25 Career & Life Lessons I Learned Before 25

Or, what I learned during six intense and sleepless weeks in the Columbia Publishing Course.

The Columbia Publishing Course in New York — a six-week intensive on all aspects of magazine and book publishing — is famous amongst publishers as a West Point for the industry. Among its students, it is experienced more as a career bootcamp in which resumes are honed, impossible projects are completed at 3 A.M. and a fifth round of your choice of caffeine, notable speakers come to both caution and inspire, and, through it all, lifelong friendships are made and timeless wisdom collected.

The course ended just before my 25th birthday, causing me to reflect on what I’ve learned so far at the end of the course and the first quarter of my life. These are twenty-five of the most valuable lessons I’ve gathered during course — from speakers, from friends, and from experience.

  1. “Follow your dreams” is practical, not idealistic, advice

Lecture after lecture, each speaker impressed upon us how hard it is to break into any field, and how hard it is to stay. All entry work is grueling and draining. You’ll only last in a field you love.

2. Enthusiasm and passion are your #1 cover letter asset

Hiring managers understand that your experience and skillset will be minimal if you’ve just graduated from college. What they’re looking for is signs of a good work ethic and passion for the field. They can teach you how to use an Excel spreadsheet, but they can’t force you to be enthusiastic and passionate about the work. And it’s the enthusiasm that will make all the difference between a job done adequately and a job done brilliantly.

3. Break the rules

Despite any industry’s rules, traditions, and norms, the rebels, the rule-breakers, the out-of-the-box thinkers, and those who make their own path often attain the greatest success. Or, at least, success true to its meaning.

4. Intuition + facts = genius

Intuition, that loud but voiceless source of wisdom, knows what it’s talking about. Listen to your intuition, then find the facts to back up your inner voice and make it heard — this will be the most reliable compass you can have.

5. Know what an opportunity looks like, and seize it

When you hear of a job opening, or meet an interesting person, and you feel that strange calling, that ticklish curiosity, that magnetic tug, but you don’t understand why — jump on it.

6. Be brave enough — or blind enough — to do the impossible

Youthful inexperience can serve you well. Whatever project you yearn to bring to life is possible if you don’t look down, or don’t realize how far the fall could be. So many “impossible” projects are accomplished by those who simply didn’t know it was considered impossible. This advice was given to us by a white-haired man whose sparkling eyes hadn’t aged a day over twenty-one.

7. Find the smartest person around and stay within earshot

Wherever you are, find the smartest person there and get as near them as you can. Even if you’re a few cubicles away and can only overhear them, be there to absorb their knowledge and experience.

8. Be the last — not the first — person in the room to speak

Speak wisely and let your voice be the one that people remember in the end.

9. Being a generalist is powerful

Expertise is rightly valued in this day and age, but being a generalist is not celebrated as much as it should be. Having a variety of experiences and skills, even if they seem unrelated, can become your strongest asset one day. What’s more, changing up your tasks and jobs keeps you nimble and fosters fresh ideas and creativity.

10. Don’t give up on having multiple passions

There will come a time, sooner or later, when you will feel pressured to choose among the things you love. Perhaps they are so disparate and require so much effort that you can’t imagine possibly doing every one of them. But don’t give up on them for long. Allow yourself to cultivate each of them at a time if necessary, but know that the things you love will find a way to come together into a synthesized path of which you could never have dreamed.

11. Offering your services is a great way to start

Maybe you weren’t able to land the job or the internship you so badly wanted. Don’t sit around twiddling your thumbs while you wait for the next submission opportunity. Find an individual, an organization, or a company that does something you are passionate about and offer your volunteered time to gain experience. Then when the next cycle of applications begins, you can write to Shiny Paid Internship X and demonstrate what you’re made of. Many companies will be impressed by your dedication and self-starting moxie.

12. The personal beats the impersonal any time — so get networking

Visit career fairs. Go to events in your field of interest. Email to request informational interviews. Talk to people in person as much as you can — let them see your face. Grow your network and stay connected. This is a much more potent recipe for getting hired and getting ahead than just cold-emailing your resume and blindly sending in applications through an online portal designed to screen you out.

