Your Defining Decade: A 20s Back-to-School Primer

Collage image of millenials and young people

It’s been a rough summer for the everyone-gets-a-trophy generation. English teacher David McCullough, Jr. told the graduating class at Wellsley High School that they weren’t special or exceptional, and so many people resonated with his tough-love approach that the speech went viral, garnering nearly two million views on YouTube and landing him a book deal this week. Recent articles in The New York Times and The New Yorker wonder how young people became so dependent, so coddled and so un-adult. If you’re a 20-something who feels slapped in the face without any real guidance on what to do next, psychologist Meg Jay’s book The Defining Decade: Why Your Twenties Matter—and How to Make the Most of Them Now will set you straight.

Here’s a back-to-school primer:

1)      In your 20s, you can have an identity crisis. But you also need to be building your identity capital. You’ve been told you’re great, and now is the time to build the proof: Boost your repertoire of individual resources–how to dress, present yourself and speak; how to land a job; the ability to make the most of your education—now, so you’ve got some skills to trade on later.

How to build identity capital: Go to school and learn something, but not just from books. Ask your professors how they would like to be addressed (“Hey Jane,” is not the appropriate way to begin an email) and practice social graces like smiling, shaking hands, and looking people in they eye when they talk to you.

2)      Learn the value of “weak ties.” Your close friends are great to hang out with on a Saturday night, but they won’t help you get a job. It’s the friends-of-friends connections, your professors and the folks you meet at work who will help you land that first job out of college. Weak ties help us learn how to communicate from a place of difference, Dr. Jay notes. Shy about networking? Get over it. It’s how business gets done.

How to embrace weak ties: Lose the “I want to get a job on my own” attitude and start asking people for help. Use LinkedIn or some other online system as a virtual rolodex to keep contacts up-to-date and at your fingertips. Then, use them.

3)      “Everyone” on Facebook is not happy. Dr. Jay recounts stories of her young-adult clients bemoaning the fact that “everyone” on Facebook has a great job, is married or is traveling and doing cool stuff. Don’t be fooled — they are just posting the good stuff — and stop searching for glory and strive for your potential instead.

How to put in the hours toward your authentic dream: Your 20s are the years to put in the hours, get coffee and not do the most glamorous things—so you can achieve your goals in the future. Don’t skip this step. Figure out your purpose and ask yourself what you stand for. Being against something is easy, but what are you for? Claiming a career or a good job isn’t the end, Dr. Jay notes—it’s the beginning.

4)      Prioritize finding a life partner. Don’t wait until your 30s to think about finding an appropriate mate. Those duds you’re dating in your 20s? Yeah, that’s not constructive. “The best time to work on your marriage is before you have one,” Dr. Jay writes.

How to prioritize your personal life: Don’t date someone for longer than 3 months if you know it won’t work long term. If he’s treating you badly, end it. If you can’t take her home to your parents, end it. And stop with the texting all the time—it’s a great way to be misunderstood and kill a fledgling romance. Meet for coffee and talk (so retro!) instead.

5)      We become what we see and do every day. Your frontal lobe—the place in the brain that helps us tolerate uncertainty—is still developing in your 20s. Forward thinking comes with practice and experience, not just age: What you do during in terms of jobs, relationships and schooling in your 20s prepares you to get ahead—or not. Your brain, for the last time, offer up countless new connections and sees what you make of them. So you’d better be acting now like you want to act going forward, because your brain is in training.

How to train your 20s brain: Challenge yourself: If you don’t feel anxious and incompetent at work sometimes, especially at first, then you are probably overconfident or underemployed. Don’t hide out in underemployment or easy classes where you know you won’t make mistakes. Confidence doesn’t come from people telling you you’re great – it comes from self-mastery and accomplishing things. So get out there and do it.

Inspired to prove the pundits wrong and make a special, fulfilling life for yourself? Good—because your 20s, Dr. Jay argues, are your last best shot.

Dr. Christine B. Whelan is an author, speaker and professor. She is one of the foremost experts on the genre of self-help literature and her latest publication is Generation WTF: From “What the %#[email protected]?” to a Wise, Tenacious, and Fearless You.

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