The Defining Decade: Why Your Twenties Matter–and How to Make the Most of them Now

The defining decade

My dad asked, “you actually read books that talk about that stuff?”

I nodded. “Of course…”

We were referring to Meg Jay’s book The Defining Decade: Why Your Twenties Matter—and How to Make the Most of Them Now, a book that obviously falls into the genre of Self-Help and Personal Development. I wanted something I could read during my business trip to Virginia with some much needed guidance because

  • I had never flown solo before.
  • I had never done a week long interview for any kind of job before.

To say the least, I was stressed. The Defining Decade kept things in perspective for me, helped remind me that the overwhelming thing I was doing wasn’t crazy but actually good for me, my mind, and career.

The introduction put me at ease. It wasn’t a guide of how you should be living, which, admittedly, is a problem a lot of us feel in our twenties, that we’re expected to reach something at a certain point. We see our friends with successful careers or they’re getting married and going on to visit the baby factory. And Facebook doesn’t make this any easier, subjecting us to Instagram photos of our friends’ ostensible perfect lives, forgetting that said friend is probably sleep deprived from spending all night with a crying baby, unbalanced between career and family life, or struggling with their self-worth because the last time they probably had a true minute alone was before the mom turned into a human incubator (don’t worry, I’m not planning on having children.)

What really grabbed my attention was Jay’s emphasis on young adults putting their lives on hold with the lag causing long-term consequences. It’s one of the things my own dad tried to instill in me when I was in my earlier twenties, advice I ignored partially because of Depression (because, really, who thinks about a 401K when you’re suicidal?) and the other thinking that the future wasn’t a real thing. The future was just something you thought about but never could engage with since it felt like a galaxy, far, far away. You could only live in the present, which I interchangeably treated as ‘living in the moment.’ The funny part? I was not that person in college.

I was always working towards something with the end goal feeling abstract but shiny and full of lots of potential. I felt secure when I was working towards my degree. No matter how terrible my commencement speech was (he might as well have been a loan shark), everything made sense and felt like things were falling into place. When I received my diploma, I blithely walked down the stairs, not a thought in my head of the future.

We end up becoming desensitized to the word future, printed on every career brochure and banner, crammed into commencement speeches and counseling talks, using the term at least a 100 times; the familiarity of the word, its constant presence on campus, and the very idea that since you’re in college you’re already working towards your future, makes us immune to the depths of its meaning, Then college ends and the nice, contained space where you knew where you were going is gone and you feel like you’re navigating with a broken compass.

Being stuck in limbo, whether it’s your career or love life, is lethargically miserable; it just StuckCatis. Conveying it to family and friends who seem to have their lives all figured out is worse because you can’t really talk to them without spilling out every thought in your head and leaving them to pick through the rubble of all your what-if future ambitions. If you don’t have a plan within a certain time frame, then comes the advice. Even if it’s coming from a place of good intentions, it’s still frustrating and often comes off as condescending. Of course you’ve updated your resume, checked out that firm, talked to that guy, volunteered at that sheltered, contacted that old boss of yours for a recommendation letter, etc.  Chances are that whatever they think you should do is probably something you’ve already tried before, the impulse to yell or rip their hair from their roots suddenly not sounding so crazy.

Jay’s book recounts her sessions with twenty-somethings trying to find what they want out of life. The pieces will generally resonate with most twenty-somethings who feel lost or don’t feel like they’re living up to their potential, but the content is not formulaic. She’s not telling everyone that getting married and having children equates to instant gratification. Having goals toward the future tends to feel more self-satisfying and enables you to pursue other things in life.

She discounts the myth that our twenties are throw away years, the idea that, because we’re young, we have all the time in the world to do things that have no effect on the future (if you’re about to board a flight to Europe—just ignore this and do your thing.) The problem occurs that after leaving college that twenty-somethings treat the present as dislocated time, the impression that things now are temporary  and they’ll magically change.

They don’t.

Jay doesn’t lecture with ‘get a job’ but supports with evidence and statistics of people leading more satisfied lives when their working towards goals. Much of the book contains individualized stories involving twenties who are indecisive, incredibly afraid of choosing the wrong path, avoiding making families because of their own damaged lives, not networking enough because their safe in their small groups, lacking discipline to stay in a job that will lead to other opportunities (been there,) working a job they hate, and just not engaging with the consequences of delaying plans for a later date (waiting till your forties to have a child for instance.) This book primarily discusses issues about pursuing goals and adjusting to adulthood, which I know many of us tend to see as a graveyard of dreams but it’s not.

With all that said, the book tends to overlook circumstantial issues influenced by ethnicity, economics, and sexual orientation. She points out, however, that those issues can fill a book by itself, which I sincerely hope she gets around to writing. The book also has the problem of not covering other life alternatives such as choosing not to marry or never having children.

The book is written for twenty-somethings, not to the parents trying to get their twenty-somethings to move out of their house. It maturely speaks to twenty-somethings despondent or lost in their lives, but provides the needed incentive to go out and change things.

You don’t have to feel like you’re a kid stuck on the high board at the pool with everyone’s eyes trained on you, waiting for you to make a choice (based off a true story.) It gets better.