Last week, after watching Dr. Meg Jay's TED Talk, "Why 30 Is Not The New 20," where she outlined reasons why women need to do better in their 20s, all of us here at R29 HQ could have benefited from a good therapy session. In an age of questioning whether women can have it all, leaning in, and occasionally, suggestions that women try harder to find husbands, the clinical psychologist's thesis felt appropriately timed. But this talk was different: Dr. Jay makes some very solid points, but she also pushes our buttons, big-time — especially the panic one.
Based on where we are in life, we had some varied personal reactions to the talk. But no matter our age, we all agreed on one thing: We need to live more and worry less, not add more pressure to do more and get further ahead while we're younger. Hit play above for the entire talk, then click through to see three different editors (in three different decades) hash out their very personal reactions — and then share your own in the comments!
Video: Courtesy of TED
I want to know what Meg Jay would say to me if I came to her office. I think she'd probably tell me to calm down before I give myself an ulcer. This TED Talk is just what I needed to officially turn me into a sloppy pile of tearful, entirely hypothetical worries and fears.
I think it's safe to assume that Dr. Jay is speaking to a fairly niche segment of American twenty-somethings. You have to have a certain amount of privilege, both monetary and educational — whether you were born into it or you earned it, though I imagine many of her patients belong to the former subset — to find yourself among her clientele. Thinking incessantly about your life, your identity, and your future, and going to therapy to talk about it even more, are luxuries. I count myself among that group, and I think that looking at my own life and the lives of my friends, there's no shortage of pressure to get your life together before the day you graduate college. I'm sure there are plenty of people, like the women Jay mentions in her talk, who embody the "I'll deal with it later" attitude she's talking about, and it's no good to shift an entire decade worth of pressures and goals to your 30s. But, I personally feel like I have the opposite problem. My family's high expectations, as well as the media's, have taught me that I need to "have it all," as much as I hate that phrase. I want to have tons of friends (hey, guys); an awesome, fulfilling, creative job (check); experiences with many different boyfriends (not so much); and a thoughtful inner-life where I write poetry and learn how to play the piano (I can't even keep up a diary). But with all the time I spend worrying about it all, I feel like I'll never be satisfied with any of it, at least not all at once.
And let me tell you, it's crippling. I've barely been out of college for a year, and for some ridiculous reason, I already have the sinking feeling that I will regret every moment of my life when I'm 40. I hope that's not true, and I know for a fact that worrying about it constantly is only increasing the possibility that my hand-wringing prophecy will be fulfilled. Maybe I do need to be more intentional, but not in the way she's suggesting. Instead of killing time, I feel like I'm eating it up at an alarming rate, and because I'm unable to separate my millions of daydreams of various incarnations of a fabulous life from the reality of what's possible, I feel like I'm flailing, even when in many peoples' eyes, I've accomplished a lot.
It's not that I don't appreciate what she's saying, but honestly, I don't think it's advice for 20-somethings. I think it's advice for people in general. I know plenty of full-grown adults in their 30s, 40s, 50s, and 60s who've been guilty of the same "benign indifference" to their own lives, doing what's easiest instead of what's best (not to mention the fact that the "best" thing, or as Jay puts it, the thing that's of the most "value" to your life, is subjective not only from person to person but from year to year). That's not a modern millennial problem; it's a human problem. We're a lazy species and it takes a lifetime of day-to-day self improvement and introspection to change that. The advice I really need, right now, is to calm down and stop thinking about the future — because nobody gets to the future without living through the present first.
Illustrated by Ammiel Mendoza
The thing about all of these women talking about being more purposeful in your 20s and making them really count is that they seem totally divorced from the reality of what the 20s actually were: a time to figure out what you don't want, and to make so many of those mistakes that you have to make in order to learn a few things the hard way. Sure, it's not a throwaway decade, but it's also not mandatory that you find "the one" or "pick your family" or "decide your life," ahead of turning 30. I didn't. And I feel pretty okay about it.
I spent my 20s dating the wrong guys, but not because I didn't think it mattered — because at the time, those were the guys I really wanted to be with. As I got older, and my needs changed and clarified, I figured out what the right guys looked like. But not without a great deal of help from those earlier "mistakes." At the same time, I was obsessed with my career. I worked long hours in every job I had, strove to be exceptional — the best writer, editor, or assistant on the staff and in the building — and was perpetually terrified that it wouldn't all work out. That I'd never meet the right guy or get promoted into the job that would make me happy. And talks like this one just exacerbate that feeling. Which is my prime complaint here.
