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Dear 21-Year-Old Me

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Hi there, 21-year-old self.

Well, THIS doesn't feel self-absorbed. I was at an Escape the City event at Adam Street Club in London last night and I met this recent graduate - she had a sweet face, nervous laugh, and she kind of asked me for career advice.

When I say 'ask' I mean she and I were talking about career trajectories long enough for me to realise that the only person I feel comfortable giving advice to is you. So here we are.

Even if time travel were an actual thing, you wouldn't listen to the below, because you're at that age where you think you know everything (good luck with that). But here are some concepts that I would nonetheless attempt to shove down your throat as you enter the working world, if I crossed you on the street in a Back to the Future type scenario.


1. As you suspected, your arts degree is worthless.

I hate to break it to you but you've just spent years inside a classroom learning a lot of academic jargon that you're now going to have to un-learn. Your degree is like a passport you need in order to get into certain job interviews; a stamp to get past the bouncer. But once you get past, you're on your own. Sorry, kid. It's all part of a broader educational Ponzi scheme that I won't bore and disillusion you with right now.

The point is, in terms of the actual content of your degree, the lingo is way too complex to be applicable. I want you to notice that in the working world, simplicity signifies intelligence. You'll see as you get older that the more concise the email, the more important the sender tends to be. CEOs often shoot one-word emails. That's the whole email. One word.

2. Beware the 'follow your passion' myth.

At 21, you've just watched Steve Jobs' 2005 Stanford Commencement speech and your soul is salivating. You're NOT going to 'settle' - like Stevie says, you're going to follow your passion, dammit! It'll be hard sometimes, but you're going to power through, with late nights at home at 2am working on your laptop, "making it happen" while everyone else parties!

Years later, you'll realize that life is not a Rocky montage. (Who knew?) You'll read Cal Newport ripping into the hypocrisy of Steve Jobs' advice and you'll find yourself siding with Newport (WTF, I know), nodding as he argues that successful people don't 'follow their passion' - instead, they follow their core interests, develop solid skills, then leverage those skills to build a career.

3. Travelling is not the only way to 'find yourself'.

You've just finished college and you're tempted to go to Thailand or Africa for an indefinite amount of time (because hey, that's original) and because your fellow graduates are either applying for corporate graduate schemes or bumming around on a beach or helping orphans. You don't really see yourself in a corporate role, but something stops you from booking that trip.

You suspect that you're not going to find anything over the horizon that you can't find from where you already stand. It'll take a year or two for you to really believe it, but the more broke (still clueless, still haven't 'found themselves') travellers you meet, the more you embrace that travel is just one avenue of personal development. Falling in love, creating something meaningful, working on something really hard - anything that breaks your heart, really - does the trick too.

4. Graduate school is not the best place to discover your mission.

Very soon, you'll make the mistake of going to law school. You'll last three weeks. You'll learn that you shouldn't go to law school if you (a) don't really, really, REALLY want to be a lawyer and (b) are there only because you have no idea what else to do with your life and are getting sick of having to explain that at dinner parties.

You'll stop searching so hard for easy answers. You'll watch smart peers with fancy degrees question themselves and you'll realize that the long stories are the best ones and that nobody can buy shortcuts, no matter how expensive (and therefore legitimate and tempting) those shortcuts seem to be.

5. Your network is your net worth.

Well, actually, your net worth is your net worth, but you saw that phrase on a book cover and as you get older, you'll see what it means. You'll realize that the reason Ivy League schools can charge so much is because people want to buy into the networks, and you'll start to get it.

You'll get it because you'll see that all the work opportunities that have come your way have found you because you've met someone at a conference or you've been introduced to someone by someone else and you'll appreciate that everything in life begins with a conversation. People are opportunities: if you want more opportunities, start getting to know more people.

6. Every day, work hard and be nice.

It sounds trite and TOO simple but it's hard to go wrong if you adopt this as your mantra, which you sort of will, unofficially. "Be nice" basically encompasses "be honest" and "be yourself."

It'll take you a couple of years to believe this, but investment banks and management consultancies are not the only places where smart people work hard. Your friends at the Boston Consulting Group are sleeping under their desks and part of you suspects that if you're as intelligent as they are; you should be working as frenetically as them. You'll outgrow that suspicion.

7. You never have it all figured out.

Over the coming years, you're going to keep dabbling in startups and you'll find yourself working on some very cool projects alongside intelligent and inspiring people. Work won't feel like work. For that reason, sometimes you're going to wonder where it's all going, because it often feels too good to be true. Exactly four years from now, you'll get sick of feeling bipolar and passive-aggressive around your father whenever the topic of money arises, and you'll wonder, shouldn't you get a 'real' job by now (i.e. one that you hate and bitch about at parties but secretly love the prestige of)?

You'll learn that everyone, regardless of how much they earn, questions what they're doing with their lives at some point... prestige only protects you from so much. Lawyers, bankers and management consultants just have more disposable income and less disposable time to throw at their existential problems. Rest assured that you're not the first nor the last millennial to wrestle with their baby boomer parent over what a career 'should' look like.

8. Your uterus shouldn't stop you from shooting high.

Back in school, gender didn't seem like an actual thing. But in the working world, you start to notice that those with powerful jobs often tend to be male and their assistants often tend to be female. This makes you hungrier for resources like Sheryl Sandberg's TED talk on female leadership (which you evangelise to unsuspecting females every chance you get, in a borderline annoying and definitely inappropriate way).

Like everything else, you might not have all the answers (ever), but you'll figure out everything you need to know along the way. Ignore your mother when she puts her hand on your shoulder at a hotel in Ireland and says, completely sincerely, "Darling, it's okay to adopt if you're still single at 40." You're in your late twenties when she says that, and she means well, but that almost makes it worse. You'll meet the right guy when you least expect it and the right guy will support your career as opposed to stalling it.

In summary, everything turns out fine. So enjoy these years, because nobody really takes you seriously before you turn 25 anyway.

Love,

Your infinitely wiser, smarter, more mature 27-year-old self

P.S. Bonus advice: don't date douche bags.

For more about Escape the City, click here.

For more articles and books by Adele Barlow, click here.

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