13. Send thank you notes liberally and frequently

Too few people send thank you notes — and even fewer send handwritten thank you’s. Definitely email a thank you after every arranged meeting (and especially after a job interview), but if you can, send a handwritten one. Recall the last time you got that delightful small but lovely envelope in the mail, perhaps for Christmas or your birthday: then imagine making a potential future employer feel that way because of you.

14. Don’t be shy to reach out

Some might discourage contacting those you admire or would like to work for. And there might be some who will bristle at an email sent by a young-nobody-aspiring-to-be-a-somebody. But reaching out — in a professional manner — to express genuine admiration, thanks, or curiosity can hardly ever backfire. As long as you are not requesting anything, or trying to force a connection, more times than not the reply back will be kind — and sometimes it will be that letter that makes all the difference.

15. Follow up a job application with an email

For a job you really want, send your application through the portal or to the hiring manger — then find the individual you would likely be working for, and send a professional and enthusiastic email. Think of it as a gold star on your cover letter. Your application is more likely to be seen and remembered.

16. Challenge yourself until you find your (current) limits

Seek out ways to challenge yourself and see what you’re made of. Take on tasks that feel over your head, accept challenges you’re not sure you can overcome. Do the hardest thing you can do. See how hard you can work, for how long, until you absolutely can go no further. That’s your limit. Then get your rest, make sure to maintain your health, and when you wake up in the morning you’ll realize your previous limit is a line behind you. But you will be astonished at how much you are capable of. The confidence boost is invaluable.

17. Don’t undervalue yourself

Know that entry level work is entry level work, and don’t demand the corner office just yet, but know that you have valuable skills and experiences to give. Just because there are many other excellent candidates out there doesn’t mean you aren’t one of them.

18. Your health is sacred

Yes, there will be times when you must work yourself to the bone, because you’re young and have to prove your way to the top. There will be times you work overtime and are the one who turns out the lights. But don’t let overworking become a long-term habit. Its easy to take your health for granted until it’s gone. A truly self-respecting individual knows the importance of caring for one’s health, physical and psychological alike.

19. Find “your people”

As you go out into the world, you will need to surround yourself with a second “family” to succeed. These are “your people” — the ones who might come from different backgrounds with different ideas, but share a central passion and value with you, those who have your back when you need a shoulder to cry on or need help getting up a seemingly impossible hill. You find them by relentlessly doing what you love and what you believe in, and taking on challenges with teammates in your field.

20. Stay in touch with old friends, and nurture new ones

One day, the people by your side will be the ones running the show. You won’t get to the top on your own, and even if you do, you won’t be happy once you’re there if you’re alone. Success is a collaborative endeavor and a shared joy. Don’t forget the friends who got you this far, and maintain the relationships that you make on your journey. Give to those who are struggling just like you are, and you will find happiness even during darker times.

21. Stay open-minded about friends

You’ll be surprised by who you will make friends with staying up all night finishing a behemoth project. While true friends are the ones whom you can trust and share the same values as you do, sometimes these qualities are not immediately apparent. The kindness of the human heart reveals itself in various ways.

22. True love knows not the boundaries of time and space

There will be times in your life when you may have to temporarily live apart from those you love most. Avoid it if you can — cherish the short time you have with your loved ones — but know that despite the pain it is not the end of love. Even on opposite sides of the world, you’ll feel their presence and love, and when you come back it will feel as if not a day went by.

23. Do not give up on your true passion

E.L. Doctorow almost gave up writing to become a successful editor — then he saw another author get a seven-figure advance. Yes, you should find a way to feed yourself and pay the bills while putting your energy into your real talent and passion (there is no shame in being a creative with a job) — but don’t let the necessary suffocate the essential.

24. Make space to rediscover who you are

Our lives become so full at times with work, social activities, and responsibilities that it is easy to lose track of who we really are and what matters to us most. Once a week or so, go somewhere quiet — a park, a bookstore, or a church — where you can hear the quiet whisper of something that is you and you alone.

25. Hold on to what is true to you

Within each of us there is some indescribable longing, to express something or create something unique to us, something that might be hard to explain to others. When young John Lennon was asked in school what he wanted to be “when he grew up,” he replied, “happy” — not an answer others understood. Beyond our career choices, our partners, and our religious, ethnic, sexual, and political identities, we are people. And there is an indescribable longing that will bring us to life if we explore it, nurture it, and release it into the world.