Twenties are the most uncertain and some of the most difficult years of life. I know it because I am 25, I have friends in their 20s and because I read « The defining decade: why your twenties matter and how to make the most of them now » by the psychologist Meg Jay.
For me, twenties can be even more frightening because we were not prepared to enter the adult world. Before that, we were going through a pretty standard life. Even though at the time we felt the rush to become adults, those were actually for most of us, the most certain and easy years of our life. We were just supposed to go to school, get good grades, go on holidays and go back to school the next year. Our parents made most of the difficult decisions for us, just expecting us to work well in school. Of course, this might not be the case for everybody, but I’m talking based on my experience and the one of those around me. Nothing really prepares us for what’s next after school. We don’t really talk about the doubts, the difficulty to choose a career, the struggles in managing relationships, etc. And then suddenly, we are in our mid twenties and everybody want to know what we do now, what we want to do next, when we are going to get married, have kids, without realizing how unsure we are ourselves about all of those things.
Meg Jay is an American psychologist who specializes on adult development and twentysomethings in particular. I discovered her book through some tweets of Kiyani and thought it could be interesting to see how a book focused on the lives of twentysomethings in United States could also be relatable to me. Meg Jay divided it into three main parts: work, love, the brain and the body.
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We might feel lost in our twenties about who we are and what is our purpose. With the influence of media, we now believe that it is normal to have an identity crisis in our 20s and not knowing what to do after we graduate. It’s right. But it doesn’t mean we should just do stupid things or sit and wait for something magical to happen. According to Meg Jay, while going through this period of uncertainty, we need to build our identity capital: the investments we make in ourselves, the things we do well enough or long enough that they become part of who we are. It can include degrees, jobs, skills, the way we speak or solve problems, etc.
In our twenties, we might go through unemployment or underemployment, but we need to choose jobs that can be added to our capital and help us in the long run. Additionally, we also need to pay attention about the relationship we have with others. Although we have our urban tribe, a group of like-minded peers that are by our sides and help us survive, it’s the people we have weak ties with that tend to help us thrive and lead us to job opportunities.
Our urban tribe can consist of people we grew up or went to school with. They might support us but it’s the people we don't know much that will make big changes in our lives. They are people who think differently from our inner circle. We are somehow connected and met them before but we are not close. Those people are generally willing to help as long as it’s not a burden. To take advantage of our weak ties, we need to make sure to ask the good questions. Some might not reply because they don’t have time or because the question would require them to know us personally. So we need to make ourselves interesting, relevant. We need to do our homework so we know exactly what we want or need and how exactly they can help us. They can say no, but we will be surprised that some will say yes to our requests.
Young people in US hear so much that they can do anything they want, that they feel like there are too many possibilities and don’t know which one to choose. Actually, that’s also a way of thinking that is becoming popular here, from what I see on social media. But the truth is, our past, interests, experiences, strengths, weaknesses, etc., can help us to determine the few choices we have available. The issue is that some twentysomethings fall into the "unthought known". There are things we know about ourselves but somehow forgot, or dreams, truths that we sense but don’t say out loud. It can be scary because we might know what we want but we don’t know how to get it. When we make choices, we open ourselves to hard work, failure, and heartbreak. So sometimes, it feels easier not to know, not to choose, not to do.
When we look at other people’s lives on social networks, we feel like they are happier than us, that they are doing extraordinary things while we are just existing. It feels like everybody is getting married, having babies, traveling the world, making an impact. The truth is, it’s not the case, and usually people only post what make them look good, not their troubles.
We need to stop being obsessed with what we think we should be or what the world tells us we should be, and focus on what is true about ourselves and the world. We should identify how our particular gifts and limitations fit with the world around us. We are actually not going to reach our potential in our 20s. This might happen in our 30s or even 50s. But it’s in our twenties that we need to start the process and work for the career we want to have later.
