As “neurons that fire together, wire together,” the jobs we have and the company we keep are rewiring our frontal lobes—and these same frontal lobes are, in turn, making our decisions in the office and on Saturday nights. Back and forth it goes, as work and love and the brain knit together in the twenties to make us into the adults we want to be in our thirties and beyond.
Because our twenties are the capstone of this last critical period, they are, as one neurologist said, a time of “great risk and great opportunity.” The post-twentysomething brain is still plastic, of course, but the opportunity is that never again in our lifetime will the brain offer up countless new connections and see what we make of them. Never again will we be so quick to learn new things. Never again will it be so easy to become the people we hope to be. The risk is that we may not act now.
In a use-it-or-lose-it fashion, the new frontal lobe connections we use are preserved and quickened; those we don’t use just waste away through pruning. 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.”
— Meg Jay, The Defining Decade
As someone who is well into her 20s, working a dead-end job and feeling frustratedly stuck in life, I consider Meg Jay’s The Defining Decade to be an absolute godsend as well as a very startling wake-up call. (Not unlike Jimmy Kimmel’s by Michelle Obama.) Jay has thoroughly convinced me that the twenties are an absolutely foundational period in life, and as such should not be spent thoughtlessly as unfortunately so many of us do. (Myself included.) One of the most striking things that I’ve read so far is the passage above. Jay explains that much like an infant, a twentysomething’s brain undergoes a growth spurt. But instead of growing in size, it grows in neuron activity. This growth actually begins in adolescence, and fades by your 30s, which is why wise people have told us time and time again to take advantage of our youth by learning as much as we can during this time. While it’s true that the human brain is still capable of learning new things all the time, it’s unquestionably harder as we grow older. Jay underscores this when she says, “never again.” It’s also harder to change as a person when we’re older, as habits have solidified by perpetual practice during our ‘teens and 20s.
I admit, I was really emotional after reading the above this morning. But I’ve since calmed down, replacing my initial despair with the resolve to revitalize my life. I’m 26 this year, turning 27. I’ve already lost more than six years to laziness and distraction. But I still count myself lucky. I have a little more than three years left, and I’m going to use them well.
Some initial goals that I’ve drafted up:
♦ Read widely & with purpose — Instead of reading purely for entertainment, which has been my mindset for many, many years, I will read with the intent to actively learn. I will include more non-fiction into my diet, as well as foreign fiction, and challenging novels that I used to shy away from.
♦ Practice & improve my Mandarin — Although my boss thinks otherwise, my Mandarin really is atrocious. I wasn’t kidding when I tweeted that I firmly believe a 5-year-old Chinese native would be able to hold a better conversation than me. Since I can’t stand c-pop, I’m thinking of watching Chinese and Taiwanese films, as a way to give my ears more exposure to the language. I’ll also need to find people with which to practice. Parents, definitely. Friends, maybe.
♦ Embrace small talk — Ugh, small talk. I hate it. I never saw the point to it. But I do realize now that it’s necessary to engage in sometimes. Therefore, will need to embrace it and practice it. This is another motivation for consuming more non-fiction. There’s only so many questions that you can ask a person before the conversation begins to uncomfortably resemble an interrogation. And really, who the heck cares about the weather? We’re in California; it’s temperate year round! Better to say, “So, I was reading the other day…” and introduce some tidbit you mined from a book that you think might interest the other person. Boom, conversation! Plus, cool points for reading something interesting.
♦ Travel — This is more of a wish than a goal at this point, since the bank account right now can’t exactly afford the luxury, but I’m putting it here anyway.
♦ Get back into the hunt — For jobs, that is. My work situation isn’t going to change until I change it. And I can’t change it if I don’t put in the necessary elbow grease. It’s tedious, yes, and discouraging most times, but I have to do it, and I have to KEEP on doing it. No buts.
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Readers — Have you read The Defining Decade? If so, what did you think? Or has there been anything that has really challenged you, or changed the way you’ve thought about something?