When I started out in my career in marketing, I was 23 years old. That was just over 12 years ago (yes, I know, I’m an old lady writing on the internet), and though some things have changed between then and now, there is a lot that has remained shockingly the same. Back then, just like today, there were certain girls who were able to get a job right out of school and keep it, and there were girls that either chose not to enter the professional world for whatever reason, or couldn’t get into it. And for me, there has always been a fundamental difference in spirit and personality between the girls who want the good jobs but can’t have them, and the ones who succeed.
Let me explain.
Your 20s are a time for experimentation. They are a time for staying out late, going to new bars, kissing men on street corners, and spending the whole weekend in your pajamas eating cereal and watching TV because you have no pressing responsibilities. This is wonderful, and something that shouldn’t be given up completely.
But your 20s are also a time for putting in the kind of intense, hard work that can only be done by — you guessed it — the same people whose lack of responsibilities allows them to goof off for a whole weekend. When you’re young, and have the freedom of experimentation, it is your duty in whatever company you’re working for to sacrifice, take the difficult tasks, do the inconvenient traveling, and stay late on weeknights. If you’re currently in the hunt for a job, or working for yourself, it’s the time to set rigorous hours and take advantage of the fact that you don’t have children, a spouse, or aging parents to take care of, like so many other people in the professional world do. The ability to experiment and take risks is the most essential ingredient to your 20-something career, and it’s something that many of your colleagues simply don’t have.
There are the girls who watch Girls — or, for my generation, Sex and the City — and dream about the life spent finding yourself by dating, partying, and being irresponsible. They see this period in their lives as the only time they’ll really be able to let loose and make all of the life mistakes they believe it’s important to make.
But then there are the girls who realize that those shows are pure fantasy, and that living a superficial life of shopping or sex that is often financed by your parents is no way to get the career you dream of. Because your 20s are not defined by all of the romantic or personal mistakes you’re going to make, they’re defined by all of the great things you can do with the freedom and energy that no other adult group has access to. Can you use your 20s to travel the world, to start a company, to become the top seller in your firm, to save up a nest egg for yourself so that you can be an independent homeowner by 30? (And trust me, you think you don’t want a house now, but when you realize how much money they can make you, you definitely will.)
One thing that this generation has that mine didn’t is such incredible access to the professional world via the internet. There is almost no limit to what you can do, or who you can meet, if you’re willing to work hard and be diligent. But the difference between the girls who understand this and the girls who think they’ll “get serious” once they’re a little older is only emphasized by the internet. You can use it to mess around, get dates, rant on Twitter, and take pictures of your lunch. Or you can use it to network yourself into the assistant position that will allow you to impress someone who is essential to your industry.
The one thing all career girls know in their 20s is that this time only comes once, and that “being young” is not synonymous with being stupid. Hard work is exactly what it sounds like — hard, and work. But it leads to a life that is filled with options and freedoms and thrilling challenges. Because when you’re looking down the barrel of 40, you’ll be glad you made the right choices that enabled you a better life. It might not be sexy enough for an HBO show, but it’s definitely worth it.