The Defining Decade: Why your 20s matter

Part 3

Chap 1: Frontal thinking

frontal lobe is where reason and judgement reside. It is where rational thoughts balance, and regulate, the feelings and impulses of the emotional brain.

The area of the brain that processes probability and time, the frontal lobe is also where we tackle uncertainty. This allows us to think not only about the present but also about the future. It is where we quiet our emotions long enough to anticipate the likely consequences of our behaviour and plan accordingly for tomorrow, even though no outcome is certain and the future is unknown. This front part of the brain is where we do our forward thinking.

Twentysomethings aren’t brain damaged, of course, but because of the still-developing frontal lobe, they can be what psychologists call “uneven.” Many of my clients are confused by the fact that they went to good colleges, yet they don’t know how to start the careers they want. Or they don’t understand how they could have been valedictorians but are unable to make decisions about whom to date and why. Or they feel like fakes because they managed to get good jobs yet cannot calm themselves down at work. Or they can’t figure out how twentysomethings who did not do as well in school are now outpacing them in life.

Being smart in school is about how well you solve problems that have correct answers and clear time limits. But being a forward-thinking adult is about how you think and act even (and especially) in uncertain situations. The frontal lobe doesn’t just allow us to coolly solve the problem of what exactly we should do with our lives. Adult dilemmas—which job to take, where to live, whom to partner with, or when to start a family—don’t have right answers. The frontal lobe is where we move beyond the futile search for black-and-white solutions as we learn to tolerate—and act on—better shades of gray.

The late-maturing frontal lobe might seem like a good reason to postpone action, to wait until thirty after all to get started on a life. A recent newspaper article even suggested that maybe twentysomething brains ought to afford them special services of some kind. But dumbing down the twenties is hardly the way to go.

Forward thinking doesn’t just come with age. It comes with practice and experience. That’s why some twenty-two-year-olds are incredibly self-possessed, future-oriented people who already know how to face the unknown, while some thirty-four-year-olds still have brains that run the other way.

But this same rapid overproduction of neurons creates an overly crowded network, and this leads to cognitive inefficiency, which is not adaptive. That’s why these same spongelike toddlers struggle to string together a few words in a sentence, and they forget to put on their socks before their shoes. Potential and confusion rule the day. To make neural networks more efficient, this first growth spurt is followed by pruning. Across years, the brain keeps the neurons and connections that are used while those that are neglected are pruned, or allowed to die off.

Most of the thousands of new connections that sprout in adolescence do so in the frontal lobe and, again, the brain overprepares—but, this time, for the uncertainty of adult life. Early childhood may be the time for language, but evolutionary theorists say this critical period primes us to learn about the complex challenges of adulthood: how to find a professional niche, how to choose and live with a mate, how to be a parent, where and when to stake our claims. This last critical period is rapidly wiring us for adulthood.

Because our twenties are the capstone of this last critical period, they are, as one neurologist said, a time of “great risk and great opportunity.” The post-twentysomething brain is still plastic, of course, but the opportunity is that never again in our lifetime will the brain offer up countless new connections and see what we make of them. Never again will we be so quick to learn new things. Never again will it be so easy to become the people we hope to be. The risk is that we may not act now.

Twentysomethings who use their brains by engaging with good jobs and real relationships are learning the language of adulthood just when their brains are primed to learn it.

Chap 2: Calm Yourselves

Complain too much pressure at new job. Because of too much changes, and professionalism.

Twentysomethings who don’t feel anxious and incompetent at work are usually overconfident or underemployed.

Evolutionary theorists believe the brain is designed to pay special attention to what catches us off-guard, so we can be better prepared to meet the world next time.

when people view slides of ordinary objects (such as a house) and bizarre objects (such as a zebra head attached to a car), the viewers are more likely to remember the bizarre.

Similarly, people are more likely to remember highly emotional events, such as times when they were happy or sad or embarrassed.

Everyone learns things the hard way at some time or another, and our brains take pictures so the learning stays with us. This is the basis for the saying “That’s a lesson you’ll never forget.” It is a jarring—but efficient and often necessary—way to grow.

Twentysomethings take these difficult moments particularly hard. Compared to older adults, they find negative information—the bad news—more memorable than positive information—or the good news. MRI studies show that twentysomething brains simply react more strongly to negative information than do the brains of older adults. There is more activity in the amygdala—the seat of the emotional brain.

“The art of being wise is knowing what to overlook.” Knowing what to overlook is one way that older adults are typically wiser than young adults. With age comes what is known as a positivity effect. We become more interested in positive information, and our brains react less strongly to what negative information we do encounter. We disengage with interpersonal conflict, choosing to let it be, especially when those in our network are involved.