Here's the thing: I stayed out late and drank too much and made my fair share of mistakes in my 20s. But I also worked hard, and cared deeply about my future. The two aren't mutually exclusive. Case in point: Ahead of our 30th birthdays, my closest friends and I did a sort of cheesy self-help thing. We made lists of the 29 accomplishments from our lives so far that made us most proud. Some of the items on the list were silly, while others were powerful and inspiring, but they all reflected lives that had both purpose and fun. And after that, 30 really did feel like a milestone. A beginning of a second phase of adulthood. And I felt happy and excited and intentional going into it.
And now, a year and half later, I still feel all of those things. Dr. Jay's talk doesn't make me feel like I missed an opportunity to start my life on time, before all of my eggs dried up and I lost my appeal out in a theoretical marketplace. And it doesn't make me regret having a truly close-knit circle of friends who did take the place of partners and emergency contacts, in the times when I wasn't in a relationship. Dr. Jay's suggestion that best friends are only good for a ride to the airport, and that "twenty-somethings who huddle together with likeminded peers limit who they know, how they think, how they speak, and where they work" irks me to my core. Sure, a completely limited, narrow worldview is a bad thing. But having a close circle of people who support you and love you doesn't require that — great girlfriends, much like great relationships, enrich your life and help inspire you to branch out and experience new things, without feeling completely untethered in the process.
But, most importantly, I don't think you can just be more intentional and start your grown-up life earlier because someone told you to. You have to do it when you've figured out what you want your grown-up life to look like, after having failed at a few other tries at it. Unless of course, you're really lucky. But for some reason, the people giving these talks never address that.
Illustrated by Ammiel Mendoza
When Lexi, Neha, and I decided that we'd each write about Dr. Meg Jay's TED Talk, the image that immediately came to my mind was of me in my early 20s, in my East Village studio. It's Thursday night, after 11, and I'm cleaning out my closets, organizing my clothes by color, hair on top of my head, face mask drying to an itchy tightness. I'm attempting to balance my checkbook (ask your parents), while re-working magazine copy for Allure, where I'm a staff writer. I force myself to get to bed by 1 a.m. because I have to get up at 6 a.m. to go to the gym.
If I sound uptight and controlling, it's because I am. But please know I'm not a total drag. The Replacements are on at high volume, I've got a cute apartment lined with good books, lots of friends flopped on flea market furniture, a steady supply of decent wine, and every French beauty product known to Barneys in my bathroom. But I'm worried. I'm always worried. I'm petrified that all of this is going to go away, that I won't be able to afford New York forever, that I'll be alone — or even worse, the supreme nightmare — have to move back to Baltimore with no choice but to rot in my yellow-flower-wallpapered childhood room. Fear of failure shoves me onto the subway platform, bright and early.
Would Dr. Jay have given me an A if she had known me in the early '90s? Probably. I was driven, responsible, and focused. But, fear of f*cking up also held me hostage. Had I taken a few more (slightly) unaffordable trips, had the guts to dream up a new business or book idea or just lasted until last call, I would have lived more and worried less. When I think about my 20s, my mind's eye sees me re-stacking sweaters at 2 a.m. I'm trying to create order — a clear path. What a waste of time.
Do you cringe like I do when you hear Dr. Jay say, "the time to start picking your family is now"? It sounds very 1950s, doesn't it? I think if it were my TED Talk, I would have said that a little piece of every bad relationship or booty call stays with you forever. Learn from them — and fast.
But, I'm completely on board when she says that "claiming your 20s is the most important thing you can do." The stakes are high, and if you're 20-something and you think you've got nothing but time, you're downright delusional. Your 20s fly by faster than a Sex and the City rerun. They're a time to explore, to really live, and lay intentional groundwork for who you want to be. I often think of people I knew who, out of college, moved to ski towns instead of getting "real jobs." When some came back later to "start their lives," they didn't seem cool; they seemed out of it.
In my 40s, I can finally accept the truth: All of us are out of time, really. No matter what your number, when it's up, it's up. None of us know when. We should all look to the badass Buddhists who work to live every day as if it were their last. When's Pema Chödrön taking the TED stage? That's the the talk we all need to hear.
Illustrated by Ammiel Mendoza
Written by Lexi Nisita