The Defining Decade‘ is a book by clinical psychologist Meg Jay who has spent her career studying adult development and spent multiple years doing therapy for twenty-something clients helping them sort out their lives. Notes below are not exhaustive, those can be found at getAbstract which has a concise yet thorough summary of the book here.

On individual development, career and networking

  • Focus on Identity Capital not Identity Crisis: Time spent brooding over who you really are or what you should be doing should really be spent on developing identity capital. Identity capital is how you come across to the world – from how you look or speak to what you choose to focus your efforts/work on.
  • The only way to figure out what to do is to do something. As a therapist, the author met a bunch of twenty-somethings who wasted a lot of time trying to find the ideal thing to do rather than jumping into something they liked, experimenting and iterating.
  • Are you capitalizing on your weak ties?  The strength of weak ties is a seminal paper by Stanford professor Mark Granovetter – the research behind it shows that most major life-defining changes happen due to weak ties, not due to one’s inner circle.  Most people stick to their comfort zone of a small number of people they know – this is detrimental, perhaps dangerous, for personal development.
  • Weak ties promote (and sometimes force) thoughtful growth and change. Weak ties force us to communicate from a place of difference. The similarities and shared context that we have with our inner circle makes us comfortable, but also complacent.
  • Once you start getting comfortable making use of and growing/developing your weak ties, “the world seems suddenly smaller and easier to navigate”.
  • Ben Franklin effect:  If weak ties do favors for us, they start to like us. Ben Franklin’s story/anecdote is worth understanding and analyzing.
  • How Ben Franklin positioned himself for success (and what we should emulate):
    • He found out the person’s area of expertise.
    • He presented himself as a serious person with a need that matched.
    • He made himself interesting and relevant.
    • He asked for a clearly defined favor.

On marriage and picking a partner

  • The author worked on a study that followed ~100 women from their twenties into their seventies. The women were asked to write one page about their most difficult life experience so far. The saddest, most protracted stories  were about bad marriages.
  • It is a misconception that getting married later can set one up for marital success, it is however true until age 25. Research shows that after 25, one’s age at marriage does not predict divorce.
  • Cohabitating before a social commitment such as engagement or marriage usually leads to bad outcomes, contrary to assumptions that living together will prepare the couple for marriage.
  • Travelling together in a third world country is the closest thing there is to being married and raising kids.
  • Bring personality to the forefront sooner rather than later – eHarmony claims better success of the couples it matched due to ‘personality fit’.  While this is hard to prove, research does show that the Big Five personality traits are key predictors of marital success. The more similar a couple is in their extremes of the big five, the more likely to stay together.
  • Neuroticism is the only trait where an individual’s own (and not the couple’s match) trait matters – high neuroticism leads to lower relationship success.
  • People often think that relationships end or marriages break because something changed – habits, betrayal etc. In reality, more often, people split up because things don’t change. Couples reluctantly admit that the differences were there all along.

On thought patterns

  • The slower you go, the faster you get there” – the best way to help people is to slow them down enough to examine their thinking and see the gaps in their own reasoning. Shine a light on those mental ellipses and you’ll find assumptions that drive behavior without our ever being aware of them.

On brain development

  • The frontal lobe of the brain is where we learn to move beyond our search for black-and-white solutions and learn to tolerate and act on shades of grey. This portion develops/matures through your twenties.
  • This explains, why as a therapist, the author often encountered school valedictorians and high-achievers who couldn’t figure out who to date or who got nerves at the workplace. Objective problem-solving skills are located in a different part of the brain, which develops before the frontal lobe.
  •  Calm Yourself – “It may be a match made in hell, but that’s the way it is.” Twenty-somethings who get to the workplace  are still in the frontal-lobe development phase. To make things worse, they are usually paired with new, inexperienced managers. The key is to stay calm and be emotionally resilient as a twenty-something.
  •  Realize that what you are going through is normal. Twenty-somethings who don’t feel anxious and incompetent at work are usually over-confident or underemployed.

Getting along and getting ahead

  • Making strong commitments to our social roles is good for twenty-somethings. Being a cooperative colleague or successful partner is what drives personality change.

Present-bias

  • Human nature is to emphasize the present and discount the future. Most twenty-somethings can think of the here-and-now, perhaps the next five years and have a faint vision of when they are very old – close to the end of life. Not enough people have a realistic sense of what it might be to be 30 or 40, or how their current decisions influence their future life.
  • This leads to things such as (a) not enough thinking about starting a family or the challenges of fertility over 30 (its not just the women, older sperm is an issue as well). (b) not thinking enough about retirement planning (c) not thinking about what you might cherish or value at age 30 or 40 (time with your kids) and spending time in your twenties doing things you will regret later.
  • Great experiment that shows present bias: Twenty-five people entered an augmented reality environment and saw an age-morphed version of their future selves. A control group of the same size just saw themselves in the mirror. Both groups were then asked to allocate money to a hypothetical retirement savings account. The mirror group set aside ~$75, the group that saw an aged AR version of themselves set aside ~$180 (almost 2.5x).

Good stories and happy endings are way more intentional than that.. 

  • Be intentional about your life. Good authors don’t just stumble into a well-forming story with a great ending as they are writing it. More often, they start with the end in mind, working their way backwards through the plot, to figure out where the story should begin.
  • Treat your life the same way, be intentional.

Recommended reading:

  1. Self-efficacy: The exercise of control by Albert Bandura.
  2. Similarity, convergence and relationship satisfaction in dating and married couples.