As we age, we feel less like leaves and more like trees. We have roots that ground us and sturdy trunks that may sway, but don’t break, in the wind. The wind that blows by can be more serious.

people who have some control over their emotions report greater life satisfaction, optimism, purpose, and better relationships with others.

She was reaching out in a moment of need and letting someone else’s frontal lobe do the work. We all need to do that sometimes, but if we externalize our distress too much, we don’t learn to handle bad days on our own. We don’t practice soothing ourselves just when our brains are in the best position to pick up new skills. We don’t learn how to calm ourselves down, and this in and of itself undermines confidence.

Chap 3: Outside In

Inaction breeds fear and doubt. Action breeds confidence and courage. If you want to conquer fear, do not sit home and think about it. Go out and get busy.

—Dale Carnegie, writer and lecturer

people were innately confident on the job, or they weren’t, is called a fixed mindset. We can have fixed mindsets about different things—intelligence, athletic ability, social savvy, thinness—but, whatever the case, a fixed mindset is a way of thinking in black and white.

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.

Schoolkids with fixed mindsets enjoy work that affirms their belief that they have it—whether the it is science smarts or talent on the basketball court. But once the work becomes challenging, these same kids stop enjoying school. They feel threatened by hard work, fearing it means they don’t have it after all. Struggle means being a have-not.

In a longitudinal study of college students, freshmen were evaluated for fixed mindsets or growth mindsets and then followed across their four years of enrollment. When the students with fixed mindsets encountered academic challenges such as daunting projects or low grades, they gave up, while the students with growth mindsets responded by working harder or trying new strategies. Rather than strengthening their skills and toughening their resolve, four years of college left the students with fixed mindsets feeling less confident. The feelings they most associated with school were distress, shame, and upset. Those with growth mindsets performed better in school overall and, at graduation time, they reported feeling confident, determined, enthusiastic, inspired, and strong.

Confidence doesn’t come from the inside out. It moves from the outside in. People feel less anxious—and more confident—on the inside when they can point to things they have done well on the outside. Fake confidence comes from stuffing our self-doubt. Empty confidence comes from parental platitudes on our lunch hour. Real confidence comes from mastery experiences, which are actual, lived moments of success, especially when things seem difficult. Whether we are talking about love or work, the confidence that overrides insecurity comes from experience. There is no other way.

Literally, confidence means “with trust.” In research psychology, the more precise term is self-efficacy, or one’s ability to be effective or produce the desired result. No matter what word you use, confidence is trusting yourself to get the job done—whether that job is public speaking, sales, teaching, or being an assistant—and that trust only comes from having gotten the job done many times before.

twentysomethings who hide out in underemployment, especially those who are hiding out because of a lack of confidence, are not serving themselves.

For work success to lead to confidence, the job has to be challenging and it must require effort. It has to be done without too much help. And it cannot go well every single day. A long run of easy successes creates a sort of fragile confidence, the kind that is shattered when the first failure comes along. A more resilient confidence comes from succeeding—and from surviving some failures.

The real challenge of the twentysomething years is the work itself. Ten thousand hours is five years of focused, full-time work (40 hours × 50 work weeks a year = 2,000 hours a year × 5 years = 10,000 hours) or ten years of less-targeted work (20 hours × 50 work weeks a year = 1,000 hours a year × 10 years = 10,000 hours).

Chap 4: Body

older sperm may be associated with various neurocognitive problems in children, including autism, schizophrenia, dyslexia, and lower intelligence. For this reason, and for reasons we will discuss further into the chapter, both men and women ought to be thinking about the timing of babies.

Biologically speaking, the twenties will be the easiest time to have a baby for most women. Some declines in fertility begin at about thirty and at thirty-five, a woman’s ability to become pregnant and carry a baby to term drops considerably. At forty, fertility plummets.

This is because of two age-related changes that every woman can expect across her thirties and forties: Egg quality decreases and the endocrine system, which regulates hormones and tells the body how to proceed with a pregnancy, becomes less effective. With these changes, pregnancy becomes less likely and miscarriage becomes more likely. Lower-quality eggs have trouble implanting and maturing. Even good eggs can be derailed by hormones gone awry.

Trying au natural—just having sex around the time of ovulation—a woman has about a 20 to 25 percent chance of conceiving during each cycle, up to about age thirty-five. So when you’re young it takes, on average, about four or five months of having sex to get pregnant.