So in case you are still wondering about what to do, learn. Try new experiences that are linked to things that interest you. Read books, go to networking events related to your passion, or interest. Talk to people who have more experience than you. Volunteer. You might not be an executive or a successful entrepreneur until you reach your 30s, but you need to start working for it NOW !
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There are many workshops, classes, books, and counselors to help us build the career we want. But when it comes to choosing our life partner, there are much less materials on the topic. Meg Jay explains that marriage is one of our most defining moments because our life will be tied to our partner’s on so many levels. Even in case of a divorce, we might still be linked through children, friends, etc. It’s not like a job we can just choose to not put on our resume. So we actually need to put much more emphasis on how we choose our future spouse.
Single educated women feel a lot of pressure to settle down, and are sometimes being called « picky » . So this part of the book actually made me feel better about setting my own standards for the person I might spend the rest of my life with. We sometimes say that we don’t choose our family. Meg Jay says that although this is true while we are growing up, as adults, we can actually choose our family when we choose our life partner. Choosing a partner is not just about waiting for a soulmate. We should define the kind of relationship we want, including with our partner’s family. Before getting married, we also need to talk about important topics like how we are going to plan our finances, our children’s future, etc.
Many young people think that marriage will be easier if they start living with their partner beforehand. But most researches show that people who live together before making an engagement have a higher chance of getting divorced than people who don’t. This is called the cohabitation effect. Most people slide rather than actually deciding to live together. Since it’s not marriage, it doesn’t seem that serious and they feel like they can easily leave. So they don’t talk about important issues, the ones they would have bring up if they were getting married. But actually, it becomes hard to leave once they invested themselves. They face switching costs. They have some routines together, the same friends, they share pets, furniture, and with age, they, especially women, feel like they already invested too much time in the relationship to start over.
In the western world, couples can move in together to cut their costs. In Côte d’Ivoire, a woman might move in with her boyfriend after getting « accidentally » pregnant, without having a real engagement talk. This could lead some people to stay together for dozens of years without getting married and we hear so many stories where the man would finally marry someone else or die, leaving his partner and their children without a legal protection regarding his heritage. To avoid the cohabitation effect, you need to make a clear commitment to each other by being engaged or planning to do so in the near future, before starting to live together. Of course depending on your religion, or personal values, the best might be to just wait for the wedding first.
Thinking about our past, we might realize that we are tied to conversations in our teenage years, or experiences that made us feel low about ourselves. This can lead us to dating down or working down, accepting low jobs or relationships because we think that’s what we deserve. So we need to know our story, who we are, and decide if there is a need to rewrite it, and do so to make better choices for ourselves.
We all have (or should have) specific criteria that are deal breakers, while we choose the best partner for ourselves. Those are the most obvious criteria like religion, age, look, etc. But according to Meg Jay, it is more important to look at personality, how we are in the world and how it’s reflected in everything we do. Couples with similar personality are more likely to feel satisfied. We can identify our similarities based on whether we score low, medium or high in each of the big five traits of personality: openness, conscientiousness, agreeableness, extraversion, and neuroticism.
In our twenties, we sometimes feel like we have all the time to settle. But by the time we realize it, we are 30 and feel the urgency to get married, especially for women. So similarly to the work, this is the time to date wisely and determine the kind of person we want to spend our life with. Instead of focusing on what bother or satisfy us in the relationship right now, we should consider what will still matter on the long run, when we are in our 40s, 50s.
The brain and the body
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I really appreciate the last part of the book because it helps us to better understand why we do some of the things we do at different ages. Meg Jay explains that the oldest part of the brain is the emotional one. It develops first, at the base of the brain, near the spine and it controls breathing, sex, emotions, senses, sleep, hunger, thirst, which are our animal propensities.
Our reason and judgement reside in the frontal lobe, which is therefore the executive functioning center. It helps us to make decisions with no black or white answers. This part of the brain does not fully mature until between the ages of 20 to 30. And it might explain why forward thinking comes later. But it doesn’t just come with age. It comes with practice and experience. The brain changes in response to our environment.
