If I could turn back time, if I could find a way... -- Cher, American singer and actress.
I’ve always lived a fast-track life. I graduated from high school at 16. Undergraduate at 19. MBA at 21—the youngest at that time at the University of Colorado. At the rate I was going, I should really be retired by now and playing bridge in an assisted living facility.
People have asked me, “What was your hurry?” I lived my life like I was running a race. I got bored if I stayed in one place too long. I was always pushing for the next goal. I was perpetually on the move. Pushing to accomplish “it,” without ever defining what “it” was.
By the time I was 26, I was a divorced, single mother.
While I have little to regret and love where I am in life today—a successful 22-year career as a professional speaker and a happily (re)married mother of three children—if I were 22 again and knew what I know now, I'd face the world with a slightly different mindset. Just about any of us would, I suspect; we all have things we know now that we wish we'd known then.
But for what it’s worth, I hurried due to a mountain of fears and expectations that had blocked me from feeling fulfilled in my life: my blind pursuit of success, my overwhelming sense of obligation, and my deeply held fear of failure. Here are a few things I would tell my 22-year-old self—and any other young men and women entering the working world who might be willing to listen.
1. Slow down a little. Your drive will definitely get you places, but enjoy the scenery along the way. A moment spent appreciating the deep blue of a spring sky won't ruin your schedule, and it might help you by calming your mind and focusing your thoughts. Taking your time can ensure you avoid mistakes that would slow you even more. You have the perseverance, stamina, and talent to get where you want to go soon enough. You don’t need to hurry toward some unknown goal to accomplish “it.” You have lots of time, so don’t let your ego burn you out.
2. Spend as much time planning your life as you do your money. Schedule time for yourself, your loved ones, and your work. Make sure you aren’t at the bottom of your to-do list. Have fun. Volunteer. Spend time with friends. Exercise. Careful scheduling will always serve you well. Get in the habit of keeping a daily and master to-do list, blocking out time for important activities, and keeping appointments with yourself. Always know what to do next. You'll gradually refine your skills over time, so you’ll waste as little time as possible. But you don’t always have to be “doing” something.
3. Don't cave to pressure. When you graduate, many people will expect you to have already decided what you want to do with your life. If you have, then no problem. But don't give in to the pressure if you haven't. You have a whole world of possibilities to choose from—and if none fit you, you can make your own.
4. Travel while you can. Before you have a family, children, and a time-consuming job, take a little time to discover other cultures and see the world a bit. Your travels become an important part of your character—as well as your ability to understand and appreciate others later in life. I do wish I would have traveled overseas, stayed in youth hostels, or gone on a medical mission trip (as my 18-year-old daughter is doing in Kenya next month).
5. Experiment now. Even if you already have some general idea of what you want to do with your life, you can capture the details later. Try new things while you can, because regret is worse than failure. Looking back and knowing something didn't work, but that you tried, is much more heartening than looking back and fantasizing about something you regret not doing. Not knowing what might have happened is the worst part. There are a couple things I wish I didn’t ask myself, “What if…?” So find out. It may change your life.
6. Take chances. I tried working as a corporate trainer, a university instructor, and a trainer for CareerTrack before I realized I’d die a slow death working for someone else. I've never regretted starting my training company, The Productivity Pro, Inc. in 1992. Many of my friends and family said I was brave for doing so, but frankly, I thought they were brave for staying where they were and settling. As with experimenting, youth is a time to take career chances and reach for your dreams while you're still flexible.
7. Don't do what people expect of you unless it matches your expectations. Just because people expect you to get married and have kids doesn't mean you have to. There are no written rules about when you have to do what. Societal expectations should no longer hold you back. If you choose to marry your career, at least for a while, fine. If you want to work overseas for a time, go! Move in directions that interest you, even if it’s not what others expect of you. No one expected me to have an MBA at 21—except me. You will amaze yourself—if that’s really what you want to do, not what your parents want you to do.
8. Choose your career carefully. This fits hand-in-glove with what I've already discussed. Take the time to choose something you not only do well, but that you also enjoy. If you take a job and hate it, get out! You will spend a lot of your life working. Even if a job doesn't work out, or you change your mind, you still have plenty of time to try something else. You can always say no to something you’ve said yes to. Give it time but don’t get stuck. If you can’t tell the difference between when you’re working and playing, you are blessed.
9. Do first what’s most important. My family has been a continual source of joy to me, and I couldn't do what I do without their love and support. Don't let work divide you from important people or damage your relationships with your spouse, children, extended family, or friends. You need time to socialize and enjoy life. Put time on your calendar first for them and schedule around it. I wish I would have spent more time doing this with girlfriends.
10. Put your heart into it. You've heard the saying, "If it's worth doing, it's worth doing well." If you believe something is worth doing—a job, a work of art, a marriage, a hobby, parenthood—then give it all you can, and aim for the stars. That said, be cautious in selecting what to lavish your energy on in the first place...and if it all goes wrong, reassess whether it's worth your effort to fix it. Not everything is worth your time and energy. Some things, like parenthood, definitely are; others you can exit without hurting yourself or others.
To tell the truth, these suggestions only scratch the surface of what today's me would tell the 22-year-old me—and as a productivity expert, my list has undoubtedly been colored by my profession. I supposed I've turned out pretty well despite this list and have worked out these points for myself over time. But I think they apply to just about anyone on the cusp of beginning their career, so hopefully they will put you ahead of the curve in life.
Laura Stack, MBA, CSP, CPAE, aka The Productivity Pro®, gives speeches and seminars on sales and leadership productivity. For over 25 years, she’s worked with Fortune 1000 clients to reduce inefficiencies, execute more quickly, improve output, and increase profitability. Laura is the author of seven books, including Doing the Right Things Right: How the Effective Executive Spends Time. To inquire about having Laura speak at your next sales kickoff or conference, please tweet her @laurastack or visit www.TheProductivityPro.com.