THE BLOG
01/29/2013 04:37 pm ET Updated Mar 31, 2013

The Mid-20s Slump: How to Give a Damn About Your Career Again

It's the quarter-life crisis no one talks about.

It hits long after the panic of job-hunting subsides and right before you realize you should've left your job six months ago. And it's why you aren't wildly pursuing the ambitious career goals of your greener years.

It hit me at a recent happy hour with old college buddies. Once upon a time, we toasted Coronas to who would be the first on Forbes' 30 under 30. Now past entry-level but not yet Boss status, we were sipping on cocktails wondering. How do we rise in our companies if we're barely keeping our heads above water? Should we get ahead by changing jobs or keep paying our dues?

One friend put it perfectly: "We knew step one; get a job. Well, what's step two?"

I mentioned before that we 20-somethings must do it bigger and better than ever. Let's start by leveling up in our careers with these quick and dirty to-dos to fight the mid-20s slump and push you to the top where you belong.

15-minute Fixes

  1. Watch a TEDtalk. Watch the world's most fascinating minds -- from Colin Powell to a Victoria's Secret model -- give the most epic talk of their lives. Whether you want to tap into your inner creative crazy or learn how video games can save the world, witnessing how geniuses and gamechangers work and play could reignite your passion, help you discover a new one, or at least teach you how to use a paper towel correctly.
  2. Follow or Like five companies/CEOs/interesting people. There's a rock star company or guru for every industry and trade you should follow on social media. In a creative profession? Check out 99U or Seth Godin. Entrepreneurial? Try Guy Kawasaki or Fast Company. It's a surefire way to get daily inspiration and professional advice you can't avoid even if you tried.
  3. Shoot an email to HR inquiring about a professional development budget. It's the best-kept secret at your work: funds you could and should take advantage of for resources like books, seminars, even an MBA. It's money on the table for enterprising folks like you, so take the initiative. If there isn't a dedicated fund, talk to your boss how they can support or subsidize your professional development (who doesn't love an ambitious employee?).
Power Hour
  1. Find the job listing for the position you want in a year. So you want to land your dream job or ask for a promotion; do you know exactly what it takes? Find your ideal position and highlight what's missing on your resume. Knowing where you need to fill in the blanks makes the next step that much more achievable.
  2. Have a coffee date with a mentor. "The number one piece of advice I would share is... find someone you admire who is at least one generation older and has no direct authority over you... Find heroes, and study them closely." Maybe it's your old boss, a former professor, or a LinkedIn connection that you've always wanted to pick their brain. Email them about meeting for coffee and some career advice, and initiate a casual conversation with these pointers and have in mind what key takeaways you want.
  3. Set up a meeting with your boss this week. Go beyond introspection and have an informal check-in with your boss to gauge what you're doing well and how you can improve. And don't be afraid to ask for their guidance on your professional growth game plan. Wear your ambition on your sleeve but take the criticisms with grace and the praise with humility; learn from both.
Level-up Weekends
  1. Turn your career to-do list into a calendar. You knew this one was coming. Write down one milestone or accomplishment you want to hit in two weeks, two months, six months, and one year. Most importantly, mark them in your calendar to turn them from abstract goals into concrete to-dos. Check them often and calibrate your career moves to stay on your path.
  2. Have one level-up day a week. Gamers have it right; being awesome doesn't happen overnight. You inch your way up through hard work, perseverance, and the occasional epic win till you can beat the Boss (or in our case, be the Boss). Start with a few hours weekly dedicated to leveling up, like job-hunting, reading a business book, starting a portfolio, or learning a new skill.
  3. Pay it forward; help someone reach his or her career dreams. Nothing has taught me more about my weaknesses, strengths, and potential than becoming a manager. Want to stretch and grow? Help someone else stretch and grow, and learn from and through him or her. If you don't have a managing opportunity at work, check out mentoring programs. And when you're setting someone else up for success, be a truly great, selfless mentor (to start, check out the Ten Secrets Great Bosses Keep podcast).

"The only thing that I see distinctly different about me is that I'm not afraid to die on a treadmill. You might have more talent than me, you might be smarter than me, you might be sexier than me... but if we get on a treadmill together, there are two things: You're getting off first, or I'm gonna DIE. It's really that simple," Will Smith once said.

This defines an element of success consistent across aspirations and industries: a supernatural work ethic. It won't be just your talent or your winning personality that gets you to step two; it's our generation's unique ability to keep hustling above and beyond whatever hits us -- job market, economy, even ourselves sometimes.

The time to take risks and brace the fall is now. Succeed or die.