The Santa Clara
May 16, 2019
I am worried I peaked in college. Entering the world of adulthood, my college achievements will fade into irrelevance and my friends will move on. The past seems a lot brighter than the future.
And I’m not alone in this. Looking at the long road ahead—career, debt, age—it’s hard for college students not to think that their glory days have passed.
But our elders and experts tell us this is just the beginning, that in fact, life has just begun. We have just entered the defining decade: our 20s.
“The 20-something years are no time for a post-mortem,” said Meg Jay, clinical psychologist and author of “The Defining Decade: Why Your Twenties Matter and How to Make the Most of Them.”
Jay’s book reminds us of an important fact: what we do in our 20s sets a path for the rest of our lives.
This is a critical period of adulthood, a time when our brains will go through their final growth spurt and our personalities will change more than ever.
Jay cites that two-thirds of our wage growth occurs in the first 10 years of our career and 80 percent of life’s defining events will have occurred by the time we reach the age of 35. It is a time when our career choices will shape the rest of our professional lives—and that’s terrifying.
It’s paralyzing to know that the choices we make, and—perhaps even more—the ones we don’t, will shape the rest of our lives.
But that’s good news too. It means the best days are yet to come. For seniors who are about to embark on their journeys into adulthood, Jay’s book serves as inspiration for us all to look upon our graduation with hope and optimism during a time of growth and exploration. We can shape ourselves into whomever we want to be. We have the freedom to choose our careers, friends and family.
Our 20s is a period when our brains learn the “language of adulthood.” Our cerebral cortexes develop thousands of new connections to adapt to the complexities of adulthood. We will interact with co-workers and bosses, we will learn new skills on the job and we will apply theories we have learned in school.
While the first growth spurt of our brains occurred during childhood, allowing us to walk and talk, this second period of growth allows us to become more calm, confident and sophisticated in face of the challenges of adulthood. This is our brains’ last period of growth, according to Jay.
Unfortunately, Jay meets too many young adults in her clinical practice who are wasting this critical period of growth, aimlessly wandering through their 20s.
But life doesn’t just work out by itself. We need to be intentional in our choices. Parents and teachers have told us “the sky’s the limit” and “possibilities are endless,” encouraging us to do anything we want without giving us a blueprint of how we can achieve our goals. With so many options on the table, we end up not making any choices. If we continued this path, we would leave our 20s as we began them with nothing to show for and nothing to be proud of. But how do we even begin with choosing a career path?
“You’ve spent more than two decades shaping who you are,” Jay said. “You have experiences, interests, strengths, weaknesses, diplomas, hang-ups, priorities.”
As 20-year-olds enter the workforce, Jay notices that many of her patients cannot control their anxiety at work. They begin to compare themselves with coworkers, especially those that are more confident and competent than they are.
That’s human nature—but studies have shown that their brains react more negatively toward failures and criticisms as the amygdala, the part of the brain that regulates emotions, is especially active during the 20s. They feel defeated when others perform better.
Many 20-somethings think people are naturally born with confidence. But that is anything from the truth. Jay reminds us that our coworkers are often older than us. They have built their confidence through years of experience and achievements. After all, it takes 10 thousand hours to master a skill— that’s five years of full-time work.
It will take patience, hard work and time to build our confidence in this new world of adulthood—but it’ll come. Let’s not discredit ourselves for our achievements. The skills we have learned from internships and classes are the building blocks for success in the workplace.
Jay also reminds us to break away from our tribe of drinking buddies and roommates alike, as she notes that we are most likely to be friends with people who are similar to us. It’s comfortable but it stalls our growth as human beings.
Instead, we must reach out to our “weak ties”—the people outside our social circles, who are often more educated and successful. Our weak ties think diferently than we do, so we must speak with more thought and sophistication.
The more we interact with our weak ties, the more we will grow as communicators.
Weak ties also have information and opportunities to ofer. Jay cites a study from the American Journal of Sociology which showed that three-fourths of new jobs come from contacts we occasionally and rarely see. Your professors and family friends are the people that will give you advice and opportunities.
The truth is that our glory days are still ahead of us. What lies beyond graduation are challenges to conquer, achievements to make and a life to live well. It’s time to get busy. The defining decade awaits.
Nicholas Chan is a junior economics major.