40 Ways to Build Your Career Before 40

By Kristy Laue
  • 07.28.22
  • 10 Min Read

My generation’s been dubbed “impatient” in the workplace. Articles say 90% of us expect opportunities for “rapid career progression,” and when we stop seeing frequent promotions or salary bumps, we start to feel stagnant.

First, it’s tough to generalize an entire generation’s career goals, period. Second, I don’t think rapid career progression has to be a bad thing. Let’s look again at how the article words that stat: it’s not about the “expectation” of rapid career growth – it’s about the “opportunity” for it.

That’s the key to moving up – viewing growth as an opportunity and not an expectation. Your career will bloom when you keep learning, keep showing up and realize that it doesn’t happen overnight – it’s little by little. Here are 40 ways to do it – patiently.


1. Decide your non-negotiables. Non-negotiables aren’t free soda machines and pool tables. These are the things that matter most to you – the values, beliefs and priorities you want to shape your life. How will your career work for or against those things? Two of mine are creative expression and collaboration, AKA making good stuff with good people.

2. Know your own SWOT. Have you stopped to list your strengths and weaknesses – like, actually list them? What about opportunities for your career or things that could threaten it? A fifth box to add to this exercise: if you had to pick a new career today, what would it be?

3. Find a mentor. Mentors can come from anywhere – a past coach, volunteering, boards, friends or a mentoring program. Keep a tight circle of them in your life to learn, connect and grow with.

4. Be a mentor. You have a lot of knowledge to give, too. Find someone just starting out to share it with.

5. Quiz thyself. Take a personality test to learn more about how you build relationships and communicate. The DISC assessment, Strengths Finder and Myers Briggs are all good to try.

6. Know your superpower. You might have multiple strengths. But you only have one superpower. If you had to pick one thing, one way that you really rise above, what is it?

7. Figure out when to be a visible or invisible leader. Good leaders know when they need to step up, be visible and set the direction vs. when they should be invisible, letting others come forward, make decisions and have autonomy.

8. Spruce up your LinkedIn. Recruiters really do look at these things, so now’s the time to make sure your work experience is up to date. Extra credit for giving someone a recommendation and getting one back.

9. Take a headshot you like. As you’re sprucing up that profile, know that confidence shines through in a great photo. Take one that makes you feel powerful and authentic.

10. Get a capsule work wardrobe. Not to say you need to avoid trends, but building your closet around a few classic, timeless, well-made pieces is a good investment. Think interchangeable items that won’t go out of style. Then use those as a base to build around with cheaper, trendier pieces.

11. Get more sleep. When I was a kid, I dreamed of not having a bedtime. Now I dream of having one again. Prioritize sleep by setting a regular “power down” time, turning off electronics and journaling before you go to sleep to empty your mind from the day.

12. Invest in retirement. I’m no financial expert, but even I know the sooner you contribute to retirement, the better off you’ll be. Invest the money early. Invest the money now.

13. Read “The Coaching Habit.” If you want to coach or manage someday, this book is my favorite, outlining the best skill you can exercise as a coach – listening.

14. Find a cause you care about. We all have passions in and outside of work. Fueling that fire helps you feel fulfilled, motivated and purpose-driven in your community.

15. Serve on a board. When you find that cause, volunteering for a board lets you give back, meet people and learn new things outside of your normal routine. Example: having never taken finance classes, it wasn’t until I served on a board that I knew what a balance sheet was and how to read one.

16. Apply for a leadership group. Being around other leaders through training, conferences and classes gives you access to different types of leaders, their superpowers and the way they deal with problems.

17. Know your elevator speech. “Tell me about yourself.” How can you answer that age-old interview opener in a concise, memorable way that lets your strengths shine?

18. Practice public speaking. If you can hold the attention of a room, you hold a lot of power in your career. Take as many opportunities as possible to stand up and practice speaking – internal meetings, student groups, volunteer meetings – anything.

19. Ask for a raise the right way. Your rent going up is not a reason to ask for a raise. Your skills and responsibilities going up? Now we’re talking. Make a tangible business case for a raise tied to your productivity, value, output and the company’s benefit – not to your personal income needs.

