The Defining Decade: Why your 20s matter and how to make the most of them

Chapter 1

(Part 1) Chapter 1: Identity Capital

Twenty somethings who take the time to explore and also have the nerve to make commitments along the way construct stronger identities.

About two-thirds of lifetime wage growth happens in the first ten years of a career. After that, families and mortgages get in the way of higher degrees and cross-country moves, and salaries rise more slowly. As a twentysomething, it may feel like there are decades ahead to earn more and more but the latest data from the US Census Bureau shows that, on average, salaries peak—and plateau—in our forties.

Twentysomethings who think they have until later to leave unemployment or underemployment behind miss out on moving ahead while they are still traveling light. No matter how smoothly this goes, late bloomers will likely never close the gap between themselves and those who got started earlier. This leaves many thirty- and fortysomethings feeling as if they have ultimately paid a surprisingly high price for a string of random twentysomething jobs. Midlife is when we may realize that our twentysomething choices cannot be undone. Drinking and depression can enter from stage left.

I always advise twentysomethings to take the job with the most capital.

I would never have believed it, and it’s probably not the best thing to tell someone still in school, but seriously not one person has asked for my GPA since I graduated. So unless you are applying to grad schools, yeah, everyone was right, no one cares. Nor do they care if you did the “wrong” major.

I think about my parents’ question: “What are you going to do with your art major?” It makes no sense to me now. No one I know really knew what they wanted to do when they graduated. What people are doing now is usually not something that they’d ever even heard of in undergrad. One of my friends is a marine biologist and works at an aquarium. Another is in grad school for epidemiology. I’m in cinematography. None of us knew any of these jobs even existed when we graduated.

That’s why I wish I had 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 had experimented—with work—in a way I feel I can’t right now at almost thirty. I felt a lot of internal pressure to figure it out, but all the thinking I did was really debilitating and unproductive. The one thing I have learned is that you can’t think your way through life. The only way to figure out what to do is to do—something.


(Part 1) Chapter 2: WEAK TIES

Yes is how you get your first job, and your next job, and your spouse, and even your kids. Even if it’s a bit edgy, a bit out of your comfort zone, saying yes means you will do something new, meet someone new, and make a difference.

—Eric Schmidt, executive chairman of Google


(Part 1) Chapter 3: The unknown thought

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. Not knowing what you want to do with your life—or not at least having some ideas about what to do next—is a defense against that terror. It is a resistance to admitting that the possibilities are not endless. It is a way of pretending that now doesn’t matter. Being confused about choices is nothing more than hoping that maybe there is a way to get through life without taking charge.

With his ocean metaphor, Ian was pretending there was no particular life he wanted to live. It was like he had no past and no future, and no reason for going one way or the other. He wasn’t reflecting on the years he had lived so far, and neither was he thinking through the years that were ahead. As he said, this made action impossible.
Because Ian didn’t know that twentysomethings who make choices are happier than those who tread water, he kept himself confused. This was easy to do.

Twentysomethings like Ian were raised on abstract commands—“Follow your dreams!” “Reach for the stars!”—but they often don’t know much about how to get these things done. They don’t know how to get what they want or, sometimes, even what they want. As Ian put it to me, almost desperately, “My mom goes on to me and everybody else about how great I am and how proud she is of me, and I want to say: For what? What exactly stands out about me?”

Far from narcissistically lapping up his mother’s praise, Ian had long sensed that her words were too generic to mean much. He felt hoodwinked—and with good reason. Life isn’t limitless, and neither was Ian. Twentysomethings often say they wish they had fewer choices but, at the moment, Ian didn’t have as many choices as he’d heard he did. And the longer he waited to get going, the fewer the options were going to be.

JAM experiment: 30 choices and 6 choices of jam at two different stores, sellings were 3% and 30% respectively.

Twentysomethings hear they are standing in front of a boundless array of choices. Being told you can do anything or go anywhere is like being in the ocean you described. It’s like standing in front of the twenty-four-flavor table. But I have yet to meet a twentysomething who has twenty-four truly viable options. Each person is choosing from his or her own six-flavor table, at best.”

You’ve spent more than two decades shaping who you are. You have experiences, interests, strengths, weaknesses, diplomas, hang-ups, priorities. You didn’t just this moment drop onto the planet or, as you put it, into the ocean. The past twenty-five years are relevant. You’re standing in front of six flavors of jam and you know something about whether you prefer kiwi or black cherry.”

The lottery question might get you thinking about what you would do if talent and money didn’t matter. But they do. The question twentysomethings need to ask themselves is
$$$$$$$ what they would do with their lives if they didn’t win the lottery. What might you be able to do well enough to support the life you want? And what might you enjoy enough that you won’t mind working at it in some form or another for years to come?”

twentysomething version of what psychoanalyst Christopher Bollas calls the unthought known. Unthought knowns are those things we know about ourselves but forget somehow. These are the dreams we have lost sight of or the truths we sense but don’t say out loud. We may be afraid of acknowledging the unthought known to other people because we are afraid of what they might think. Even more often, we fear what the unthought known will then mean for ourselves and our lives.

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.
But it isn’t.


(Part 1) Chapter 4: My Life Should Look Better on Facebook

One of my clients laughs at what he calls his Facebook “self-advertisement.” When clients make this Facebook confession, they feel like the only ones who do this.

They aren’t.

These social investigators usually aren’t getting in touch or staying in touch with friends as much as they are checking up on them. And my clients are right: Judging and evaluating are involved.

