Your 20s Are Still the Most Important Decade of Your Life
In this Q&A with Dr. Meg Jay, the clinical psychologist explains why the twenties matter, and how to make the most of them.
BT: You write about several cases of recent grads who feel they're drowning or floundering around in the world waiting for something to happen. Has it always been this hard to thrive in early adulthood?
BT: One of the main themes in the book is the line between thinking and doing. You argue that it's more important to just do something than to waste years dreaming up the perfect path. How can 20-somethings to put this idea into action?
One way to keep yourself honest about the future is by making a timeline. At what age would I like to be out of this dead-end job? By when do I hope to be married? How old do I want to be when I try for my first child? How old do I want to be when I try for that last child? It may not be cool to have a timeline, or to admit to having a timeline, but you don't have to etch it in stone. It's just a way of thinking about how your life might, or might not, be adding up.
BT: About 25% of recent grads are unemployed, and 25% are underemployed. What is your advice for those who simply can't find a job?
That's how people are getting jobs--especially good jobs--even in a tough economy. Most 20somethings hate the idea of asking outsiders for favors, but those who won't do this fall behind those who will. 20somethings who sit on the sidelines because of a bad economy will never catch up with those who figured out how to get in the game.
BT: How can 20somethings reclaim their status as adults given all the cultural trends working against them?
MJ: Don't let culture trivialize your life and work and relationships. Don't hang out only with people who are drinking the 30-is-the-new-20 kool-aid. I cannot tell you how many emails I have received from 30somethings since The Defining Decade came out, ones in which the writer says something like, "I used to roll my eyes at my peers who were determined to meet benchmarks--graduate school, real relationships, decent-paying jobs that reflect their interests--on time or early. Now I'm envious and admiring of them. Now I'm working twice as hard for half the result." Don't shrug your shoulders and say, "I'm in my 20s. What I'm doing doesn't count." Recognize that what you do, and what you don't do, will have an enormous impact across years and even generations. You're deciding your life right now.
MJ: Given that life and the brain change so much across our 20s, this is the perfect time to learn new coping strategies. It's not okay to go to work with scars on your arms from cutting, it's not acceptable to scream at friends when things go wrong, and live-in girlfriends get tired of seeing us stoned every night. These are the years to learn to calm yourself down. Gain some control over your emotions. Sure, there's Xanax, which a recent conference presenter I heard only half-jokingly called "Jack Daniels in a Pill." But practice calming techniques that can work over the long run: exercise, therapy, mindfulness, yoga, cognitive meditation, deep breathing, healthy distraction, dialectical behavior therapy. Use your rational mind to counter the anxious and catastrophic thoughts you have: "I probably won't be fired because I dropped one phone call." Try to create your own certainty by making healthy choices and commitments that off-set the upheaval in the world around.
BT: We loved this quote: "Claiming a career and getting a good job isn't the end, it's the beginning." Can you explain this a bit?
BT: Can you discuss some of the current neurobiological research, and how that impacted your writing?