How to Make the Most of Your 20s

In The Defining Decade: Why Your Twenties Matter–And How to Make the Most of Them NowMeg Jay, PhD, writes, “The twenties are that critical period of adulthood. These are the years when it will be easiest to start the lives we want. And no matter what we do, the twenties are an inflection point—the great reorganization—a time when the experiences we have disproportionately influence the adult lives we will lead.”

Is it just me or does that seem like a lot of pressure? Maybe that is the point. In her book, Jay, a clinical psychologist who specializes in working with twentysomethings, explains how cultural advances, such as birth control and the norm of attending college, have allowed 20-year-olds to delay many life choices until their thirties. While the baby boomer generation was getting married, having children and supporting a family in their twenties, many 20-year-olds of today are taking unpaid internships, working in dead-end jobs and waiting around for inspiration to strike.

Hannah Horvath said it best in the pilot episode of the emblematic show Girls, when she told her parents who cut her off financially, “I have work, and then I have a dinner thing. And then I am busy, trying to become who I am.”

Becoming who you are is exactly what happens in your twenties, so don’t sit around waiting for it. Here are some quick facts:

1. Two-thirds of lifetime wage growth happens in the first decade of one’s career.

2. Fifty percent of Americans marry by age 30, and 75 percent get hitched by 35.

3. Eighty percent of life’s defining moments (graduating college, buying your first home, landing your first job) happen by age 35. As thirtysomethings and beyond, we largely either continue with, or correct for, the moves we made during our twenties.

So if doubt and difficulty were plaguing you before, we just added a great deal of anxiety about getting your career and love lives solidified in your twenties. But what does Jay believe being a success in your twenties really means? It means living a life of intention and mindfulness. You shouldn’t give up on your dreams of being an artist and become a doctor because that’s what your parents want want you to be; but you also shouldn’t continue being a nanny or working at Starbucks while you sit around waiting for your big break.

Now is the time to take active steps to accomplish your goals. For example, a low-paying fellowship at a local art studio has more to do with pursuing a job as a museum curator than higher-paying job as a waitress. Even though in the short run it seems like the wrong choice, in reality it increases your potential for growth.

By making choices such as taking a low-paying art fellowship, you begin to not only grow your personal potential, but you also begin to grow your social circle outside of your comfortable group of friends and family. By doing that you open yourself up to an entirely new set of people who can admire your talents, recommend your work, mentor you and ultimately lead you to your next step.

These small steps create a snowball effect that translates into a healthier foundation for a more fulfilled life, which is what Jay says your twenties are all about.

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