The One Book Every 20-Something Needs to Read

'The Defining Decade' by Meg Jay

The One Book Every 20-Something Needs to Read

If you know a struggling 20-something, or even a seemingly-thriving 20-something, buy them Meg Jay's book The Defining Decade.

When I first read this book two or three years ago, I was just about 21 years old, and I was so grateful that I found this book when I did.

Meg Jay, PhD, is a clinical psychologist who focuses on working with people in their twenties. She really became more famous when she gave her TED talk "Why 30 Is Not the New 20." Her findings are simple: twenty-somethings often feel trivialized during the years when they're laying down the foundations for the rest of their lives, and that causes them to make some bad decisions—or put off big decisions for a later date. One of the bigger observations she made that caught my attention when I first read the book, was that Jay spoke with people in their 40s and 50s who looked back on their 20-something years with regret, because the things they were dissatisfied with at 40 and 50 were things they could trace back to habits that formed and decisions they made in their 20s—like a plane which alters its direction by one degree at the start of its flight and ends up somewhere totally unexpected.

In this book, Jay gives you a few twenty-somethings and explains their dilemmas—one was 26 and still nannying, another didn't want to commit to a 9-5 job, others were doing well in their careers, but their relationships with friends and romantic partners weren't doing so great. Even if these characters and their situations don't exactly fit yours, they shed light on a lot of things that most twenty-somethings are feeling but not talking about.

I've thought a lot about what twenty-somethings don't talk about in the last few years—we don't talk about how hard adjusting to 9-5 life is, how we feel like we're behind, how we struggle to handle tough emotions and how many more tough emotions you feel when you move out of your college dorm or your parent's house and into your first apartment. In the beginning of the book Jay even says, most people think this book is for parents of twenty-somethings, but it's not—it's for twenty-somethings, and it will make you or the twenty-something in your life feel seen like they've never been seen before. It provides practical advice to help you navigate hard emotions and tough decisions, and validates how big these decisions really are.

If you can't tell already, I've always just wanted to be my own boss, spending my days writing, taking photos and making videos, and selling stuff I'd created on Etsy. So hearing from another twenty-something who was already older than me, resisting making any commitments to a 9-5 job, opting to work various odd jobs instead, I was very intrigued to hear what Meg Jay's advice would be.

To sum it up—it's really clear that twenty-somethings who avoid making commitments because they want something different than what everyone else in their graduating class seems to be doing, end up being much less happy later in life. To clarify—twenty-somethings who make more commitments and allow others to depend on them end up feeling more fulfilled and more capable of making bigger leaps later to turn their lives into the more creative lives that they dream of. Jay used the metaphor of a custom bike to help this guy understand the idea—when you get a custom bike (or life!) you don't reinvent what a bike is, you start with the same basic bike, but then you build it out and turn it into something unique.

Every one of my friends or the kids of my parents' friends that have read this book after me have remarked how life-changing it was. If you need a gift for the recent grad in your life, this is it.

book review
Read next: The Deception of Instagram
Jane Hope
See all posts by Jane Hope