5 Things I Learned about Working in Your Twenties from The Defining Decade

I love my TED Talks. I watch them on the train. I watch them over coffee at breakfast. I watch them during breaks at work. Sometimes I listen to the podcast versions during a run. I love them because the speakers are engaging and present information in a way that makes me think about things from a new perspective.

Dr. Meg Jay’s thought-provoking TED talk about “Why 30 is Not the New 20” has now been viewed more than 8 million times. It should come as no surprise, then, that her book The Defining Decade; Why Your Twenties Matter And How to Make the Most of Them Now was also full of useful wisdom. Dr. Jay is a clinical psychologist who specialty is working with twenty-somethings every day in her private practice and as an assistant clinical professor at the University of Virginia.  In the book, she discusses 3 different categories which matter more than we think during our 20’s; work, love, and the brain and the body.

During the TED Talk, Dr. Jay relates the story about her first psychology patient, a young woman in her 20’s who was sleeping around with several different men and “dating down.” Her supervisor told her that “The best time to work on Alex’s marriage is before she has one,” and this realization sparked a curiosity about what else matters during the turbulent twenty-something years. Dr. Jay began a career focused on researching the importance of the decisions we make during our twenties and reaching out to twenty-somethings with the message that what they are doing every day RIGHT NOW is critical to their future success.

She feels so strongly about sharing this message with people in their twenties because she thinks that the media is sending the wrong message to this age group by saying “the twenties don’t really matter”, “you can wait 10 years longer than your parents until you think about marriage or children”, and the twenties should be “the best, most carefree years of your life”.

Dr. Jay counters this mainstream cultural idea by citing data from research about the development of the adult brain and our capabilities for learning during the “defining decade of adulthood.” She compares our potential for growth in our twenties to the critical first 5 years of our lives, emphasizing that there are huge consequences and benefits for the decisions twenty-somethings are making each day. I love this idea:

“Whatever it is that you want to change about yourself, now is the time to change it.”

The book made me think about each of the 3 topics in a new way. If you are currently a twenty-something (or just curious about the research and takeaways from the book), I think you will find this post to be very interesting. Because there is so much information in the book, I decided to focus this post only on the takeaways about the Work category for twenty-somethings, and possibly in a future post I will write down my thoughts about the Love and the Brain and the Body sections.

defining-decade

Takeaway #1: If you are trying to choose between possible employment opportunities or graduate school opportunities, always choose the opportunity you can talk about in a future interview for your dream job.

Dr. Jay makes the point that underemployment is super common in your 20’s. She sees many of her clients unable to get jobs which they may be qualified for as older people remain in the workforce for longer. But instead of giving up and thinking that the jobs you do in your twenties doesn’t matter at all, she argues that twentysomethings should take the job with the most capital if they can’t get one that they’re qualified for.

This concept of identity capital is the main focus of the first chapter about work. Identity capital includes “Your collection of personal assets, individual resources, investments we make over time. The things we do well enough or long enough that they become a part of us,” explains Jay in the book. She encourages twentysomethings not to work in coffee shops or as bartenders or nannies but instead to acquire “door-opening pieces of identity capital”, because, let’s face it, almost no interview will open with the question – So tell me about working at Starbucks?

Takeaway #2: The people in our extended network can lead to new opportunities and increase our social mobility.

This is Networking 101, presented in a nicer way… Probably because the word “networking” makes most twentysomethings cringe. Instead, Dr. Jay uses the term “weak ties” when referring to the acquaintances in our network we can reach out to if we need help. Much has been written about the “urban tribe” in recent years, the group of friends we live nearby which are as close as family. Dr. Jay argues that those closest to us can be like a “homogeneous clique” who often can not offer any further information on jobs or opportunities because they are often similarly “stuck”; making the urban tribe majorly overrated.

On the flip side, weak ties can give us access to fresh information. We can also use the psychology of the helper’s high to get those in our network to have positive feelings towards us. Asking for advice or small favors can often lead to bigger things later on. This psychological concept is not new – and often is referred to as the “Ben Franklin effect”. Follow the link for further details if you’re unfamiliar with this term.

Takeaway #3: Use the sum of your past experiences to make the right decisions for your future career.

