What are the most difficult and useful things people have to learn in their 20s? originally appeared on Quora: The best answer to any question.


Answer by Christian Bonilla, author of Smart Like How, a career blog, on Quora:

1. It's easy to get stuck in a career if that's all you know how to do.

If you don't pay attention to what you get good at, it's easy to get stuck in a field simply because that's what you know, whether or not you find it fulfilling. When you're young, you don't have as many constraints that prevent you from changing tack and pursuing something new. That freedom never completely goes away, but the constraints that pile up as life progresses can make it much more difficult (and expensive) to change direction later. Time catches up to all of us. You'll be much happier if you choose your career path consciously rather than allow time to make decisions for you.

Success can become the enemy in your career if chasing promotions crowds out your other career goals. The prospect of recognition and promotions may motivate you to work hard and develop skills, but it can also distort your vision. This is especially true if you are wired to crave tangible progress and constantly need to feel like you're "winning" at your job. Unfortunately, that describes many of us in our early twenties--another way in which school shapes our reward systems. Success is addictive, and addictions cloud your judgment about what's best for you. Now don't get me wrong: the idea that whatever you do you should do well is perfectly admirable. But if you only pay attention to tangible, near-term success, it's easy for your first career to become your lifelong career. Why? Because advancing in your job requires you to continuously develop industry and company-specific skills. That can easily absorb nearly all of your productive hours. On top of that, you accumulate valuable institutional knowledge that makes it increasingly hard to walk away from your profession as time goes on. Starting over is daunting, and your company will often entice you to stay to prevent the loss of institutional knowledge. If you know you're in the career you want for the long haul that's great. Unfortunately most of us fall somewhere in the middle of the uncertainty spectrum.

2. Working hard is important, but it's not everything.

Every now and then we all have to sprint in our jobs to crank something out before a deadline or deal with an intense time of year, but I think the majority of the pain from overwork is self-inflicted. In big companies where you have lots of people at the junior levels, you'll see hordes of young people who try to outwork each other in a competition to see who can work the most nights and weekends and produce the most output the fastest. Many companies implicitly or even explicitly encourage this, and I wouldn't call it a "bad" strategy, but it's often an inefficient way to reach your goals. Working on the right things is more important than simply working a lot.

The determinants of professional advancement you can control are the quality of your work, making your organization more successful, and getting people with authority to trust you with some of your own. Within each of those areas are many, many dimensions along which you have an opportunity to differentiate yourself. You might be able to get a promotion or two just by working insanely hard, but eventually you can't advance if you don't bring any creativity to your work and don't know how to create opportunities for yourself and your organization.

3. Having a great idea is (maybe not even) half the battle.

The world is full of talented, hard-working, unsuccessful people. Often what separates the successful from the less accomplished isn't IQ, it's their ability to garner support for their ideas and drive adoption of them.

Because there are always multiple issues competing for managerial attention, you need a plan for how to advance from the idea-origination phase to the acceptance phase. In the same way that public relations firms have a systematic approach for getting a point of view circulated and accepted, you need to do the same thing internally to promote your ideas. The SPICES framework can help you do that:

  1. Step back- There are worse things than presenting a bad idea, but that's no excuse to not do your homework. Has your idea already been tried and failed? Are you asking people to negate ideas that they've committed to publicly in favor of yours? Anticipate the likely objections and bake those into how you frame the problem. The challenge here is to eradicate sloppy thinking without losing boldness.
  2. Put it in writing--Jeff Bezos of Amazon is well-known for requiring his senior managers to present ideas in 5-6page memos that the team reads together in silence to start meetings, a policy I really admire. Writing forces you to sharpen your thoughts. As Bezos puts it, "Full sentences are harder to write. They have verbs. The paragraphs have topic sentences. There is no way to write a six-page, narratively structured memo and not have clear thinking." While your manager probably doesn't want a six-page memo right away, you should go through the exercise of organizing your thoughts this way up front.
  3. Identify stakeholders--Figure out from whom you want to get input first or needs to be on board from the start. Note that the final decision maker does not have to be present at the beginning. In fact, it's usually best if they aren't there the whole time while you're collecting feedback and firming things up.
  4. Choose format- This depends on both the content and the nature of the idea you're presenting. You've got e-mail, formal documents, spreadsheets, charts, infographics, power point slides, Prezi and other neat presentation tools all at your disposal. You might decide that drawing the idea on a whiteboard works best, which is fine too. Just don't limit your options.
  5. Engage stakeholders--An e-mail may be fine in some cases, but if your target gets three hundred emails a day, perhaps there is a better way to get their attention for a few minutes. Take them to lunch or coffee, or get them in front of a whiteboard for a few minutes to walk them through your thoughts. Set up a call he or she can do from the car on the way home. Make it as easy as possible for them to hear you, and never follow up over the same medium twice in a row.
  6. Secure Next Steps--Always figure out what your next steps are for any conversation. Who else should you talk to, or what else do you need to think through before the idea can be considered. You should try to own the next steps whenever possible so you own the momentum.

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