Ryan’s notes

The Defining Decade by Meg Jay


I read The Defining Decade at home over the holidays. It’s a book about how to approach your 20s. I read it a few months before my 29th birthday so I sometimes felt pangs of missed opportunity (Had I really made the most of my brain’s heightened plasticity in college? Might I have been better off studying philosophy?), but I mostly felt reassured that I did alright living this decade of my life.

Meg Jay argues that your 20s are the most pivotal decade in your life: these are the years in which you can experiment, yes, but also start investing in work, relationships, and habits that will compound. She argues that we shouldn’t hedonistically or haphazardly wander in this time, but should instead act intentionally to collect useful experiences, build career capital, and take steps toward our longer-term goals.

I found most of the ideas here to be common sense for someone who has already lived much of this decade (and generally sound advice for those starting off). I appreciated the format of the book: one key concept per chapter. Many of these concepts are relevant at any age.

Key concepts:

  • Build “identity capital” whenever you can. Identity capital is the collection of assets we acquire by taking action: our relationships, our skills, our experiences, our failures. When faced with a choice, bias toward choosing the thing that will grow your capital. This advice is almost too vague to be useful. “Do things that take you to new places” isn’t a particularly actionable operating principle. These choices (to ask someone out, to dive into a new role at work, to say yes to an impromptu trip to India) often feel scary because they require vulnerability and demand growth.

  • Foster weak ties to create opportunity. Close friendships are great, but our close ties are often homogenous. It’s the weaker ties (the acquaintances, the friend-of-friend, the colleague’s partner) that overlap less with our existing cliques that offer new experiences, opportunity, reflection, and growth. Weak ties are like bridges that take us to new places: bridge friendships to create opportunity! Reach out to people who you admire and respect or people who may be able to help you with your goals. People are more likely to give their time than you think. Be clear about what you want, and ask. The worst case outcome is the same as doing nothing, but the upside is that you foster these weak ties to create opportunity. I have trouble implementing this in my own life: I know it’s true, but I worry about being a burden and what rejection might feel like! I’m getting a bit better each year, but it’s still not easy.

  • Do what feels true to you; reject the tyranny of the should. Shoulds come from other people; act out of your own excitement or curiosity, not out of fear of judgment. Books I should read. Places I should go. I catch myself every time the word “should” enters my brain and try to understand where it came from. What do I actually want?

  • Life is finite, but we act as if it’s infinite. “Many cultures make use of "memento mori" to remind ourselves of our mortality… In past centuries, it was common to sit for portraits while holding a dead rose or to carry a watch shaped like a skull in order to signify time running out…” I’ve been contemplating the best way to remind myself of my own mortality: is it a tattoo across my arm, a clock that counts down on my bedroom wall, a journaling practice, a motto to repeat? What do you do to remind yourself that life will end?

  • Necessity begets success (commitments shape us). To achieve great things, two things are needed: a plan, and not quite enough time. — Leonard Bernstein, composer. I can’t agree with this more. Almost everything I’ve accomplished has come from a need to do it. You can create your own necessity by making commitments to others that align with your goals. :: How to Stop Living in Infinite Browsing Mode

  • Do the math on your goals. You want to be married with kids and a house at 30, while working at a law firm, after traveling the world for a year? You’re 23, so you’ve got time… or do you? Trace this back… when will you enter and exit law school? Join a firm as a new lawyer? Take that year off? Meet your partner? Have the wedding? Get pregnant? Make a timeline to clarify what needs to happen when to achieve what you want. How do you get to the happy ending? John Irving says, “I always begin with the last sentence; then I work my way backwards, through the plot, to where the story should begin.”

One idea that I disagreed with is that our identity is the story we tell ourselves; I think identity is what we repeatedly do (as argued in Atomic Habits by James Clear). Identity, in its latin form, means “repeated beingness”. We are what we repeatedly do, not what we aspire to be. If you write, you are a writer. If you run, you are a runner. Want to be a musician? Simply play an instrument. Identity is one good technique for driving habit; instead of setting goals (read 20 books this year), embody being a reader by reading a page each day.

A few facts that caught my attention:

  • Ten thousand hours is five years of focused, full-time work. I never did the math before, but this makes sense. It’s actually quite inspiring… we can become experts at many things in a single lifetime!

  • Women outnumber men in the workforce. Turns out that this first happened in 2010 during the Great Recession, happened again in 2020, and is likely to stay true this time for awhile.

  • Confidence means “with trust”; self-confidence means trusting yourself to get the job done.


Identity capital

  • But along the way he was also earning what sociologists call identity capital. Identity capital is our collection of personal assets. It is the repertoire of individual resources that we assemble over time.