Being smart in school is about how well we solve problems that have correct answers and clear time limits. But being a forward thinking adult is about how we think and act even in uncertain situations. This is why we sometimes say that some people are just smart at school but not in real life, while others who were considered as poor students, actually thrive in their professional and/or personal lives.
By 20, the brain has gotten as big as it is going to be but it is still refining its network of connections. New connections are developed in adolescence to prepare for the uncertainty of adulthood. Twenties is the time to get busy, develop the person we want to be in our 20s and beyond. The frontal lobe connections that we don’t use are waste away. So it’s the time to learn more because we become what we do, see and hear every day.
During our twenties, we tend to doubt ourselves, feel anxious and incompetent at work. Our brain pays special attention to the things that surprise us, bizarre stuffs, strong emotions, etc. More viviv memories come from early adulthood than any other developmental stage. Twentysomethings brains react more strongly to negative information than older adults. So we tend to take it very personal when we receive negative criticism.
Older adults on the other hand know that some things should be overlooked and know how to do so. With time and experience, we realize that problems can be solved or at least survived. Think about the last time you had a heartbreak and thought you would never get over it… or when you went through some difficult times at work.
Meg Jay talks about two different types of mindset: fixed and growth mindsets. Someone with a fixed mindset believes that you either have a natural talent for something or your don’t, while someone with a growth mindset believes that people can change, learn, and grow. According to Meg Jay, a large part of what makes people good at something is practice. You could have an innate inclination or some particular talent but still need to practice.
Confidence comes from the outside in, not inside out. It comes from experience, actual lived moments of success. To be more confident in our ability to get the job done, we need to practice more, think about what we do well, or did well. We can use positive feedback to increase our confidence and negative feedback to improve ourselves and do better. Feeling better doesn’t come from avoiding adulthood but from investing in it. The investments we make in work and love trigger personality maturation. Simply having goals and working towards them can make us happier. Goals are how we declare who we are and who we want to be. They are how we structure our years and our lives.
I particularly enjoyed the fact that the author used the stories of her clients to explain every concept she develops. Those stories give us hope about the fact that what we are going through as doubts and anxieties are normal and we can actually do something to feel better and approach our thirties with more confidence. The only topic she discussed that was actually triggering more anxiety was fertility.
On the contrary to what we usually think, Meg Jay says that there is a biological clock both for men and women, not just women. Older sperm may be associated with neurocognitive problems like autism, schizophrenia, dyslexia, etc. But women fertility is the one that has caught up most of the attention of researchers.
Women fertility peaks during the late twenties so it is the easiest time to have babies for most women. Fertility declines at about 30. Even though it’s not impossible, it is usually more complicated for women to have babies after 35 years old. Egg quality decreases and the endocrine system which regulates hormones and tells the body how to proceed with a pregnancy becomes less effective. More women have babies in their 40s now, but the media talk less about the necessary and costly treatments beforehand and the couples who still can’t have babies despite the treatments.
Trying to have babies in the thirties is more stressful because it becomes an urgency. Moreover, the stress can also be higher when we have children in our 30s because there is a big gap between the generations of grand-parents, parents and grand-children. The parents in their thirties might have to take care of both their parents and their toddlers, and grand parents might be too old to help taking care of the grand-children.
As humans, we suffer from the present bias, we favor the rewards of today over the rewards of tomorrow. We, especially twentysomethings, might think that this is the best time to act in a YOLO (you only live once) mode without planning for the future especially as we don’t know what might happen. But although it is indeed the right time to enjoy ourselves, we still need to anticipate life. It is important that we do a timeline and think about where exactly we want to be in the coming years, in order to get ready for it.
I tried my best to give you the most important insights of the book, but I still recommend you to read it by yourself. Going through the pages helped me to better understand different areas of my life and think about what I can do better. As Meg Jay says, life is full of uncertainty. There is no specific formula for a good life and there are things that are just as they are. The smartest thing to do is to know as much as we can about them. If we are paying attention to our life as twentysomethings, the next years might be brighter.