The Defining Decade
by Meg Jay

  • Career
  • Ashto = 7/10
  • Jonesy = 6/10
The Defining Decade

“Why your twenties matter and how to make the most of them” – The Defining Decade, by Meg Jay.

With Adam Jones turning 30 this week, we figured this was his last chance to work out what he’d done wrong (or right) during his 20s. The key message of this book is that your twenties MATTER.


A lot of young people like to say that your twenties don’t matter, that you can put off life’s big decisions until later, that the 20s are the time for fun and enjoying life and not to be taken too seriously… But the research shows otherwise:

  • Two thirds of your lifetime wage growth happens in the first 10 years of your career
  • More than half of people are married or at least dating/living with their future life partner by age 30, 75% by age 35
  • Personality changes more in 20s then in any time period before or after
  • The brain caps off it’s final stages of growth in the 20s
  • Fertility reaches its peak in late 20s
  • Our social networks – and the opportunities they may bring – are the widest and most diverse in the 20s, then get narrower as we age beyond

80% of life’s defining moments will have taken place by our mid-30s. Life is not over when you hit age 40, you can always claim your life back at any point. But it’s better to start sooner rather than later. William James said: “intention is the result of attention and choice”. It’s never too late, or too early, to start paying attention.


WORK in The Defining Decade

Helen went to therapy because she was having “an identity crisis”. She’d started nannying after high school, then gave up everything and moved to Indonesia to work in a yoga retreat. She was seeking inspiration, “a lightning bolt of intuition”. Her friends envied her casual lifestyle, they’d all gone straight to the “real world” with their corporate jobs and graduate schools. At 27 years old, she felt as though the very friends who used to covet her adventures now pitied her. She felt totally lost and didn’t know where to head next.

Another story is the story of Erik Erikson. A blond-haired german boy named Erik Salomonsen, whose father left when he was a baby. On his 3rd birthday, his mother married a local doctor and Erik became Erik Homburger, and he was raised in the Jewish tradition. He felt out of place – at the temple he was teased for being too pale, at school he was teased for being Jewish. After high school he travelled around Europe, vagabonding, sleeping under bridges, looking for inspiration, begging for food, wanting to be an artist… then later in life he got his shit together, wrote a bunch of books, and won a Pulitzer Prize. Erik Erikson was the one who coined the term “identity crisis” in 1950. He always struggled with his identity, so he changed his name to Erik Erikson – meaning Erik, son of Erik – son of himself, a self-made man.

Helen & Meg spoke about Erik’s journey from identity crisis to Pulitzer Prize. He travelled around Europe and slept under bridges, looking for inspiration… But that’s only half of the story. At 25 he taught at schools. At 26, he started training and met some influential people. He hoped to become and artist and travel all around Europe – but after a few years of classes and travelling, he returned and became a high school teacher, then he met Sigmund Freud’s daughter and went back to study. By 29 he’d earned his degree in psychoanalysis. In his 30s, he moved to the USA and taught at Harvard, Yale and Berkeley, then wrote several books and won a Pulitzer Prize. “He spent some of his youth having an identity crisis, but he was also earning identity capital”.

So while it is ok to not know exactly what you want to do for the rest of your life, the important thing is that you’re trying to work it out. You need to have the nerve to explore and try new things (which Helen was doing), but you also need to have the nerve to make some commitments along the way (something Helen was lacking so far). By making some decisions during The Defining Decade, we start to form our “identity”.

Identity Capital

20somethings who take the time to explore AND ALSO have the nerve to make commitments along the way construct strong identities. They have higher self-esteems and are more persevering and realistic. Overall, outcomes include a clearer sense of self, stronger reasoning, better stress management, greater life satisfaction, and resistance to conformity. These were all of the things Helen wanted… but she’d only been doing half of the equation – she’d been doing the exploring, but she hadn’t been taking risks and making commitments and truly learning about herself and developing an understanding or where she might fit in the world. Most 20somethings are “underemployed” – working jobs below what they’re capable – which is sometimes worse than being unemployed…

But you need to start somewhere. You can’t expect the perfect job straight out of college. It starts with taking a low-level job, but making the most of it. Some times, if you’re not doing the job you want to do, you need to look for other things to get out of it: develop your social skills, develop your work ethic, meet new people, try different things, work on different projects – get an understanding of who you really are. Like we covered in the book Range by David Epstein, a true understanding of yourself and match quality doesn’t come from introspection and THINKING about what you think you might like, but actually DOING things and trying different things to actually find out for certain what fits best. Meg Jay, the author of The Defining Decade, suggests a path that looks something like this: if you can’t get your dream job straight away then start with a low level job, get social skills, feel better about yourself, work harder, get a better job, and keep the cycle going.

Following this advice, Helen took an office admin job, working as an assistant. She did a good job, worked hard, learned things, developed her skills. One day a movie director spent a few weeks working in their office. He liked Helen’s work ethic, and decided she would be a good cinematography assistant. So now Helen works in LA on big movies!

When Helen revisited Meg’s practice a few years later: “I would have never believed it, but not a single person asked for my GPA or what school I went to once I’d already started working… I wish I’d done more during my first few years out of college. I wish I had pushed myself to take some work leaps or a wider range of jobs. I wish I’d experimented with work in a way I feel I can’t right now at almost thirty. I felt a lot of internal pressure trying to “work it out”, but all of the thinking I did was unproductive – you can’t think your way through life, the only way to figure it out is to do something”.

Helen’s life got going when she tapping into The Defining Decade and used little bits of her capital she had and traded them in for a bigger piece of capital that she wanted.

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