Reading: The Defining Decade by Meg Jay

“To achieve great things, two things are needed: a plan, and not quite enough time.” –Leonard Bernstein, composer, as quoted on pp 188 of The Defining Decade, why your twenties matter and how to make the most of them now by Meg Jay, PhD

Intent on healthfully jump starting her readers, Dr. Meg Jay explores which choices, made in your 20s, engender future greatness and satisfaction. Lingering past 25 in the service industry or retail often doesn’t. I cringe a little; this isn’t a universal truth. But for Jay’s therapy patients, who are used as case studies in the book and who struggle with work and love, underemployment surfaces repeatedly. A poor attitude, failing to make choices, and not taking chances are other examples that fall short.

Jay advocates for a determined, future-oriented mindset, based on a sense of self. Though it seems counter-intuitive, this isn’t so at odds with “living in the present,” an idea enjoying its moment of grace in our public consciousness. In fact, a lot of Jay’s book seems aimed at destroying the idea that fulfillment comes from the black and white separation of your 20s (present) and 30s (future): That you should travel and party in the 20s to find your True Self, root and focus in the 30s; Focus exclusively on friends in the 20s to avoid marrying too early, find committed romance in the 30s; Explore identity through odd jobs in the 20s, so as to not get stuck in a consuming office job, start a career in the 30s.

But, Jay says, the 20s are a time for rapid brain development. Considering the 20s a decade detached from your larger life path, and opting out of long term commitments and challenges, could be a huge missed opportunity during this period of growth. Jay argues that while some exploration is good, investments will be bountifully returned and you cheat yourself out of your own time by not employing focus and goal setting. Jay advocates for making bounded choices that further personal development, so that limitless possibilities don’t become flat dead ends. That your 20s to 30s are a continuum makes sense. Committing to and taking yourself seriously, personally or professionally, doesn’t turn you humorless.

Until American work culture includes the month-long summer holidays of the French, it will seem hard to advocate jumping in as though work is a silver bullet to the challenges of personal development in your 20s. But Jay still says to go for it. I don’t think she’s saying ‘do what you love,’ but to challenge yourself to engage long term in places you can grow. Jay argues for creating “identity capital:” investments in ourselves and our knowledge base through which we gain a pathway to connect.

To clarify the focus of the book, I don’t think Jay is trying to blame people who stall because they have a hard time gaining work, being fairly compensated, finding time for themselves, or meeting people because of the economy or other circumstance. It seems more about the ways people do and do not self-support when possible. Overall, I found it to be a thoughtful read, from someone who wants people to succeed, that made me want to reflect.

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