Success Does Not Follow a Time Clock

Your career will have many twists and turns. It may slump or drag for a while and then take off when you finally hit your stride.

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By Steve Tobak

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

We're growing up later than we used to. We're finishing school later, starting our careers later, even getting married and having kids later. In case you're wondering, it's a worldwide phenomenon that's been studied to death. We've known about it for years. So what's new?

What's new is a study of 5 million workers over a period of decades. The economists who did the research for the Federal Reserve Bank of New York concluded that average workers see most of their earnings grow during the first 10 years of their career and begin to stagnate after age 35.

But there is one big caveat: that flattening of the growth curve does not happen to higher-income earners. And therein lies the rub. Nobody has a crystal ball so you don't know if you're going to be an average earner or make gobs of money until after the fact.

Take my career, for example. The first decade ended with me stuck in middle management. I didn't break through to the executive ranks until my mid-30s. That's when all the good stuff started to happen. And my compensation was still on the rise when I retired from the corporate world and started my own business at 46.

Related: Your Product Is Your Brand

If I were you, I'd take studies like this one with a big dose of salt. But since mainstream news outlets are already mischaracterizing the data with eye-ball catching headlines like "Your lifetime earnings are probably determined in your 20s," I thought I'd provide some advice that's a bit less sensational and a lot more balanced:

Driving yourself too hard can backfire.

One of the takeaways from those reporting on the study is essentially that you should get your head in the game and get while the getting's good. If you're a slacker, that's good advice, but if you're already a highly driven achievement-oriented person, putting even more pressure on yourself is a bad idea.

Probably the main reason I ended up stuck in middle-management hell in the first place is that I was pushing myself too hard. As a result, I came across rough around the edges, my management style was a bit on the toxic side, and I wasn't deemed executive leadership material.

Once I learned to let go and relax a bit, that's when I started to shine, doors that had been closed began to open, and climbing the ladder of success became a whole lot easier. On a side note my personal relationships improved, as well. Turns out nobody wants to be around a guy that takes himself too seriously – at work or at home.

Related: 10 Behaviors You Never See in Successful People

You're not racing against a biological time clock.

If you juxtapose the two sets of research – that people are growing up later but their earning potential is dictated earlier – you might reach the erroneous conclusion that those two concepts are at odds with each other, that you need to grow up ASAP or you'll miss your best opportunity to be successful. That's simply not true.

It's all relative. The clock starts when you're ready, more or less. Some of us are just late bloomers. I know I was. That doesn't mean you want to screw around for a few decades, wake up when you're 60 and declare, "I'm ready, now show me the money." Trust me, that's not going to end well.

But if you're like some people – me for example – your career will have many twists and turns. It may slump or drag for a while and then take off when you finally hit your stride. And who knows when that'll happen? After all, there's definitely a random component to life. None of us is in complete control, that's for sure.

And while maturity does make life easier in many ways, you never want to lose that childlike belief that anything is possible and regular folk like you and me can achieve amazing things if we set our minds to it. While I can't point to a study, I've definitely observed the power of dreams. They can and often do become self-fulfilling prophecies.

Related: Why You Become Happier With Age

Steve Tobak

Author of Real Leaders Don't Follow

Steve Tobak is a management consultant, columnist, former senior executive, and author of Real Leaders Don’t Follow: Being Extraordinary in the Age of the Entrepreneur (Entrepreneur Press, October 2015). Tobak runs Silicon Valley-based Invisor Consulting and blogs at, where you can contact him and learn more.

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