Book Review: Meg Jay’s The Defining Decade

The Defining DecadeIt’s almost the end of January – how time flies! And in this month of fresh starts and new resolutions, everyone’s looking to improve themselves and their lives. But how to keep to our resolutions? And where can we look to for the guidance to improve ourselves?

Self-help books is a huge industry and the market just can’t get enough of them. When I was younger, I always viewed self-help books with disdain and amusement, but in the past year, I’ve found a number of books that I’ve really enjoyed and which I feel has helped me with my own growth. And I thought, in this, the month of fresh starts, there’s no better time than to share some of my favourite self-improvement books.

At first, I thought I’d include reviews of all five books in one post. Some reviews were short and sweet, but some, as I found, I had a lot to say about so I decided instead to give each book its own post. And so, without further ado, here is the first of the list!

The Defining Decade: Why Your 20s Matter – And How to Make the Most of them Now by Meg Jay.

Meg Jay’s TEDTalk, Why 30 is not the New 20, was a huge eye-opener for me. And – I will admit it – right after I watched the video, I felt equal parts inspired and distressed. Why distressed? Because I am already in my late 20s and now I feel like I’ve completely wasted this decade labelled the most significant development stage of our lives. Wasted – everything wasted – and now the rest of my life is doomed! Was it too late to change and get what I wanted out of life?

I wasn’t alone in this. I sent Jay’s video to a friend the same age as me. Later, I asked her what she thought of it. “I found it depressing,” she answered. And when I looked at the comments under the TEDtalk video as well as Meg Jay’s Defining Decade Amazon page, I found that most people had similar reactions – those in their early 20s were a little terrified, though psyched to find out that they still had plenty of time in which to change their lives while those in their late 20s or beyond are a little depressed because it would seem that they’ve read Jay’s book too late. Then there are those who feel that Jay’s views are a little too prescribed – but I’ll get to that later.

Like many, I have always viewed my 20s as the decade to party, travel and explore. Now, Meg Jay does advocate exploring in your 20s, but as she warned, “I’m not discounting 20-something exploration here, but I am discounting exploration that’s not supposed to count, which, by the way is not exploration. That’s procrastination.” (And there she hits the nail on the head – procrastination is my middle name). In other words, Jay’s advice is to chose the directions in which you take your explorations wisely, seeking experiences that would help better define who you are as a person and what you want out of life, rather than simply as an excuse to party and put off adult responsibilities.

Instead of reflecting gloomily on what I’ve done wrong in my 20s, I’m, more than anything else, inspired by Jay’s advice. There is still time to change. (And for those who are in their 30s, 40s and beyond – there is always time to change. One of my pet peeves is people who say they are too old to change or to learn something different because that is just an excuse. Another way of saying they just can’t be bothered.)

What I like most is that Meg Jay doesn’t beat around the bush. She tells it like it is. It is true that someone who begins pursuing a chosen career in earnest would have progressed a lot further and made a lot more money 10 years down the road then, say, someone who only started five years ago. It is true that those who have children at a later age are more likely to face difficulties in falling pregnant and will also be less likely to live long enough to get to know their grandchildren and great-grandchildren. These facts don’t sit well with me, but I know that just because they make me feel uncomfortable doesn’t mean they’re any less true.

Now, after watching Jay’s TED Talk and after the initial panic attack of Oh my god, this is it, my life is over, I will never be successful or rich or live to see my grandkids because I have completely wasted my 20s had worn off, I was able to look back on my 20s in a more clearheaded fashion and list my achievements. Was my 20s a completely wasted decade? No, it wasn’t.

I had learned a lot about myself and about life. I’ve graduated from uni and worked a number of jobs which have helped me grow and learn. I’ve gained self-confidence. I’ve travelled a lot, which was something I’ve always wanted to do, and I’ve even made a life for myself in a new country. I’ve climbed a mountain and become a runner. I might also have partied a lot more than I should have, but I don’t really regret it either as I’m glad I’ve gotten that all out of my system now. I know if I hadn’t done that, I might have reached my 40s, experienced a midlife crisis and decided to start partying then, and that probably wouldn’t have been pretty. I’ve got a clearer idea now about where I want to go with my life and how to get there. I don’t have a lot of physical or financial assets, but I think I’ve gained a lot of invaluable experiences.

Granted, there are still gaps in my life which I would dearly love to improve on and parts of my life which I wished I could have gone back and done differently. My 20s exploration was a bit more haphazard and random and I wish I could have better directed my exploration so I could have come to where I am a little quicker. Only I didn’t know how to do that back then. Sometimes, I’m not even sure whether I still do.

And this is where Meg Jay comes in. In both her talk and her book, she lists the tools which can guide 20-somethings (and others) in their exploration of what to do with themselves. This includes building on your identity capital, making use of your weak links (Meg offers some very good advice about networking in her book) and not allowing present bias to distort your vision of the future. These are all things Meg discusses in her talk and also further expands on in her book. I think if you take these tools and use them as guidelines to help further your growth and exploration, that is where you will be able to find success in your life, whether it’s a conventional lifestyle or an off-the-grid kind of lifestyle.


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