When psychologist Meg Jay's TED Talk, "Why 30 Isn't the New 20"—in which she essentially asserted that your 20s are not a throwaway decade and that today's 20-somethings don't take their 20s seriously enough—hit the Internet last week, people started buzzing: Is she right? Is she being too simplistic and overly rigid? Is she putting more stress on an already-stressed out generation of young adults?
Jay starts out by saying that she hears many clients (especially women) say things like, "Well, this relationship isn't great, but I'm just killing time" or "I'll just bartend for now, and as long as I figure out my career by the time I'm 30, I'll be okay." But then, Jay goes on to say, these women come to her when they reach their early 30s and say, "I've got nothing to show for my 20s. What was I doing? What was I thinking? Uh-oh."
Uh-oh, indeed. There's been no shortage of articles written that bemoan the lack of work ethic among 20-somethings or analyze the reasons why millenials can't (or won't) grow up, so Jay isn't necessarily saying anything new, but hearing it couched in terms of statistics ("80 percent of life's most defining moments take place by age 35" and "We know that the first 10 years of a career has an exponential impact on how much money you're going to earn") certainly drives home the point that there's no time to waste on establishing both your professional and personal lives as soon as possible. So what's a confused 20-something to do?
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First off, don't panic, says LinkedIn career expert and author Nicole Williams. But your 20s are a good time to start thinking seriously about what you want. This doesn't mean you can't have any fun or you won't make any mistakes or that you won't ever change your mind about anything, but it's a good idea for two reasons: One, you probably have fewer obligations, and two, the earlier you start thinking about what you want, the more leverage you'll have as you get older, especially careerwise.
"Your 20s are actually a great time for career exploration," Williams says. "Because you're young, people often really want to help you. It's also the best time to take the greatest career risks—most likely, you don't have a mortgage, you don't have kids. It's a good time to try something significant. Even if you fail, you have time to rebound."
One criticism of Jay's TED Talk is that she's putting too much emphasis on moving ahead in your career or finding the perfect partner as soon as possible, which are all valid points (after all, not everyone wants to be CEO of the next Facebook and not everyone plans to get married or have children), but those criticisms miss the broader point that it seems Jay is trying to make: It's not necessarily what you do in your 20s, it's how you do it. "I am not discounting 20-something exploration here," Jay says. "But I am discounting exploration that's not supposed to count—which, by the way, isn't exploration. It's procrastination."
If traveling the world is what you want to do during your 20s, do it. If you want to learn a language, do it. If you want to launch a startup, do it. But whatever you choose, be mindful of it.
"Think of it in terms of, 'How can I intentionally move myself toward my goals?'" says Cali Williams Yost, author of Work+Life: Finding the Fit that's Right for You. "If you don't know where to start, sit down and think about it: Do you want to live in a particular city? Be the head of a division at your work? Learn a language? Everybody starts somewhere. The important thing is to be intentional about what you do. Try not to let 10 years go by without realizing it."
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Yost suggests having a regular check-in with yourself wherein you sit down and ask: What do I want? Where am I going? But before you start hyperventilating, think about this: Both Yost and Williams emphasize that it's never too late to start over: "Your 30s are not old," Yost says. "You may change your mind about something in your 30s and again in your 40s. Every time this happens, you'll have a new skill that you can take to the next job or step."
Your life doesn't stop at 30, Williams says. "You can always learn, grow, or produce."
Gretchen Rubins, author of The Happiness Project says in her book that she was riding a bus in Manhattan one day when it hit her that "the days are long, but the years are short." Really living life will look different to everyone; so too does everybody's definition of career or professional success differ. But the main thing that Jay, Williams, and Yost agree on is this: Time is cheap. It runs out for everyone, so try to make the most of the time you have as often as possible.