Seize the decade, not just the day

Zac Arestad’s column last week plainly and jarringly posed a question that we, lucky enough to have a place in this gilded institution, have likely grappled with in one form or another: “Am I worth it?” Sure, we are some of the most hard working, talented scholars in the country, but with roughly half a million dollars invested in each of our educations, an immediate and certain “yes” is hard to conjure.

As many of us stand at or just past the gateway to our twenties, this question, I am sure, can be particularly raw. It stands directly against the growing “thirties are the new twenties” zeitgeist, in a time of our lives when thinking about the present comes easiest.

Dr. Meg Jay, a clinical psychologist from the University of Virginia, offers some much-needed advice regarding this challenging period in her book, “The Defining Decade”. Her counsel, however, is perhaps not the one we were hoping for. That said, my column this week, in a slight change of pace, is less a response to her findings and more an extension of the seemingly countless and ongoing conversations I have had with friends and family regarding the years to come.

Despite the numerous chapters in Jay’s book that seem exclusively tailored to twentysomethings of upper-middle class origin who use monetary compensation, heterosexual romance and procreation as barometers for success, her underlying message is one that I have come to agree with over my undergraduate years: the coming decade will likely be the most defining and transformative one of our lives and so warrants appropriate attention.

Though most of us probably won’t define our self-worth with a checklist of goals, the reality remains that the vast majority will both need and aspire to a healthy and fulfilling career, social and personal life. In that context, some of Jay’s findings can be particularly sobering: “80 percent of life’s most defining moments take place by about age 35. Two-thirds of lifetime wage growth happens during the first ten years of a career. More than half of Americans are married or are dating or living with their future partner by age 30. Personality can change more during our 20s than at any other decade in life… [and the] brain caps off its last major growth spurt.”

For me, the most important takeaway here, though perhaps both counterintuitive and not plainly implied, is that the voices that encourage us to spend time “finding ourselves” and accumulating as many experiences possible may in fact be steering us in the wrong direction. Contemporary psychological studies that attempt to re-evaluate the human source of happiness have, I believe, turned standard wisdom on its head.

Though it might be a hard pill to swallow, the research Dr. Jay cites convincingly overturns views that have become near hardwired in most twentysomethings’ brains. Keeping options open may in fact be closing doors, the people who care most about you might in fact be significant impediments to professional and personal growth and adult responsibilities likely lead to happiness and not stress.

Though many of Jay’s arguments are compelling, the book also contains an unwelcome dose of stereotyping, an inexcusably normative definition of happiness and assertions that are wildly out of touch with economic reality. But between the condescension and vague platitudes, there just might be enough to spur a little healthy introspection. My goal for this column is not to author a self-help article, but only to encourage a reconsideration of convention and popular culture surrounding this coming part of our lives.

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