Career Path

Career Goals by 35

No two career paths are the same, but there are some shared milestones by this age.

For years, the de facto image associated with career growth was a ladder. You work hard. You climb up. You get to the top.

In reality, few people take such a linear path. In fact, many career coaches these days prefer to talk about the career ladder as a lattice—one that accounts for the sometimes horizontal, diagonal, or even downward movements that ultimately propel people forward in their careers. A recent study called the CEO Genome Project that looked at the career paths of CEOs over 10 years found many of them moved backward or sideways; more than 60% of them took a smaller role at some point in their career before landing on top. 

By 35, you’ve likely had several different jobs and life experiences, and you should have a network to match.

While there’s no one route to the helm—and everyone’s idea of a helm look totally different—there are some general goals that professionals in nearly every industry should strive for along the way. Here’s what executive coaches say you should achieve by age 35.

Know if you want to manage people or make your mark as a contributor.

With several years of work experience under your belt, you should have an informed sense of whether you want to build your skills to include managing people. Around this age is a great time to seek out management opportunities, or to double down on the skills and competencies that make you an indispensable member of the team. “Some people force themselves to take on some sort of management role, and it’s not really their thing, so it’s important they learn to sell themselves as an individual contributor instead,” says Andrea Wedell, founder of an eponymous coaching practice in the Bay Area.

Have a diverse and robust network.

By 35, you’ve likely had several different jobs and life experiences, and career pros say you should have a network to match. With 85% of people landing jobs through networking these days, it’s critical for you to not only make real connections, but to maintain those connections through meaningful interaction. “So many people come in ready to make a career change and their networks have languished,” says Andrea Weiss, a career counselor based in Davis, California. “It’s really hard to ramp those back up, especially if you want to move out of your current job in the next three months.” (For tips on developing your professional network, take a look at our primer on networking in the 21st century.)

Deliver your elevator pitch with ease.

By your mid-30s, you’ve likely been asked “What do you do?” countless times. You should be able to respond with an articulate, engaging response that quickly gets to the root of who you are and what you care about. Career experts say the best responses are cultivated by looking inward. “You’re not just saying, ‘This is my job.’ You’re conveying what motivates you, what your strengths are, and where you’re headed,” Weiss says.

Be good at handling stress.

OK, we know this is easier said than done, especially when stressors change throughout life. But career professionals say being able to manage stress is one of the best things you can do for yourself, particularly as you take on more responsibility. “I’ve got so many clients in their 30s who are dealing with so much—family, work, health—and they’re not finding a way to manage their stress,” says career coach Daisy Swan, who runs a practice in Los Angeles and Santa Barbara, California. Research suggests that stress can damage cognitive functions and exacerbate existing health conditions, so it’s important to get a handle on it sooner than later. “Make the time,” Swan says. “It’s so easy to lose perspective.”

Know how to give and receive criticism.

By 35, it’s likely you’ve not only received negative feedback, but also had to deliver negative feedback. While it’s always an uncomfortable position to be in regardless of whether you’re giving or taking criticism, you should understand the importance of being emotionally intelligent in both situations. “It’s really about learning how to not take things personally,” Swan says. Indeed, a 2013 study revealed that people who got defensive about criticism were not only less happy at work, but had poor performance ratings. So try to find the positive spin and move on.

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