The Defining Decade: Why Your Twenties Matter and How to Make the Most of Them Now by Meg Jay

Reading Time: 6 minutes


This book directly challenges the thirty-is-the-new-twenty culture. Through research and anecdotes from her time as a clinical psychologist, Meg Jay advocates for being intentional about how you spend your twenties.

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Key Takeaways

Identity capital

“Identity capital is our collection of personal assets. It is the repertoire of individual resources that we assemble over time. These are the investments we make in ourselves, the things we do well enough, or long enough, that they become a part of who we are.”

“Some identity capital goes on a résumé, such as degrees, jobs, test scores, and clubs. Other identity capital is more personal, such as how we speak, where we are from, how we solve problems, how we look.”

In your twenties, take the job with the most identity capital. It’s easy to get lost focusing on your degree and job, but remember that other forms of identity capital, such as your network, how you solve problems, and how you speak can accelerate your path to where you want to be. Instead of working right out of college, you might travel the world for a year.

In doing so, perhaps you lose a year of income and experience in the workforce, but you gain a new ability to connect with and relate to others that will serve you throughout your career. Taking an identify-capital focused lens can help you make decisions that might seem risky or unconventional in the moment, but yield unexpected fruits in the long-run.

Power of weak ties

“Information and opportunity spread farther and faster through weak ties than through close friends because weak ties have fewer overlapping contacts. Weak ties are like bridges you cannot see all the way across, so there is no telling where they might lead.”

“Whether we are talking about career ideas or our thoughts on love, we have to make our case more fully. In this way, weak ties promote, and sometimes even force, thoughtful growth and change.”

While we spend most of our time and energy developing the relationships with our closest friends, it’s often the weak tie relationships (e.g., going to the same university or working for the same company) that open up the biggest opportunities in our careers. Whereas our close friends have similar networks to us, our weak tie relationships open up doors to entirely new networks, which can help us tap into opportunities we did not even know existed.

Weak tie relationships are also beneficial because they require us to articulate who we are, what we’re about, and what we want in a much more thoughtful way than we need to do with close friends. Because of this, the weak ties in our life often lead us to think more deeply and grow as people.

Ben Franklin effect

“He that hath once done you a kindness will be more ready to do you another than he whom you yourself have obliged.”

Upon first meeting people, Ben Franklin found ways to have the person do him a small favor. He did so because he understood that if people do you one favor, they are more likely to do you another in the future. You can employ this understanding of how people operate when first meeting new people, and it can help you build deeper, more helpful relationships.

The difficulty of happiness

“If we only wanted to be happy, it would be easy; but we want to be happier than other people, which is almost always difficult, since we think them happier than they are.” – Charles de Montesquieu

When assessing or pursuing our own happiness, we often do so by comparing ourselves to other people. This comparison-focused mindset makes it challenging to be happy because every person we meet will be doing better than us in at least one respect. If instead, we focus internally on our needs and situation without a comparative lens, we might find that happiness is right in front of us.

The tyranny of the “should”

“Goals direct us from the inside, but shoulds are paralyzing judgments from the outside. Goals feel like authentic dreams while shoulds feel like oppressive obligations. Shoulds set up a false dichotomy between either meeting an ideal or being a failure, between perfection or settling. The tyranny of the should even pits us against our own best interests.”

Goals are the visions we set for ourselves, whereas “shoulds” are the obligations we feel based on pressure from others or an externally-directed narrative about what life should be. If we go through our days focusing on the “shoulds,” then we are bound to feel constrained and oppressed by the burden of life. But if we focus on the dreams we set for ourselves and the people we’d like to become, then we can avoid the tyranny of the “should.”

Tell a good story

“One thing this has taught me is that a good story goes further in the twentysomething years than perhaps at any other time in life. College is done and résumés are fledgling, so the personal narrative is one of the few things currently under our control. As a twentysomething, life is still more about potential than proof. Those who can tell a good story about who they are and what they want leap over those who can’t.”

In our twenties, we are evaluated by the story we tell others and the potential that story conveys rather than our direct experience. If you learn to tell a compelling personal narrative, you will inspire others to believe in you and your potential, which will accelerate your personal and professional success.

Living with your partner

“It is the couples who live together before being clearly and mutually committed to each other who are more likely to experience poorer communication, lower levels of commitment to the relationship, and greater marital instability down the road.”

People in their twenties often choose to live with their partner to save money or to test out how it would be to live together. However, if you move in together without clearly stating that you are doing so as a next step in your evolution of a longer-term commitment, then you often face worse communication and lower levels of stability down the road. In short, moving in together is only a good test if you first recognize your commitment to one another.

Dating and working down

“Twentysomething women and men who are dating down—or working down, for that matter—usually have untold, or at least unedited, stories. These stories originated in old conversations and experiences and, so, they change only through new conversations and new experiences.”

If the stories you tell about yourself reflect the experiences you had in your adolescent and are not updated for your new beliefs and values in adulthood, you might find yourself “dating or working down” to your adolescent self. In doing so, you will likely end up disappointed and not having the dating or work life that reflects the person you want to be.

The dangers of neuroticism

“Neuroticism, or the tendency to be anxious, stressed, critical, and moody, is far more predictive of relationship unhappiness and dissolution than is personality dissimilarity. While personality similarity can help the years run smoothly, any two people will be different in some way or another. How a person responds to these differences can be more important than the differences themselves. To a person who runs high in Neuroticism, differences are seen in a negative light. Anxiety and judgments about these differences then lead to criticism and contempt, two leading relationship killers.”

Neuroticism, one of the Big Five personality traits, is correlated with higher levels of relationship unhappiness and dissolution. When we have a high level of neuroticism, we will see our differences with our partner in a negative light, leading to judgments and criticisms that will kill our relationships. On the other hand, if we have differences with our partners and low levels of neuroticism, we will likely be able to navigate these differences through an openness and understanding that will allow the relationship to endure.

On being criticized

“When twentysomethings have their competence criticized, they become anxious and angry. They are tempted to march in and take action. They generate negative feelings toward others and obsess about the why: “Why did my boss say that? Why doesn’t my boss like me?” Taking work so intensely personally can make a forty-hour workweek long indeed.”

In our twenties, many of us are terrible at taking criticism. If a boss or partner challenges our abilities, we often take that personally and obsess over what the person said. When we do this, we are less likely to take in this feedback and improve and more likely to become resentful, which will ultimately make our relationships worse and lower our chances of success.

Growth mindset

“Those who use what is called a growth mindset believe that people can change, that success is something to be achieved. Maybe it’s not the case that any person can be anything, but it is still true that within certain parameters, people can learn and grow. For those who have a growth mindset, failures may sting but they are also viewed as opportunities for improvement and change.”

Adopting a growth mindset is one of the most empowering things you can do to accelerate your personal and professional success. With a growth mindset, you see failures as opportunities to learn and grow, rather than reflections on your incompetence or the way in which the world is rigged against you. And when you are oriented towards learning and growth, you will improve over time and not fall into the trap of becoming bitter and resentful with the world.

Take responsibility for your life

“The future isn’t written in the stars. There are no guarantees. So claim your adulthood. Be intentional. Get to work. Pick your family. Do the math. Make your own certainty. Don’t be defined by what you didn’t know or didn’t do. You are deciding your life right now.”

Your life is not predetermined. It is up to you to figure out what you want and pursue it aggressively. To do so, you need to be intentional, listen to good advice, take action, and continue pushing forward even when life becomes incredibly difficult. At every moment, you can decide to settle or make your life what you want it to be.

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