Successful Career?

. 7 min read . Written by Sanjana Bhagwat
Just How Important Are Your 20s To A Successful Career?

These days, when watching a movie or a TV show that follows a protagonist making their way through their life and career, I find myself desperately looking out for clues of how old they are. 

Okay, I get that she’s confused about what she wants to pursue, but is she having this existential crisis at 21 or 28? I think while trying to do the math. Oh cool, the character managed to work her way up and is now super content with her career. Definitely happy for her and all, but how long did that take? I wonder, while irrationally comparing my own career journey to that of a fictional character’s and worry about how to be successful in my 20s.

If you indulge in this, (or similar timeline-obsessed activities), chances are you’re in your 20s.

I’ve realised that my need to know how others’ stories play out, or more accurately, how quickly they play out, is a desperate attempt at trying to understand and normalise my own timeline, and figure out why your 20s are important.

Is it okay that I’m still pretty unsure of what I want to do at 23? Am I doing okay at my first job? Am I learning enough? Is it okay that I don’t have a Master’s degree yet? Do I need to get one? What should I study if I do? How can I discover my passion? Am I figuring this all out too late?

It sounds silly as I write it, but I feel like I’m running out of time to do the ‘things to do in your 20s list‘. It feels like I’ve already run out of time to make some important decisions.

I know I’m not the only one who feels this way. It seems to be a staple of the 20s – a heady cocktail of self-imposed pressure, anxieties, and hustle culture mixed with a careless hint of ‘Why am I even doing this?’ and vague notes of ‘Does any of this even matter?’.

I’ve watched my friends treat every day as time they can’t “waste”, constantly killing themselves by overworking, spending every free moment trying to upskill, and lamenting over their lack of boundaries while sometimes secretly enjoying the “importance” it bestows on them as well.

The justification we’ve been conditioned into believing? These are the things to do in your 20s. These are the make-or-break years. You work hard, play hard, network hard, and figure yourself and your career out so you can lay a stable foundation for the rest of your life.

While all of this seems ideal, it also doesn’t in a lot of ways. What if I ‘break’ more than I ‘make’ in my 20s? What if I still don’t have my career path figured out by 30? And what happens if I do actually hustle my way through my 20s, and do everything according to the timeline? Does that guarantee a successful career?  

Just How Important Are Your 20s To Your Career?

As a 23-year-old currently stressing out about her hate for hustling, lack of clarity, and obsession with comparing herself to others (including fictional characters, clearly), I decided to get some insight by talking to people at different stages in their lives and careers.

Hopefully, if you’re a 20-something year old, looking at things from perspectives outside of your own bubble of pressure might help you too.

First, I spoke (rant-vented) to my friends, all of them in their early 20s, and asked for their take on the matter.

Sanika Govekar, who has been working, both in freelance and full-time roles, since she graduated in the summer of 2019, said, “As a part of our formative professional years, I think it’s super important to take our 20s seriously – although not to put too much pressure also. This time will lay the foundation for how my professional life will pan out. My work ethic is also established in my 20s, and although it can change, a lot of our habits get ingrained early on. After your 20s I feel like you tend to get more responsibilities, so now is the time to learn and make mistakes.”

“It’s important to explore all possibilities in your 20s I think, so that your 30s are more assured, when other familial responsibilities might start hanging over one’s head,” says Esha, who’s been working at a start-up for the last 7 months, while simultaneously pursuing a degree through distance education. “It seems to be the setting stone to how you build your career. But that said, not everyone is lucky enough to find their dream work or field in their first try. Our 20s are to explore and push boundaries.”

The running theme for people in their early 20s seems to be a feeling that the future will make less allowance for mistakes or slowing down. There is an urgency to try things and fail at them, to avoid that happening when one is no longer a 20-something-year-old.

The universally accepted timeline of familial responsibilities taking priority over one’s career after your 20s is something they believe﹘ and even sometimes hope﹘ will happen organically.

Anushree, on the other hand, a 29-year-old who worked for 5 years after her graduation and is currently pursuing a Masters degree, says life and your career don’t always work according to plan – and that’s okay – an important advice for your 20s. “I got a job in private equity in a good company. That didn’t work out. I got engaged at 24. That didn’t work out. I did a course on content writing, took up some freelance gigs, and got a job at an advertising agency. I would work from 8 in the morning to midnight. All I got from that was severe burnout and insecurities.”

She says that a lot of what she went through was necessary, but a lot of what she put herself through was not. “I wouldn’t have known that I didn’t want to be in private equity or advertising if I hadn’t tried my hand at those jobs. What wasn’t necessary was the intense pressure I put on myself in every situation, and the guilt I made myself feel every time things didn’t work out,” she says.

At 45, my aunt laughs at my question. “The 20s are a time you’ll always remember and feel nostalgic for. But that’s the point – you rarely take the things you did in your 20s with you for too long. That’s why you can feel nostalgic about it.”

“I started my career at 22. I started a job I actually loved, for the first time, at 38,” she says. “Your 20s are a great time to find out important things about yourself – your boundaries, what you’re good at, the kind of people you thrive around, jobs you dislike with every fibre of your being, etc,” she laughs. “But even if you’re still discovering these things in your thirties, that doesn’t make it ‘too late’. It doesn’t mean you wasted your 20s. Marriage, children or other responsibilities might slow your timeline down, but why are you racing in the first place? You make your own timeline. You do whatever makes you feel good about yourself and happy in the long run. That should be your priority.”

She’s right. They all are in some ways.

Your 20s Are Not Just Are Important (As Well As An Exciting Time For Your Career )

Your 20s seem momentous because they are. These are the years when you begin your career. The years of building connections. The years of unlearning and learning, of broadening your horizons, and understanding where you fit in.

Your 20s are the start of things, but a good start isn’t the only thing that defines the run. How you pace yourself, allow yourself to fall back and pick up speed, take breaks and keep going, is what makes for a good run.

And I realise now, I hope to have the best run.

So, here’s what I’ve realised are the things to do in your 20s to be successful, but more importantly, healthy and happy as well:

  • Work hard but prioritise health, happiness, and growth
  • Fail forward
  • Not pressurise myself into thinking I need to follow the social constructs of an ‘ideal’ timeline

As my 60-year-old neighbour said when I asked her how important she thought 20s were to a person’s career – “Sirf 20s kyu? Itni khaas kya baat hai 20s mein? Career toh life-long hai na? (Why 20s? What’s so special about your 20s? Your career is something you pursue all your life, right?)”

My career is something I will pursue all my life. It’s not just about why your 20s are important, but about how they can be enlightening and nurturing. Suddenly seem a lot more exciting than they did before.

Updated 3 September 2021

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