It can feel like a popularity contest where being Liked is what matters, being the best is the only respectable option, how our partners look is more important than how they act, the race to get married is on, and we have to be clever all the time. It can be just another place, not to be, but to seem.

We don’t recognize that most everyone is keeping their troubles hidden. This underestimation of how much other twentysomethings are struggling makes everything feel like an upward social comparison, one where our not-so-perfect lives look low compared to the high life everyone else seems to be living


(Part 1) Chapter 5: The Customized Life

Distinctiveness is a fundamental part of identity. We develop a clearer sense of ourselves by firming up the boundaries between ourselves and others. I am who I am because of how I am different from those around me. There is a point to my life because it cannot be carried out in exactly the same way by any other person. Differentness is part of what makes us who we are. It gives our lives meaning.

But different is simple. Like the easiest way to explain black is to call it the opposite of white, often the first thing we know about ourselves is not what we are—it’s what we aren’t. We mark ourselves as not-this or not-that, the way Ian was quick to say he didn’t want to sit at the same desk all day. But self-definition cannot end there.

An identity or a career cannot be built around what you don’t want. We have to shift from a negative identity, or a sense of what I’m not, to a positive one, or a sense of what I am. This takes courage.

A braver form of self-definition dares to be affirmative.
Ian needed to move from talking about what he wasn’t going to do to talking about what he was going to do. “Being against something is easy,” I said. “What are you for?”

To Ian, claiming was conforming. By starting a career, he imagined he was agreeing to decades of the status quo. Saying yes to one concrete thing felt like saying no to an interesting or limitless life. In fact, it’s the other way around. If Ian didn’t say yes to something, his life was going to become unremarkable and limited.

And I would say, “I’m not talking about settling. I’m talking about starting. Twentysomethings who don’t get started wind up with blank résumés and out-of-touch lives only to settle far more down the road. What’s so original about that?”

Companies and marketers have tapped into the innovative life that many, like Ian, want but are not sure how to get: “Let them eat lifestyle!” it is said.

In the twenty-first century, careers and lives don’t roll off an assembly line. We have to put together the pieces ourselves. Ian’s life could be personalized and changeable, but it was going to take some time and effort—and he would probably need to start with some common parts. Having an uncommon life wasn’t going to come from resisting these choices, it was going to come from making these choices. Same as the bike.

After serving on several admissions and hiring committees, I know a fair amount about why one twentysomething is chosen over another for some coveted spot. I have read through hundreds of application packets and seen how numbers fade into the background while artful cover letters and essays stand out in relief. I have watched one applicant get into graduate school at one place while another winds up somewhere else all because of how a fifteen-minute interview felt to the person in charge.

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.

Think about the number of applications that hiring managers and graduate programs receive. Countless pieces of paper with lines of capital such as Biology Major, 3.9, University of Tennessee, Piedmont Community College, GMAT 720, Basketball Team, 2.9, Campus Tour Guides, French Minor, Art History Major, University of Washington, Dean’s List, GRE 650. Amid the details, a protagonist needs to appear. A good story should take shape. Otherwise, résumés are just lists, and lists are not compelling.
If the first step in establishing a professional identity is claiming our interests and talents, then the next step is claiming a story about our interests and talents, a narrative we can take with us to interviews and coffee dates. Whether you are a therapist or an interviewer, a story that balances complexity and cohesion is, frankly, diagnostic. Stories that sound too simple seem inexperienced and lacking. But stories that sound too complicated imply a sort of internal disorganization that employers simply don’t want.

This was a problem because while schools and companies want originality and creativity, they want communication and reasoning even more.

No matter what company or program someone applies to, a sort of game goes on. Interviewers want to hear a reasonable story about the past, present, and future. How does what you did before relate to what you want to do now, and how might that get you to what you want to do next? Everyone realizes most applicants don’t actually know what their careers will look like. Even the ones who think they do often change their minds.

As a human resources executive told me, “I don’t expect people to say it’s their dream to work here forever. I roll my eyes at that. No one knows where they will be in five years. Still, the burden is on the applicants to show that working here makes sense beyond the person just wanting a job or the building being two blocks from their apartment.” Life does not need to be linear but it does, as this executive said, need to make sense.

When I made the decision to come to D.C., I worried that by making that choice, I was closing all the other doors open to me at that moment. But it was sort of liberating to make a choice about something. Finally. And, if anything, this job has just opened more doors for me. Now I feel really confident that I will have several iterations of my career—or at least time for several iterations—and that I will be able to do other things in life.

For a long time, it was such a relief to have this job—I felt like I could just live my life and not worry about direction—worries that immobilized me in the years after I graduated. Now I am at a point where I don’t want to continue in my current position—and I’m pissed! It’s hard to think all over again about what the next step is. But it’s easier now because I know from experience that I have to take action, that debating isn’t going to get me anywhere.
Sometimes making choices feels like planning for my life in a way that seems boring. Sometimes making choices to pursue things that seem like good fits, or that match my interests, seems boring simply because it makes sense. I find myself wanting to go off in an unexpected direction—Arabic! Cambodia! I know this is a sort of crazy impulse. I know that the way to live a good life is to pursue things that are not only interesting to you but that make sense.
Above all else in my life, I feared being ordinary. Now I guess you could say I had a revelation of the day-to-day. I finally got it there’s a reason everybody in the world lives this way—or at least starts out this way—because this is how it’s done.
This is how it’s done. This is how it starts. Claiming a career or getting a good job isn’t the end; it’s the beginning. And, then, there is still a lot more to know and a lot more to do.


Link to all three parts of the series:

Part 1: part 1

Part 2: part 2

Part 3: part 3

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