Are people in their 20s having as much fun as it seems? Above: Clubbers at… (Los Angeles Times )
My 24-year-old brother called me in a panic the other night. It wasn’t anything urgent, really, just his life. Specifically, how it would turn out.
It was the type of anxiety that’s par for the course when you’re in your 20s and facing an uncertain future. For all the benefits of our youth, dreaming of what comes next can feel like a real nightmare.
His concerns were all over the map, some serious and some silly, and I’m afraid I didn’t give him the best advice. As the beneficiary of the lessons learned from my mistakes, my brother often leans on me for how to navigate tricky situations, but I had no idea what to tell him. So I told him what my grandpa told me: “What do you have to worry about? You’re young.” It’s either total nonsense or profound philosophy, depending on how you read it.
I like to remember my early 20s as a time when every new development -- a new boyfriend, a better job -- was an exciting surprise. Like every accomplishment or first-time experience was as thrilling as opening a present on Christmas morning. But when it comes to what I remember, I’m a revisionist. I only like to remember the good parts.
The truth is, I was an anxious young adult too, desperate to know what my early 30s would look like. If I had any spontaneous moments at all, I can guarantee you that I’d planned them at least three weeks in advance.
As I talked to my brother, I can’t tell you how relieved I felt to have finally come out the other end. While I’d been busy plotting my future, planning my next steps and worrying whether anything at all would pan out, things actually did start to fall into place. More appropriate advice to my brother should have been: Set goals and work as hard as you can while you can still get away with three hours of sleep.
We can say one's 20s are for pure, unadulterated hedonism, but actually, these are formative years.
In an Op-Ed that ran in The Times’ Opinion pages last year, Meg Jay, a clinical psychologist at the University of Virginia, warned recent college grads to take their lives seriously: “Our 20s are life's developmental sweet spot. They matter. A lot.”
She continued: “About two-thirds of lifetime wage growth happens during the first 10 years of a career, with the biggest gains coming from job-hopping or earning advanced degrees before marriage, family and mortgages take hold. Even the underemployed can take heart in knowing that wage losses disappear by about age 30, if they move through post-college jobs and degrees strategically.” (Larry David of “Curb Your Enthusiasm” and “Seinfeld” fame gave similarly good advice last year.)
No pressure, brother.
Jay concluded her Op-Ed with this advice: "30 is not the new 20. Don't be defined by what you didn't know or do. You're deciding your life right now."
A recent piece on Jezebel, “You’ll Never Forget Your Twenties, Because That’s When You Become Who You Are,” points to research that concurs.
Instead of thinking that my brother was taking himself too seriously, I should have encouraged his neurosis. I’m even more convinced of that after reading Camille Sweeney and Josh Gosfield’s Opinion piece in the Sunday New York Times:
In interviews we did with high achievers for a book, we expected to hear that talent, persistence, dedication and luck played crucial roles in their success. Surprisingly, however, self-awareness played an equally strong role.
The successful people we spoke with -- in business, entertainment, sports and the arts -- all had similar responses when faced with obstacles: they subjected themselves to fairly merciless self-examination that prompted reinvention of their goals and the methods by which they endeavored to achieve them. […]
No one’s idea of a good time is to take a brutal assessment of their animating assumptions and to acknowledge that those may have contributed to their failure. It’s easy to find pat ways to explain why the world has not adequately rewarded our efforts. But what we learned from conversation with high achievers is that challenging our assumptions, objectives, at times even our goals, may sometimes push us further than we thought possible.
Will everything go as planned? Of course not. As the above article points out, sometimes the outcome will surpass your wildest dreams. And sometimes, as President Obama reminded us in his inaugural address Monday, we’ll find ourselves at a total loss: “We recognize that no matter how responsibly we live our lives, any one of us, at any time, may face a job loss, or a sudden illness, or a home swept away in a terrible storm.”
There is no light at the end of the tunnel really. Yeah, things get easier as parts of your life fall into place. But I don’t know: Do you ever really want things to get too easy? I’m only eight years older than my brother, which to him is an eternity, I know. He thinks I’m Yoda, when the truth is I’m just a yenta who loves to hear about what’s going on in other people’s lives and give (un)solicited advice. We’re still in the same boat though. I have no idea how this thing plays out.
Were we to have a repeat of our recent phone call though, I’d tell him not to worry so much about worrying -- or better still, to let his worries empower him.
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Follow Alexandra Le Tellier on Twitter @alexletellier