If you’re a 20-something like me, I’m sure you’ve felt moments of doubt, confusion, frustration, and panic – all within seconds of one another. Apparently that’s the new normal, as is society’s portrayal of a time in which you have one shot to do everything: your twenties.
Think about it: the average person will go to school until 18 years old. After that, your mileage may vary, but post-secondary education is highly encouraged, whether in the form of an associate’s or bachelor’s degree. The college experience is popularly touted in media as a reincarnation of the Roaring Twenties (appropriately): loud music, drinking, indiscreet affairs, epicurean living as summarized by the term YOLO, and general irresponsibility. During or after college, traveling abroad is encouraged for, if no other reason, the hazy and nebulous goal of “broadening oneself,” whatever that means. Some hike the Alps or the hills of Ireland, some combat illness and poverty in Africa, and some study flesh-eating snake-wombat hybrids in Australia because everything in Australia, including its video games ratings board, is absolutely horrifying. Once freshly armed with a degree in liberal arts and zero idea of how to use it, the idea is to party it up some more while doing temp jobs. No rush to the real world, man. That can start in, like, your thirties or something. Let’s hit up the beach and then party all night to EDM and eardrum-bursting dubstep at the club! UNCE UNCE UNCE UNCE
The flip side of all of this, of course, is that the zany, madcap existence that shows like “Friends” glorify is almost entirely divorced from reality. Working as a barista or amateur blogger is not going to pay your crushing school debt and hardly any of your rent. For those people who skip college altogether, the challenge is no less daunting, for while you have no debt, you have no diploma that makes you competitive for a good job. That’s also to say nothing of finding the right partner for you. Sure, you can exert a lot of control over your career trajectory, planning the steps and executing them if you’re ambitious. When it comes to love, though, where do you even start? Bars? Mutual friends? Work? Internet? Even if you do find someone, what comes after that? How much do you value yourself in that relationship? How do you deal with incompatibility or heartache? What about cohabitation, marriage, or family planning?
If this is describing you at all, then I recommend The Defining Decade by Doctor Meg Jay. All of us have experienced that feeling of sailing helplessly into a total maelstrom of OMGWTF at one time or another in life, and evidently at no time does this happen more often than in our twenties. Dr. Jay, a clinical psychologist, talks about how to deal with all of these paralyzing problems. She uses case studies from her own practice to illustrate how the 20-somethings in modern society are torn between being expected to enjoy life before reality sets in and being treated as stupid kids. The best course is somewhere in the middle, but the problem is that few 20-somethings know what to do or how to get where they’re going. One patient describes himself as adrift at sea with no shore in sight: he can start swimming in any direction, but he has no idea if he is getting closer or farther from land. Another patient doesn’t know how to deal with a boss as overbearing as J. Jonah Jameson. Yet another patient slid from having a boyfriend to living together to being married to divorcing six months after the wedding and never once really noticed how significant each transition was.
Dr. Jay presents all of these case studies and more in a very vivid way. It reads like pop psychology so the book never reads like a clinical study up for peer review, but it never condescends to the reader either. There is a real sense of getting to know her patients on an intimate level because their problems are our problems. We feel what they feel because they think as we do, whether you are 32 or even 17. The sudden dread of 30 being a deadline to get your entire life together, the anxiety of seeing everyone else sprint away into successful lives on Facebook, and the feeling of where did time go all play into this. A favorite example of mine is the 28-year-old bartender who wants to become a lawyer in her thirties, get married by forty, and have a baby at forty-five. Dr. Jay’s colloquy shines a light on how the societal fixation with delaying that kind of personal growth until thirty is misinformed and even damaging in the long run. The bartender then tries a more practical timeline, only to realize she would have to cram all of her goals into a five year window. The panic sets in because suddenly it is a race against time when, up until now, all this bartender has ever heard is that she has all the time in the world. It’s the sort of example that is a wake-up call to how little time we have.
This is not to say that the twenties are some rush to defeat the imaginary foe of Father Time. Indeed, Dr. Jay also points out how inflexible and unhappy life can be without some exploration of the self and jocularity. The principal issue is less of that than it is that there is a popular myth that “30 is the new 20.” Many of Dr. Jay’s 30-somethings lament their lost decade as squandered, without meaning and wasted on juvenile antics that don’t even register in their memories anymore. Some of the time, these insights come across as “no duh!” moments, but other times, it’s a relief to know you’re not the only one struggling to figure out what to do or why something is the way it is. Yes, two people can be incredibly similar, but that does not make them compatible romantic partners. Maybe most important of all, it’s a relief to know someone is talking to this seemingly lost generation of well-meaning but aimless millennials (in itself not true, but don’t ask the media to represent young people fairly). There are times when I found myself thinking, “Why didn’t someone tell me this before?” That is the essence of this book: no one else has told you what you need to hear and it’s time that someone fixes that.
I recommend The Defining Decade. It’s an interesting read. At just under 200 pages, it’s also a brief read. Dr. Jay never speaks in abstruse or abstract language (luckily, considering the subject matter) so it is very easily digestible. It’s a good book to make you look inwards and examine not only your past but also your future, which is given such short shrift when the cultural zeitgeist emphasizes only a motto of seize the day in your twenties. Better still, you come away from reading the book with a sense of how to self-actualize and become the person you want to be. That makes this an ideal book to speak to people who have either procrastinated too long or forgotten to live life while it’s still here.
It’s your life. Enjoy it. Or, as the kids these days would say, “You only carpe diem once.” #YOCDO