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6 Career Lessons You Need to Learn in Your Twenties

Office Hours |

Debora Spar, the current president of Barnard College, has dedicated her energies to spearheading initiatives that propel young women. These initiatives have included the Athena Center for Leadership Studies, an interdisciplinary center devoted to the theory and practice of women’s leadership, and Barnard’s Global Symposium series, an annual gathering of high-profile and accomplished female leaders held each year in a different region of the world.

She has become one of the top voices for women’s leadership and recently released her newest book, Wonder Women: Sex, Power, and the Quest for Perfection. Her book tackles the ongoing myth of solitary perfection by examining where women are today in the workforce and in power circles using both data and personal anecdotes. She is very open about her experiences and mishaps, including the time she wore a pink suit to her first interview at Harvard or when she crashed the family minivan while trying to retrieve her child’s ballet costume. Spar joined Levo League for Office Hours to share the top lessons from her book.

6 Career Lessons You Need to Learn in Your Twenties

1. Life is not linear

Many women, especially young women who are just beginning their careers, presume that if you make the right set of decisions, you will follow one specific path towards success easily and seamlessly. However, Spar argues that a majority of the successful people that she knows had no inclination in their early professional life that they would wind up in the positions they did further into their careers.

“Life proceeds in zig zags,” she said. “You really can’t figure out early in your life how to get from point A to point B. Instead, I would say be ready for the zig zags. Find jobs that you like doing. You probably won’t love your job at 24—to be honest most people by definition don’t have their dream job at 24.”

However, when facing uncertainty in your life path or career, it is also important not to do anything sudden or rash. Rather, Spar suggests that you try to determine what most interests you, what you’re best at, what other role models or aspirations you might have, and move slowly. Often times if you’re deciding to make a big career jump, say from one industry to another, go for job interviews you don’t necessarily want in that new function. This will provide you with the opportunity to perfect your interviewing skills and to articulate what your motivations are for this new type of position.

2. You can’t do it all

No woman, man, or human can do it all. It’s that simple. Spar believes that we have somehow developed a misconception that not only can women have it all, but women should in fact do it all.

“That’s just a myth and it’s a dangerous myth,” said Spar. “I would encourage all young women to think about making choices because that’s what life is really about…Look at those choices as broadly as you can and make those choices as carefully and consciously as you can.”

Spar emphasizes that when you make these life choices and say yes to one change, it is essential that you say no to something else. Women fall into trouble when they try to do too much.

“I have discovered that it is much easier to say no than to say maybe,” she said. “Maybe is what gets you into trouble. Maybe is what makes you feel guilty and worried and sad.”

3. Own up to mistakes

None of us are perfect and all of us, men and women alike, are going to make mistakes—fairly frequently. Ideally these mistakes will be small and fixable, but sometimes they will be big and you won’t necessarily be able to remedy them. However, rather than falling to pieces or getting discouraged, take ownership, acknowledge that a mistake was made, ask how you can fix it, learn from it, and move on.

“Making mistakes does not make you a failure. Making mistakes means just that—you’ve made a mistake,” she said. “Get comfortable with screwing up and get comfortable with acknowledging that you’ve screwed up.”

4. Look for sponsors

Spar agrees with economist Sylvia Ann Hewlett that women should not just be looking for mentors, but also for sponsors. These will be the people who are not necessarily assigned to you to provide advice from time to time, but also take an active interest in furthering your career. If these sponsors don’t exist within your immediate network, reach out and actively solicit people’s feedback.

These sponsors are not only your cheerleaders, but also your teachers and at times your critics. Spar explained that one of the greatest things that happened in her career was that she had four or five sponsors in her life, all of whom happened to be men. They provided her with criticism on a very consistent basis, which was challenging but also an incredible learning experience.

“It wasn’t fun,” Spar said. “I didn’t like it when I was going through it, but they were giving me criticism because they were taking an interest in me and my career.”

5. Don’t personalize office politics or professional criticism

Everyone will face criticism in their careers. We all have bad days, but try as much as you can to take it in stride, smile through it, and don’t take it personally.

“We all constantly feel like we’re failing. If you think about it, nobody is perfect. If we’re lucky, we have perfect moments in our lives, maybe perfect days, or maybe a perfect meal,” Spar said. “If we set the standard at perfection, then we are constantly falling short of it. We are preordaining ourselves to fail and that’s a horrible place to be.”

6. Be good at what you do

Ultimately women are going to get promoted and they are going to advance in their careers, if they are good at what they do. There is no amount of networking or mentors or sponsorship that can make up for simply being good at you job. Take your job seriously, even if it’s not your dream job, get good at it, and that will be the single most important factor in shaping your success.

“Remember that this is supposed to be fun,” said Spar. “The goal of liberation for women, the objective of opening up so many opportunities for women really was to bring joy into our lives to liberate us.”

What lessons did you learn in your twenties?

Miss Office Hours with Debora Spar? Watch it here now!


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It's so interesting that Spar is talking about sponsors, more specifically the difference between sponsors and mentors. At a professional networking seminar Monday at the University of Pittsburgh, the difference was brought up quite a few times. Obviously this is something to take notice of!


I wish I'd known about getting a sponsor. It is so important to be connected outside your company as well as inside. Another key lesson from my 20s is to volunteer! Choose some organizations that can help you get better connected with influencers in your chosen area and volunteer. Be eager, energetic, smart and helpful and people will notice and help you.


I love that last point. At the end of the day, talent and a good track record of success always gets your foot in the door!


YES, YES, YES to this one... 'There is no amount of networking or mentors or sponsorship that can make up for simply being good at you job.' Words of wisdom to carry always - this is the part WE (as individuals) can control


Number 1, I've finally learned to accept. I'm currently in a position, that I'm doing a good job at, however I know it's not what I want to do in the next few years. I realized that it's just a momentary zig-zag in my career path, until I move onto something that's more fulfilling.


All of these are great! #2 was an important lesson for me. So easy to be a 'yes person' early in my career. Took me a few years to develop a good sense of what balance looks and feels like.


Ditto Audrey - the last point is a great perspective. I like the "even if its not your dream job."


I can definitely relate to the goal of a linear trajectory in life; it seems as if you were working so hard to get to that point A, B and C and only come to realize that you should embrace the zig-zag instead. Great post!


I love that last part. Being good at your job is so important, even if you're job is being a student. That's easy to forget, but important to remember!

Alexandra Moncure

Prior to joining Levo League, Alexandra worked in the editorial department at DailyCandy, a women’s lifestyle website owned by NBCUniversal. Alexandra began her career working in business development for a pharmaceutical advertising agency. A native Delawarean, she followed her mother’s footsteps to Manhattan and has made it her personal goal to sample the city’s vast selection of pastries one bakery at a time.