The Defining Decade

by Meg Jay

Posted by Anton Katunin on 24 May 2020
Tags: books, 5 stars

I wish I’ve read this book in my twenties. The book explains what’s going on with the brain of 20 years old person and how that affects their life viewed from the psychologist perspective. Now I’m in my thirties I can’t agree more because most of those lessons I had to learn myself.

Below are my highlights.

Real Time

The unlived life is not worth examining.

— Sheldon Kopp

Freud once said, "Love and work, work and love… that’s all there is."

There is a saying that "hope is a good breakfast but a bad supper."


Identity Capital

Adults don’t emerge. They’re made.

— Kay Hymowitz

Twentysomethings who take the time to explore and also have the nerve to make commitments along the way construct stronger identities.

Research on underemployed twentysomethings tells us that those who are underemployed for as little as nine months tend to be more depressed and less motivated than their peers—than even their unemployed peers.

Weak Ties

Yes is how you get your first job, and your next job, and your spouse, and even your kids. Even if it’s a bit edgy, a bit out of your comfort zone, saying yes means you will do something new, meet someone new, and make a difference.

— Eric Schmidt executive chairman of Google

while the urban tribe helps us survive, it does not help us thrive. The urban tribe may bring us soup when we are sick, but 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.

If weak ties do favors for us, they start to like us. Then they become even more likely to grant us additional favors in the future. (aka Ben Franklin Effect)

The Unthought Known

My mom goes on to me and everybody else about how great I am and how proud she is of me, and I want to say: "For what? What exactly stands out about me?" Far from narcissistically lapping up his mother’s praise, Ian had long sensed that her words were too generic to mean much.

My Life Should Look Better on Facebook

The best is the enemy of the good.

— Voltaire, writer/philosopher

If we only wanted to be happy, it would be 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

To accept life in its disjointed pieces is an adult experience of freedom, but still these pieces must lodge and embed themselves somewhere, hopefully in a place that allows them to grow and endure.

— Richard Sennett, sociologist


An Upmarket Conversation

Something about how happiness has more to do with whom you marry than with what college you attend.

Picking Your Family

These high-functioning clients are what therapists call YAVIS—young, attractive, verbal, intelligent, and successful

The Cohabitation Effect

Living together is a good test for marriage. This is a common misperception.

Sliding, Not Deciding

Cohabitating couples can break up and are a bit more likely to split than married couples. But many cohabitating couples, like Jennifer and Carter, don’t break up. They slide from dating to cohabitation.

On Dating Down

The most difficult thing to cure is the patient’s attempt at self-cure.

For a while, music and sex helped you feel less alone, but now they are making you feel more alone. Every problem was once a solution.

The stories we tell about ourselves become facets of our identity.

Being in Like

People love those who are like themselves.

— Aristotle philosopher

By this I mean two things: being alike in ways that matter and genuinely liking who the other person is. Often these go hand in hand. That is because the more similar two people are, the more they are able to understand each other.

The problem is, while people are good at matching themselves and others on relatively obvious criteria, such as age and education, it turns out that these qualities are what researchers call "deal breakers, not match makers".

One match maker to consider is personality. Some research tells us that, especially in young couples, the more similar two people’s personalities are, the more likely they are to be satisfied with their relationship. Yet personality is how dating, and even married, couples tend to be least alike. The likely reason for this is, unlike deal breakers, personality is less obvious and not as easy to categorize. Personality is not about what we have done or even about what we like. It is about how we are in the world, and this infuses everything we do. Personality is the part of ourselves that we take everywhere, even to Nicaragua, so it is worth knowing something about.

One of the simplest and most widely researched models of personality is what is called the Big Five. The Big Five refers to five factors that describe how people interact with the world: Openness, Conscientiousness, Extraversion, Agreeableness, Neuroticism.

