A self-help book for people who have forgotten that you can't stay 20 for ever

The Defining Decade: Why Your Twenties Matter and How to Make the Most of Them Now
By Meg Jay. Canongate. 2016. 272 pages

You’re nobody if you haven’t written a self-help book. Business is booming, and the number of unique self-help titles on bookshop shelves rose from 30,897 in 2013 to 85,253 in 2019. The increase in sales has been comparable. YouTubers, comedians and footballers have all given their two cents on the topic, but really it’s as old as the hills (or at least as old as Aristotle). It should not surprise us that it’s in vogue. It likely always will be, and it boils down to a single question: how do we best live our lives?

Dale Carnegie wrote the legendary How to Win Friends and Influence People back in 1936, which promises today to “help you achieve your maximum potential in the complex and competitive modern age” by learning “the six ways to make people like you, the twelve ways to win people to your way of thinking, and the nine ways to change people without arousing resentment.” The last set has a rather sinister ring to it.

Stephen Covey helpfully reduced the number of principles from twenty-seven to seven in The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. Of course, these were both made superfluous by the release of psychologist and Twitter-user Jordan Peterson’s 12 Rules for Life, which offered a dozen conclusive statutes for our time (entirely definitive notwithstanding the twelve further conclusive statutes outlined in its follow-up, 12 More Rules for Life).

Marie Kondo decluttered our lives and living rooms, Burkeman struck existential dread into our hearts with Four Thousand Weeks and James Clear gave us a process rather than a principle in the recent Atomic Habits. It is hard to see that there could be space for many more. If we’ve read all that and still haven’t improved, what hope is there?

The Defining Decade: Why Your Twenties Matter and How to Make the Most of Them was released in 2012, and I didn’t expect to like it. Living in the age of the influencer, I am a natural sceptic where self-improvement is concerned, and perhaps even more so when it is aimed toward twenty-somethings.

But Dr Meg Jay’s post-adolescence guidebook is a compelling read, offering well-researched, thought-provoking, often countercultural life lessons based on her years of clinical work. The Defining Decade is more a wake-up call than a one-stop self-help shop, but that’s all it needs to be.


Dr Jay argues the importance of the post-college years in four areas: Work, Love, The Brain and The Body. The book demonstrates a deep knowledge of the research pertaining to the areas it tackles, but it is never abstract or academic. Jay instead speaks candidly about the area she knows best (the twenties) and describes her conversations with the demographic she knows best (twenty-something-year-olds).

Her clients are disillusioned and distracted, lost in things of little consequence and drifting past the things they really ought to care about. They complain that they aren’t advancing in their careers, then complain that their friends are having more fun than them. They turn down jobs and interviews in the professional areas in which they’re trained and take jobs in cafes, because cafes are bohemian and they don’t want to settle down – settling down, after all, is “settling”. One-night stands are followed by perplexed musings as to why they haven’t yet found their soul mate.


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Dr Jay is firm but kind. Many of the twenty-somethings share the same root problem, and she has the same answer for them. The problem is that they inhabit a world of infinite, liquid potential, and to make a concrete decision is to limit that potential, to close a door behind them as they walk through it. The answer she has for them is that life is made of those concrete decisions, and their thirties are built on the choices made in their twenties.

She advocates in favour of acquiring “identity capital” – a term used by sociologists to describe our collection of personal assets, the things we do well enough or long enough that they become part of ourselves. Making concrete and intentional decisions, she says, does not mean foregoing travelling, does not mean joining the company in which we’ll work for the rest of our lives – it means taking ownership over our trajectory and making conscious investments in the decades to come.


The book is provocative, but its intention isn’t to provoke. Dr Jay cautions against frivolous pre-marital (or at least pre-engagement) cohabitation, citing the research which indicates that it’s a predictor for divorce and unhappiness. She conveys the fertility-related hazards of putting off parenthood to one’s late thirties – for both men and women. She predicts a future in which parents may be the providers for a toddler and their own octogenarian parent simultaneously, not as the exception but as standard practice.

What’s interesting is the angle from which she approaches these subjects: she doesn’t begin with ideology and work backward to facts, but lays out the facts as she sees them with clarity and conviction, then draws conclusions from them based on her clinical work.

Interesting too is that she doesn’t condemn cohabitation, or parenthood in one’s thirties; she merely insists that twenty-somethings must be aware of the implications and import of these choices. She wants them informed, not indoctrinated. Stop drifting, she says, and start choosing – even in your twenties. Especially then.

It’s a powerful tale. The clock is ticking, and if you choose not to make the most of your time, you may not get it back later. There is a fatalism in this which may not endear the book to older readers, whose lived experience will be as diverse and contrary as can be imagined. But for all the twenty-somethings out there, this isn’t simply a set of principles, or a process. It might just be the call to action you’ve been waiting for.

Do you agree with this advice? Share it with the twenty-somethings you know.

Luke Power is a writer and English language teacher living on the west coast of Ireland. He writes variously, including fiction, poetry and reviews.

Image credit: Pexels


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  • David Page
    commented 2024-04-23 08:57:47 +1000
    I would point out that Jordan Peterson is a drug addict. I applaud what works for him, but I doubt if it has legs.
  • Luke Power