Past age thirty-five, intrauterine insemination—or the “turkey baster method” in which sperm is inserted into the female reproductive tract—has a 90 to 95 percent failure rate. In vitro fertilization—“IVF” or “in vitro,” when sperm and egg are united outside the body and implanted in the uterus—succeeds only about 10 to 20 percent of the time. In older women, the failure rate for these procedures is so high, many fertility clinics will not perform them on fortysomething women at all. The failed attempts bring down the success rates the clinics are able to advertise.

simply postponing marriage and children leads to more stressful lives for families. When babies need to come so quickly and so close together after “I do,” newlywed couples are thrust directly into what research shows are typically the most strained years of marriage. This is especially true as the work of raising young children collides with our peak earning years.

According to the parents surveyed, about half feel they have too little time with their youngest child, about two-thirds feel they have too little time with their spouse, and another two-thirds report too little time for themselves. An article discussing this study factored in yet another wrinkle, saying, “Many men and women feel hugely stretched and stressed trying to help out their not fully independent twentysomething children at the same time the health of their octogenarian parents is failing.”

If you have your kids between thirty-five and forty and they have their kids between thirty-five and forty, in one more generation it will be quite common, especially among the well-educated who tend to postpone childbearing the longest, for parents to be pulled in two directions not by twentysomethings and octogenarians but by toddlers and octogenarians. Men and women will soon face caring for two entirely dependent groups of loved ones at precisely the moment they are most needed back at work.

It changes things when Grandma and Grandpa aren’t up to babysitting, and when they can’t handle the kids for a couples’ weekend away.

The best way I know to explain this is to talk about Billy. Billy is not an outlier. He is a smart, college-educated man who’d heard his twenties were his last chance for fun and adventure, the goal being to gather “few regrets and a million memories.” That’s not quite how it ended up. Billy had a lot of regrets about his twentysomething pursuits, which only later did he realize were not as important, or even as memorable, as he once thought.

What seemed plain to me was that I wasn’t scared of losing my past. I was scared of losing my future. I felt like almost nothing in my life mattered up until just a few years ago. I realized that all the good stuff is still to come.

“Hey, I need to be healthy at least until my kids are off in college. Please be sure I make it that long.” How screwed up is that?

Chap 5: Do The Math

To achieve great things, two things are needed: a plan, and not quite enough time.

Present bias is especially strong in twentysomethings who put a lot of psychological distance between now and later. Love or work can seem far off in time
brain has difficulty keeping time across long, unpunctuated intervals. We condense unmarked time. The days and years pass, and we say, “Where did the time go?”

Our twenties can be like living beyond time. When we graduate from school, we leave behind the only lives we have ever known, ones that have been neatly packaged in semester-sized chunks with goals nestled within. Suddenly, life opens up and the syllabi are gone. There are days and weeks and months and years, but no clear way to know when or why any one thing should happen. It can be a disorienting, cavelike existence. As one twentysomething astutely put it, “The twentysomething years are a whole new way of thinking about time. There’s this big chunk of time and a whole bunch of stuff needs to happen somehow.”

present bias. People of all ages and walks of life discount the future, favoring the rewards of today over the rewards of tomorrow. We would rather have $100 this month than $150 next month. We choose the chocolate cake and the new outfit now and face the gym and the credit card bill later.

twentysomething exploits are met with more enthusiastic clichés, such as “You’re only young once” or “Have fun while you can.” These messages encourage risk-taking and what one researcher calls “now-or-never behaviors” that don’t actually make us happy for long: partying, multiple sex partners, blowing off responsibilities, being lazy, not having a real job.

, I notice that many twentysomethings—especially those who surround themselves with other twentysomethings—have trouble anticipating life. They need memento vivi—or ways to remember they are going to live. They need something to remind them that life is going to continue on past their twenties, and that it might even be great.

The problem with feeling distant from the future is that distance leads to abstraction, and abstraction leads to distance, and round and round it goes. The further away love and work seem, the less we need to think about them; the less we think about love and work, the further away they feel.

The future can also seem socially distant when we hang out with people who are not talking about it either. Later can even feel spatially far away if we imagine ultimately settling down in some other place.

The problem with feeling distant from the future is that distance leads to abstraction, and abstraction leads to distance, and round and round it goes. The further away love and work seem, the less we need to think about them; the less we think about love and work, the further away they feel.

A timeline may not be a virtual reality chamber, but it can help our brains see time for what it really is: limited. It can give us a reason to get up in the morning and get going.

Our twenties are when we have to start creating our own sense of time, our own plans about how the years ahead will unfold. It is difficult to know how to start our careers or when to start our families. It is tempting to stay distracted and keep everything at a distance. But twentysomethings who live beyond time usually aren’t happy. It’s like living in a cave where we never know what time it is or what we ought to do or why, sometimes until it is too late.


Link to all three parts of the series:

Part 1: part 1

Part 2: part 2

Part 3: part 3

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