The third chapter about work focuses on the unthought known, or “those things that we know about ourselves but forget somehow. The dreams we have lost sight of or the truths that we sense but don’t say out loud.” I absolutely love this quote from the book:

“There is a certain terror that goes along with saying “My life is up to me.” It is scary to realize there’s no magic, you can’t just wait around, no one can really rescue you, and you have to do something.”

Because I think this perfectly describes the analysis paralysis me and so many of my friends faced and are continuing to face at the beginning of our careers. Dr. Jay says that with her clients, she has noticed that not knowing what to do with your life is often a way of pretending that right now doesn’t matter. Making a choice – any choice – can often seem much scarier than making no choice at all and instead living in the moment. Where does this confusion come from? Educators, parents, and those who interact with twentysomethings, write this idea down please:

“Life is not limitless, being told that you can do whatever you want leads more to confusion than confidence or courage.”

Our culture needs to stop telling twentysomethings that they can do whatever they want. It simply is not true and can severely handicap individuals in this age group. Dr. Jay cites a famous psychological experiment as proof of this type of decision paralysis; the supermarket experiment with different types of jams. In this study, and others like it, researchers discovered that customers are much more likely to make a purchasing decision when they must choose between only six possibilities instead of more than 20 different varieties of jam.

Similarly, when examining career opportunities, twentysomethings should use their aggregate experiences to analyze what things they like and don’t like as well as which things they are naturally talented for. In my opinion educators and parents should change the dialogue from “you can do whatever you want” to “You’re good at xyz skill. Have you considered doing xyz job?” and I try to do this with my own students by focusing on and drawing out their natural talents and strengths.

“When we make choices, we open ourselves up to hard work and failure and heartbreak, so sometimes it feels easier not to know, not to choose, and not to do.”

Basing our choices on our past experiences, successes and failures can help to direct our future careers in the right direction – and get us “unstuck” from decision paralysis.

Takeaway #4: It is a myth that the twentysomething years should be the “best”, most carefree, easy, and relaxed years of our lives.

In fact, Dr. Jay even argues that they are often some of the most uncertain and difficult years. She sees this played out with her clients when they despair that their lives should look better on Facebook. They see one friend saving orphans in Africa, another campaigning for minority equality, and another documenting sea lions in Antarctica… and begin to think that what they are doing simply doesn’t stack up to the adventures of their friends.


“Instead of helping us catch up, Facebook can feel like we constantly need to be keeping up.”

What we see on Facebook is only half of the full story. And it is important to remember that what is right for one person is not right for every person. Being twentysomething has it’s own unique set of challenges and obstacles to overcome. No one’s life is as perfect and carefree as it appears to be on social media.

Takeaway #5: Learn how to tell a good story about who you are and what you want. Make it a story you are invested in and believe in.

Dr. Jay says “As a twentysomething, life is still more about potential than proof.” You are still gaining experience and earning qualifications, so you need to get clear about your vision and be able to explain your vision to others. Twentysomethings are building their identity capital from who they are with, where they live, and what they do for a living. They need to start authentically answering tough questions:

“Being against something is easy… what are you for?”

I found myself nodding my head yes to this question. It is so easy to complain about the ways things are and be negative about future outlooks. It takes more effort to look for the positive in everything.

In conclusion, Dr. Jay’s advice for twentysomethings can be summed up like this:

“You are deciding your life right now.”

So the decision for twentysomethings becomes – what are you going to do about it? What kind of life do you want to create for yourself? What decisions will you make today to invent your own future? Because no one is going to do it for you.

If you liked these takeaways, I’m sure you would enjoy reading Dr. Jay’s book.

Also, I’m curious… which of the 5 takeaways was most interesting to you?

Leave a comment for me below ❤

Takeaway #1: If you are trying to choose between possible employment opportunities or graduate school opportunities, always take the job you can talk about in a future interview for your dream job.

Takeaway #2: The people in our lives can lead to new opportunities and increase our social mobility.

Takeaway #3: Use the sum of your past experiences to make the right decisions for your future career.

Takeaway #4: It is a myth that the twentysomething years should be the “best”, most carefree, easy, and relaxed years of our lives.

Takeaway #5: Learn how to tell a good story about who you are and what you want. Make it a story you are invested in and believe in.

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