  • The one thing I have learned is that you can't think your way through life. The only way to figure out what to do is do—something. (said by a patient)

Weak ties

  • While the urban tribe (family of friends) helps us survive, it does not help us thrive... it is the people we hardly know—those who never make it into our tribe—who will swiftly and dramatically change our lives for the better... a cluster of strong ties... is typically a incestuous group. A homogenous clique.... Information and opportunity spread farther and faster through weak ties than through close friends because weak ties have fewer overlapping contacts. Weak ties are like bridges you cannot see all the way across, so there is no telling where they might lead.

  • We need to be more thorough when we talk to weak ties, and this requires more organization and reflection... weak ties promote, and sometimes even force, thoughtful growth and change.

  • Make yourself interesting. Make yourself relevant. Do your homework so you know precisely what you want or need. Then, respectfully, ask for it. Some weak ties will say no. More than you think will say yes. The fastest route to something new is one phone call, one email, one box of books, one favor...

The Unthought Known

  • Unthought knowns are those things we know about ourselves but forgot somehow. These are the dreams we have lost sight of or the truths we sense but don't say out loud.

  • "That's what gets in the way of knowing what you know and acting on it," I said. "It's called the tyranny of the should."

My life should look better on Facebook

  • If only we wanted to be happy, it would be so easy; but we want to be happier than other people, which is almost always difficult since we think them happier than they are. — Charles de Montesquieu, writer / philosopher

The customized life

  • A person's identity is not to be found in behavior... but in the capacity to keep a particular narrative going. — Anthony Giddens, sociologist

    • Pushes against the idea of identity as repeated beingness, a bit

Picking your family

  • When you partner with someone, you have a second chance at family.

  • ... for many centuries, marriage was about bridging families.

The cohabitation effect

  • In psychotherapy, there's a saying that "the slower you go, the faster you get there." Sometimes the best way to help people is to slow them down long enough to examine their own thinking.

On dating down

  • The most difficult thing to cure is the patient's attempt at self-cure... because young people are generally resilient, many bounce back from difficulties with their own solutions... they may be outdated, imperfect solutions, but they are solutions nonetheless—ones that usually resist dismantling.

  • Adolesence is a time of many firsts, including our first attempt to form life stories.... we repeat these stories to others and ourselves. We use them to feel a sense of coherence as we move from place to place. The stories we tell about ourselves become facets of our identity. They reveal our unique complexity. All at once, they say something about friends, family, and culture. They say something about why we live as we do from year to year.

  • ... untold stories are most often about shame.

  • Our stories need to be edited and revised over time.

Forward thinking

  • We now know that the brain develops from bottom to top and from back to front. This order reflects the evolutionary age of the areas of the brain.

Outside in

  • ... once the work becomes challenging, kids that have enjoyed work that affirms they have IT stop enjoying school. They feel threatened by hard work, fearing it means they don't have IT after all. Struggle means being a have-not.

    • On fixed mindsets: certainly my perspective at one point. Italian, violin.

  • Literally, confidence means "with trust" ... confidence is trusting yourself to get the job done... and that trust only comes from having gotten the job done many times before.

  • Ten thousand hours is five years of focused, full-time work.

    • Never did the math before

Getting along and getting ahead

  • Love and work are the cornerstones of our humanness. — Freud

  • Numerous studies from around the world show that life starts to feel better across the twentysomething years. We become more emotionally stable and less tossed around by life's ups and downs. We become more conscientious and responsible. We become more socially competent. We feel more agreeable about life...

    • Not my experience!

  • ... positive personality changes come from what researchers call "getting along and getting ahead." Feeling better... comes from investing in adulthood... Most of these changes are about making adult commitments—to bosses, partners, leases, roommates—and these commitments shift how we are in the world and who we are inside... just working toward these things make us happier.

  • Goals are how we declare who we are and who we want to be. They are how we structure our years and our lives. Goals have been called the building blocks of adult personality... who you will be... is being built out of the goals you are setting for yourself today.

Every body

  • women outnumber men in the workplace

    • I did not know!

  • ... it will be quite common... for parents to be pulled in two directions by toddlers and octogenarians. Men and women will soon face caring for two entirely different groups of loved ones at precisely the moment they are most needed back at work. — If you have kids late and they have their kids late

Do the math

  • To achieve great things, two things are needed: a plan, and not quite enough time. — Leonard Bernstein, composer

    • YES!

  • When we graduate from school, we leave behind the only lives we have ever known... packaged in semester-sized chunks with goals nestled within.... The twentysomething years are a whole new way of thinking about time. There's this big chunk of time a whole bunch of stuff that needs to happen somehow.

  • Many cultures make use of memento mori to remind ourselves of our mortality... In past centuries, it was common to sit for portraits while holding a dead rose or to carry a watch shaped like a skull in order to signify time running out...

  • a timeline... can help our brains see time for what it really is: limited.

    • Make a timeline, fill it in, see if it adds up. Especially important for women who have a discrete window in which to have children.

  • How do you get to the happy ending? John Irving says, "I always begin with the last sentence; then I work my way backwards, through the plot, to where the story should begin."

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