For Your Next Career Move, Look to Your 20s

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By Nancy Collamer

All of us hit difficult moments in our career when we wonder, Now What? Whether we're reeling from an unexpected layoff, frustrated by a difficult boss or simply bored to tears, finding the right next step is rarely simple.

But a new book, The 16-28 Solution, by executive coach Doug Campbell, has a surprising suggestion. Campbell says the answer to our midlife career challenges can be found through a conscious evaluation of our "Emerging Adulthood" years - that critical period between ages 16 and 28 when we form and refine our adult identity.Your Past Can Provide Clarity

Campbell, based in Darien, Conn., developed this theory during his many years of coaching senior-level entrepreneurs and executives. He discovered that when he asked clients to chronicle and analyze how they responded to challenges from their emerging adulthood, they were able to move forward with greater clarity and conviction.

As an example, Campbell writes about his client Diane, a PR executive with an excellent reputation, who was frustrated with her boss and eager to find a new situation. But Diane initially balked when Campbell suggested she strike out on her own.

During a coaching session, Campbell asked Diane to think back to her successes in college. She recalled how much she'd loved her time working on the college paper - an all-encompassing job where she did everything from writing articles to selling ads to proofreading. Diane also remembered that while the newsroom felt scary at first, it eventually became like her second home.

Once Campbell suggested that everything she did for the paper was a little bit like running her own business, Diane began to warm up the idea of opening her own PR company. She eventually went on to become a successful entrepreneur.

I find Campbell's theory interesting, but also a bit counterintuitive. After all, most of us recall our late adolescence and early-adult years with mixed emotions. I for one, still remember feeling clueless when asked to declare my college major (I now jokingly refer to my last-minute choice of psychology as "Unemployment 101").

But Campbell maintains that despite the growing pains, or perhaps because of them, age 16 to 28 is a period that merits greater attention, because it points us towards key skills, interests and learning experiences that emerge at the very point of our lives that we're constructing and refining our adult selves.

It's a process he likens to finding your inner compass. Once you discover your "True North," you'll have a powerful resource for figuring out what does and doesn't match up with who you are, personally and professionally.

Campbell is hardly the first coach to recommend you analyze your background for clues to your work future. But his focus on this 12-year period is unique and after reading the case studies in his book, I think he's onto something.

So how can you leverage this theory to make better decisions about your career?

Here are the six key experiences from emerging adulthood that Campbell recommends you examine for clues. Following each description, you'll find a question and a key takeaway to consider:

1. Diversity of experiences. Emerging adulthood is filled with many different transitional moments that force us out of our comfort zones, socially, emotionally and physically. Think back to the transitional moments from when you were 16 to 28: Did you go away to boarding school or college? Travel or live overseas? Join the military? Experience the pain of your first breakup?

There is likely at least one experience, and usually between three and five, that were powerful enough to have had a transformative effect on your life.

Question to consider: What were the key transitional moments from this time period that formed you to be who you are today?

Takeaway: Think about the best parts of these key experiences (adventure, community, intellectual challenge, etc.) and then explore ways to integrate more of those "golden threads" into your work life.

2. Leadership experiences. Many people get their first taste of leadership during these years. Sometimes they start off small, such as when they volunteer to organize a school dance or family reunion. In other cases, they might take on a larger role, like running for student body president. But whether large or small, those moments can teach you a lot about yourself and your interest in being a leader in your professional life.

Question to consider: What were your early defining leadership experiences? What did you learn from them?

Takeaway: Consider how your leadership skills and experience (or lack thereof) might be impacting your performance and satisfaction at work. Are you itching to take on more leadership responsibility? Would you be happier giving up managerial responsibilities? Or do you think you'd be more comfortable running your own company?

3. Mentorship experiences. If you had the good fortune of being mentored early on by a college professor, boss or colleague, you know that a mentor can challenge and inspire you to achieve in ways that might not have previously seemed possible. A mentor also can open doors to new opportunities that you might not have connected with otherwise. Even if your emerging-adulthood mentors are no longer active in your life, their voices may still live within you.

Question to consider: Who were the key mentors in your young-adult years?

Takeaway: Ask yourself: "If I could talk to my mentor now, what might he or she advise me to do at this critical career juncture?

4. Community and cultural experiences. The 16-28 years are often rich with new cultural experiences and adventures. For example, you might have worked on a Navajo reservation, joined the Peace Corps or lived with a roommate from a different country. Or perhaps you moved to a new city, lived in an army barracks or worked on a kibbutz. Whatever your mix of experiences, it's likely they gave you a different perspective and view on life that impacts you to this day.

Question to consider: Which meaningful community and cultural experiences did you have during this time period? How did they change the way you see the world?

Takeaway: Cultural fit can play an enormous role in career satisfaction. If you're feeling like a fish out of water at work, perhaps it's because you need a work environment that is better aligned with your values and priorities.

5. "Big Project" experience. Think about a major project you undertook and successfully completed during your late teens and twenties. It should be something that required a significant investment of your time, energy and attention. For example, in my case, I had to move myself from my parent's home on Long Island to Nashua, N.H. for my first job as a management trainee with AT&T (better known back then as Ma Bell). I found an apartment, bought a car and learned to navigate my way around. It was the first time I was truly on my own, and while that was hardly the most enjoyable time in my life (the apartment was teeming with cockroaches and the car broke shortly after I bought it), that experience gave me greater confidence in my ability to survive and thrive on my own.

Question to consider: What "Big Project" experiences from your emerging adulthood shaped you?

Takeaway: Identify the skills, abilities and talents you gained from those experiences and then look for opportunities that can leverage them - either by taking on new responsibilities at your current job or elsewhere.

6. "Go for it" moments. Campbell defines a "go for it" moment as the point at which you decide which passion to closely focus on and commit to doing something you love. For example, when he was a student, Campbell tutored kids on a Mohawk reservation. That experience of helping others was so gratifying that it ultimately led him to own a tutoring business, teach at several universities and work as an executive coach.

Question to consider: What were the key "go for it" moments in your career?

Takeaway: As you reflect on your pivotal career milestones, think about the core themes and values that were common in those experiences. Is your current job aligned with those values? If not, what changes do you need to make to work in a way that feels more authentic?

Finding the answers to these six questions will take some time. But by making the effort, you'll better understand what makes you feel passionate, engaged, and committed - all critical considerations as you ponder your next Now What? moment.
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