Your Twenties: More Important Than You Think

by seangljacobs

Twentysomething? Time to get moving.

Around two-thirds of lifetime wage growth happens in the first ten years of a career. Your twenties, therefore, are critically important not just professionally but for life-long development.

This is the message of Meg Jay’s book The Defining Decade: Why Your Twenties Matter – And How to Make the Most of Them Now. Jay picks apart the assumption, which young people have all heard at various times, that your twenties are a time to exclusively let your hair down and have fun.

Making the most of your twenties requires trial and error, building focus, and forming serious relationships.

Setback, of course, is common in any arena of life. But Jay, like Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck, points out the benefits of deploying a ‘growth mindset.’ As Jay explains, ‘for those who have a growth mindset, failures may sting but they are also viewed as opportunities for improvement and change.’ While not always easy to deploy, seeing the lessons in setbacks – a common piece of advice – is useful.

As you deal with persistence and begin to make serious choices in your twenties, a certain focus can begin to develop, which helps in knowing not only what you want but what you don’t. Chemically, too, changes begin to take place. ‘Across years,’ says Jay, ‘the brain keeps the neurons and connections that are used while those that ware neglected are pruned, or allowed to die off.’

Jay includes a great quote from William James that ‘the art of being wise is knowing what to overlook’, which reminded me a lot of Steve Jobs’ definition of focus while building and sustaining Apple:

People think focus means saying yes to the thing you’ve got to focus on. But that’s not what it means at all. It means saying no to the hundred other good ideas that there are. You have to pick carefully. I’m actually as proud of many of the things we haven’t done as the things we have done.

Your twenties are also a time when forming serious relationships is a good idea. Jay says it’s common in her work to see young couples choosing partners based on ‘an intersection between college roommate and sex partner than a lifelong commitment between two spouses.’

Jay examines the cohabitation effect, which is an interesting concept that says couples ‘slide’ into marriage because of ease (and because they live together) rather than because it’s the right choice. As Jay explains ‘couples who live together first are actually less satisfied with their marriage and more likely to divorce than couples who do not.’ This would strike many young people today as strange but, like all advice, it’s worth keeping in mind.

Overall, the big takeaway from Jay’s book is that it’s not all about your career. As Jay says, ‘claiming a career or getting a good job isn’t the end; it’s the beginning. And, then, there is still a lot more to know and a lot more to do.’

Even the most successful and brilliant people can begin to fall apart in later life. As Harvard’s Clayton Christensen notes of his peers from Harvard in How Will You Measure Your Life:

My classmates were not only some of the brightest people I’ve known, but some of the most decent people, too. At graduation they had plans and visions for what they would accomplish, not just in their careers, but in their personal lives as well. Yet something had gone wrong for some of them along the way: their personal relationships had begun to deteriorate, even as their professional prospects blossomed.

Jay’s book is a good insight into arresting this personal deterioration while at the same time working toward important career and professional goals.

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