20. Get feedback from people you value. Whether it’s a mentor, an old coach or a friend, we all have people whose opinions we hold highly. Take them out for coffee and ask for feedback. Good, bad or ugly – just be open to it.

21. Find your groove time. Know when you do your best work, and arrange your habits around it to maximize what you get out of a day.

22. Nail down a system for tasks. Winging your task list isn’t a great look at 40. Know the system that works for you so you can replicate it in new opportunities.

23. Learn how to say no. Stop committing to things that don’t fill your cup. Saying no starts with three P’s: permission (giving yourself the okay to say no), priorities (sticking to the work you really need and want to do) and politeness (still being courteous and helpful, maybe by recommending someone else who’s better suited to the project).

24. Fail the right way. At L&S, failing the right way means being passionate about an idea, regardless of outcome, and diving right in. Failing the wrong way means phoning it in. Find a project you can give your all to, then dive in and fail hard. You’ll learn more from taking the risk than sitting on the sidelines.

25. Read a book a quarter. If you’re not a die-hard reader, start by reading one book a quarter. Pick something you’ll enjoy instead of something you’ll feel obligated to read. Keep it visible and within reach so anytime you’re tempted to pick up your phone and waste 20 minutes, you pick up a book instead.

26. Take someone new to coffee. Introverts: I hear you. I am you. This one is hard. But meeting new people helps you make connections, gain perspectives, and plug into the community. You’ll be surprised how many people will take you up on your offer – and how much you’ll enjoy it.

27. Stop thinking in black and white. Seek out the gray area rather than thinking ideas are good or bad, right or wrong. Think of situations as a spectrum from 0 to 100, and how you can compromise along that spectrum. When you stop seeking the 0 or 100 result, you’ll feel much happier with a 40 or 75.

28. Do a 30-day challenge. Try something new for 30 days, from writing to painting to doodling to cooking breakfast.

29. Follow @yung_pueblo on Instagram. There’s a treasure trove of life lessons here on silencing your ego, emotional maturity and more.

30. Say ‘thank you’ – and do it in person. We throw it out a lot via email, but a note of gratitude is more meaningful in person. Be liberal with your thanks, and pull people aside to tell them just how much you value them, face to face.

31. Gather the work you’re proud of. Don’t wait until you’re ready to switch jobs to gather your best work. Keep a folder to stash your best stuff the moment you’ve made it. Reflect on it often.

32. Email yourself. I have email accounts set up for each of my kids where I can send them sweet notes or memories to read when they’re older. You can do this for yourself. Get a great piece of feedback? Put it in your “Props” folder. Have a really great day? Write it down and remember it later.

33. Define your boundaries. Few people will step in from the outside to prevent you from burning out. And you might not recognize it yourself until you’re already toasty. Turning work off is your own responsibility. So make rules for yourself: set certain times to answer/check email, try keeping email or work messaging apps off your phone, or create a goal to leave the office by a set time each day. Start small. Protect your time.

34. Bring an idea or question to every meeting. Always spend five to ten minutes before a meeting to bring something of value – an idea, question, clarification or new direction.

35. Know where your time is most needed. What are the things only you can do? When you feel overwhelmed with tasks, ask yourself: who else should be (or could be) doing this job?

36. Delegate. The previous tip leads right into this one – stopping to think about the best use of your time will unlock the key to delegating and empowering people around you.

37. Get off your phone. Take a dive into your digital wellbeing stats, then set a target to cut back. Use app timers, screentime reminders and bedtime modes to help you focus.

38. Take your bucket list trip. My husband and I used to talk about taking a Mediterranean cruise “someday.” We decided to make that someday happen when we were 28. Yes, we drained our savings, but we’ve never regretted it. Know that bucket-list experiences can coexist within your work life, not in opposition of it.

39. Ask, “did I make something better?” Even on your worst, most unproductive days, always ask yourself as you’re packing up for the night, “did I make something better today?” Ending every day on this note is a good reminder of the big impact we can all make with small actions.

40. Learn to enjoy the process. One of my favorite lessons is credited to Creative Director Joey Nielsen. Our workdays are filled with ups and downs, upsets and triumphs. If you work on enjoying the process more than the product or outcome, you’ll find more fulfillment in every day and learn to accept life’s zigs and zags in stride.

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