OPENNESS practical, conventional, prefers routine, skeptical, rational, shies away from new things open to new experiences, intellectually curious, creative, imaginative, adventurous, insightful
CONSCIENTIOUSNESS relaxed about standards, easygoing, can be careless, spontaneous, prone to addiction disciplined, efficient, organized, responsible, dutiful, self-directed, thorough, can be controlling
EXTRAVERSION likes solitary time, shy, reserved, energized by being alone, quiet, independent, cautious, aloof outgoing, enthusiastic, active, novelty-seeking, gets energy from interactions with others, talkative
AGREEABLENESS uncooperative, antagonistic, suspicious, has trouble understanding others cooperative, kind, affectionate, friendly, compassionate, trusting, compliant, understanding
NEUROTICISM not easily bothered, secure, takes things at face value, emotionally resilient tense, moody, anxious, sensitive, prone to sadness, worries a lot, quickly sees the negative

Neuroticism, or the tendency to be anxious, stressed, critical, and moody, is far more predictive of relationship unhappiness and dissolution than is personality dissimilarity. While personality similarity can help the years run smoothly, any two people will be different in some way or another. How a person responds to these differences can be more important than the differences themselves. To a person who runs high in Neuroticism, differences are seen in a negative light. Anxiety and judgments about these differences then lead to criticism and contempt, two leading relationship killers.

The Brain And The Body

Forward Thinking

Life can only be understood backward, but it must be lived forward.

— Søren Kierkegaard, philosopher

We become what we hear and see and do every day. We don’t become what we don’t hear and see and do every day. In neuroscience, this is known as "survival of the busiest".

Twentysomethings take these difficult moments particularly hard. Compared to older adults, they find negative information—the bad news—more memorable than positive information—or the good news.

When twentysomethings have their competence criticized, they become anxious and angry. They are tempted to march in and take action. They generate negative feelings toward others and obsess about the why

I told Danielle how the twentysomething brain responds to surprise and criticism, how it makes many twentysomethings feel like, as one colleague says, leaves in the wind. A good day at work lifts us high in the air while a reprimand from a boss whips us down to the ground. As criticism blows us every which way, we feel—at work and in love—only as good as the last thing that happened.

Psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl describes our attitudes and reactions as being the last of our human freedoms. Danielle may not have had control over every situation at work, but she could control how she interpreted them and how she reacted to them. She could get out of her amygdala and put her frontal lobe to work.

Reappraising lessens, and even prevents, bad feelings. If Danielle could reevaluate situations based on the facts, it would change not only how she dealt with work but also how she felt about it. Research shows that people who have some control over their emotions report greater life satisfaction, optimism, purpose, and better relationships with others.

Calm Yourself

People are more likely to remember highly emotional events, such as times when they were happy or sad or embarrassed.

Outside In

No, you don’t have it, but if you work hard you could.

For those who have a growth mindset, failures may sting but they are also viewed as opportunities for improvement and change.

People feel less anxious—and more confident—on the inside when they can point to things they have done well on the outside.

they hope I can recommend some herbal remedy (I can’t). The way I help twentysomethings gain confidence is by sending them back to work or back to their relationships with some better information.

Mastering your emotions at work builds confidence.

She stopped calling her parents and her friends on her lunch hour so she could give herself credit for getting through the day. She cleaned up the way she talked about herself on the job: "No more self-deprecating stories," she declared.

Getting Along and Getting Ahead

Life itself still remains a very effective therapist.

— Karen Horney, psychoanalyst

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 and more able to cooperate with others. Overall, we become happier and more confident and less—as Sam put it—anxious and angry.

Every Body


Do the Math

Carstensen used virtual reality to help twentysomethings imagine their future selves.

This study brings to life, at least digitally, a core problem in behavior: present bias. People of all ages and walks of life discount the future, favoring the rewards of today over the rewards of tomorrow.

Present bias is especially strong in twentysomethings who put a lot of psychological distance between now and later.

Rachel had heard that "people do things later than they used to," but what this really meant for her twenties was unclear.

He says, "I always begin with the last sentence; then I work my way backwards, through the plot, to where the story should begin."


Will things work out for me?

There is no formula for a good life, and there is no right or wrong life.

Read next:

Great by choice

by James C. Collins