When I knocked on my Mother’s door, a strange feeling came over me. I had come to say goodbye before embarking on a backpacking trip around the world, and suddenly I felt the weight of this decision. I, Eyal Danon, was 30 years old.
“So, you know, this is it” I said awkwardly.
She nodded her head from side to side. “You still have time to change your mind. You do realize that you are putting your career on hold for an indefinite time. Do you think they will wait for you? Look at your friends. They are moving ahead in the world. And you are throwing it all away.” She repeated her mantra – “you are making a serious mistake.”
At the time I didn’t have good answers to her concerns. Probably any objective observer, let alone a passionate individual like my mother, would have reacted in the same way. I had just gotten engaged and started to do well in my job as hospitality management lecturer in Reichman University in Tel Aviv. There seemed to be a clear path forward. But my heart wasn’t in it. I craved adventures, exploring distant lands, finding out about myself. My mother refused to acknowledge my desire to explore the world, dismissing it as a folly that will go away. I was determined to do it, knowing full well that the window of opportunity to do this would soon be closed.
A couple of hours later I was on a plane from Tel Aviv to Kathmandu, Nepal. The adventure of a lifetime was about to begin.
Years have passed from this incredible journey. I have since started my own global consulting company, working with Fortune 500 firms such as Amazon, HP and Bank of New York on their customer advisory boards, while also spending time as a life-coach with clients, many of them in their 20’s. It was often painfully clear that most of my clients were confused, feeling that they should be doing better professionally. Yet very few had a solid plan for this critical phase of life, from 18 to 36.
It got me thinking – – what if conventional wisdom about career building was wrong? What if your twenties were not the right time to start and the typical trajectory of forty years were far too long? And what if instead of blindly following this path, you structured your planning around life’s natural cycles and were able to experience much greater joy, excitement and purpose?
I believe that there is a time and place for everything that we need to achieve in life. If you have 80 years to live, why on earth would you double down on your work in your 20’s, before exploring what the world has in store for you, and where is the sweet spot between your talents, passion and what the market needs?
Before the age of 36, I had no money, no savings, no retirement plan, and quite honestly, no worries. The year I turned 36, I became vice president of marketing for a publicly traded technology company. My salary hit six figures for the first time and continued to rise year after year. It all happened at the right time.
I know that this mindset runs counter to what you’ve always heard—that you must start saving from the age of four and focus on making money as soon as you’re on your own. Sure, if you can start saving money at an early age, go ahead and do it. The financial logic is sound. But focusing on money at the expense of pursuing your dreams will have a more negative impact on your life than your savings rate.
Most of us are out of the gate too early, trying to make money while we can, taking on jobs we shouldn’t accept and burying our chances of escape from the average life.
But I see a much different – and better – way forward. That is, structuring our career and life’s journey around five consecutive 18-year phases. The first one, from ages 0 to 18, is what I call the Dreamer phase. This is when we identify our dreams and flesh them out. Then, from 18 to 36, comes the Explorer phase, where we commit to a quest for the one area we are most passionate about. Isn’t it far more natural to spend time searching for that one area than to dive into an area in our early 20s only to discover much later that it wasn’t the best fit?
Unfortunately, diving in too early is exactly what most people do. We spend the precious ages of 18 to 36 trying to learn a profession or trade, make a living, start a family, pay the bills, and worry about making it in the real world. Sometimes, yes, we get lucky, and things work out as we hope they will. But just as often, we spend a lot of time and expend a good deal of energy traveling the wrong path.
We constantly compare ourselves to the people around us, and we are always rushing it. We get out of school and plunge into the first job that comes along or grab at the first opportunity that presents itself before we’ve determined whether it’s what we really want to do with our lives—and certainly before we’ve acquired the skills and mindset to do it exceptionally well.
My advice to all, mapped out in my new book The Principle of 18, is that we step out of autopilot mode and approach our life and career from the perspective of these five consecutive 18-year phases:
- The Dreamer, when you identify our dreams and flesh them out.
- The Explorer, when you commit a quest for the one area you are most passionate about.
- The Builder, when you focus intently on that chosen area.
- The Mentor, when you guide younger generations.
- The Giver, when you dedicate ourselves to a cause.
The Explorer stage, from ages 18 to 36, is about discovering the one area you can excel at. In the span of eighteen years, you have enough time to fully explore 3 different dreams, allowing yourself to immerse in whatever it takes to realize if this is the professional path you want to take when you turn 36 years old.
Following this approach will enable you to:
Exhaust each dream before you move on to the next.You have enough time to try out in full 3 empowering dreams. A good stretch of time is 5 years per dream.
You might get lucky and strike gold on the path to fulfilling your first dream, but these cases are incredibly rare. Allow yourself enough time to become a “serious explorer”, committing fully to whatever you are trying to achieve, without considering any other alternatives while you are at it. It’s not enough to give a halfhearted effort and then decide, “This is not for me.” Fully exhaust the potential of each one of your dreams, even if it takes several years.
Take more risks. This is the best time to take major risks. A risk-taking attitude will serve you well in the Builder phase, too, but the stakes will be higher then. As an Explorer, you don’t have a lot to lose. Start taking more risks so you learn how to push beyond your comfort zone. Adopt the attitude that your 20’s are the best time ever to take huge risks.
Minimize your regrets. By fully exploring your dreams for 18 years, you are drastically reducing your future regrets. By eliminating all the “coulda, woulda, shouldas,” you will make sure that you wouldn’t look back with regret on this life stage. You want to give each dream your utmost consideration, effort, and energy, using all the resources you have. If you still come up short, you’ll know you gave it your all and you’ll no regrets about it
Stop obsessing over money. It’s more important to find your passion, hone your skills and plan for your Builder years, from 36 to 54. That’s when you should double down on the one area that you can excel at.
Above all, this approach will empower you to maximize your joy and your potential, minimize your regrets, and achieve extraordinary things.
About the Eyal Danon
Eyal Danon is a Columbia University–trained life coach and the founder of the Ignite Advisory Group, a global leader in managing expert communities for Fortune 500 firms. He is the author of The Principle of 18, the memoir Before the Kids and Mortgage, and the novel The Golden Key of Gangotri. Connect with Eyal at www.eyaldanon.com.