Our 20s Matter
Part 3: The Brain and the Body
2020-11-26 14:00:00 -0600

Table of Contents


The Last Piece of the Puzzle

Okay. We’re onto our last section of three when it comes to looking at why our 20s are a critical time in our lives. Let’s do a recap of the initial bullet points I developed in our first blog post:

When people think of their 20s, what do they think of? I know what I used to think of:

  • fun
  • getting a decent job in a bustling city, maybe around age 26–28
  • falling in love and having a rollercoaster romance
  • more fun

We’ve talked about our second bullet point in the Work blog post, and we’ve talked about the third bullet point in the Love blog post. Although it might be enjoyable to read, I actually won’t discuss the first and last bullet points. The reason for this is because our 20s are about having fun! We have less responsibilities now than we probably will in the future (when we have families, mortgages, etc), and for potentially the first time ever, we have our own money that we can spend on things like going out to eat, sports/theater/entertainment, vacations, etc. Of course we should have fun while we can (while of course planning for our future). So, if we’re not talking about bullet points 1 and/or 4, then what is this blog post about?

Well, as you might’ve picked up from the title of this blog post, this will be about our brains and our bodies. Therefore, this blog post will cover how our body continues to grow and change throughout our 20s, and why that’s important, based on The Defining Decade, by Meg Jay.


We’re All Grown Up… But We’re Really Not

When we’re a kid, we’re all told we’re not an adult until we turn 18. We can vote at 18. We can sign up for the military. We can buy tobacco and lottery tickets. We can be tried as an adult. The weird one is drinking, which for some reason, we can’t do until we turn 21. But the truth is, 18 is nowhere near fully grown up…. at least in terms of our brain development.

There’s been lots of research done to indicate that our brains don’t stop growing until we’re in our 20s (just look at the National Library of Medicine, research from the UMN Rochester, and research from NPR). The reason why our brains don’t finish developing is that there’s two core sections of the brain. The part by the back of our heads, by our spine, controls vital human functions, such as hunger, sleep, emotions, pleasure, etc. This primal part of our brain develops first. The frontal part of our brain, right behind our forehead, is the “executive functioning” of our brain. It’s what manages emotions, and is also responsible for reason and judgment. This is why, statistically, teenagers are in more car accidents than adults; their executive brain has not fully developed. And it’s the executive part of our brain which develops last.

But the frontal lobe is also where humans process probability, time, and uncertainty. This is why so many young adults in their 20s struggle to plan for their futures. They’re unable to think in logical steps, aka to make a decision based on the potential outcomes and consequences. “They find it difficult to see an abstract goal in terms of the concrete steps needed to reach it” (page 136).

So if all 20 year olds’ brains are still developing, then doesn’t it make sense to wait to start our lives until the 30s? That way we could just have fun and have a good time now, and then get serious when our brains can handle it. Well, it turns out, it doesn’t really work like that. Forward thinking doesn’t just develop with age; it develops with practice and experience, too. This is why some people in their 20s are incredibly future-oriented and self-possessed already.

But those people who are already future-oriented don’t physically have bigger heads than everybody else. Furthermore, young adults have most likely been the same height and head-size since they were teenagers. So if their brain is still developing, what’s changing to result in this growth? The answer: neurons. Intelligence and maturity are partially measured by the amount of neurons that are firing. Children (young children, I mean toddlers) have an immense growth spurt in terms of the amount of connections their brains are making. This is why they say the best time to learn a language is in childhood. But it turns out, there’s a second growth spurt, somewhere between the mid-teens and the mid-20s. This means thousands of new connections are growing at a rapid pace, “exponentially increasing our capacity for new learning” (page 140).

What is our brain learning about? This time, it’s our frontal lobe’s chance to learn (instead of the back part of the brain). And this time, we’re learning about adulthood. How to prepare for uncertainty, how to handle emotions, how to find a career, how to live and work with a partner and family, etc. This time of our lives is preparing us for adulthood. “[The] jobs we have and the company we keep are rewiring our frontal lobes—and these 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” (page 141).

Our 20s is a time of great opportunity. We can learn new things and form who we’re going to be in the future. But it also is a time of risk. As Jay writes on page 141: “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.”

Twentysomethings who use their brains by engaging with good jobs and real relationships are learning the language of adulthood just when their brains are primed to learn it. […] Twentysomethings who don’t use their brains become thirtysomethings who feel behind as professionals and as partners—and as people, and they miss out on making the most of life still to come.


Happiness: Inside Out and Outside In


Inside Out

In one of my previous blog posts, titled 2020: A New Years Resolution on Positivity, I commented on how our brains tend to remember the bad emotions more vividly than the good emotions, aka it takes more good things to overshadow a single bad thing. The truth is same for our 20s. In my first three years at my first full-time job, I remember at least twice going into the bathroom to cry by myself when I screwed up. And considering what some 20 year olds experience at their jobs, I’d count myself lucky. But I don’t have a count of all the times I did something well. Whenever I’d go in for a 1-on-1 meeting with my boss and receive a compliment, I’d be surprised; I didn’t realize I did that well, I just… did it.

The truth is that our brains are wired to prepare us for the unknown, to remember things that went wrong for us so that we don’t make those mistakes again. But our brains don’t really compliment us when we do things right. And for 20 year olds, this is taken to the extreme. “Twentysomethings take these difficult moments particularly hard. Compared to older adults, they find negative information—the bad news—more memorable than positive information—or the good news.”

Jay points out that 20 year olds tend to get angry easier than older adults. I will be the first to say that I do tend to get angry about little stuff sometimes. On page 150, she writes:

When twentysomethings have their competence criticized, they become anxious and angry. They are tempted to march in and take action. They generate negative feelings toward others and obsess about why: “Why did my boss say that? Why doesn’t my boss like me?” Taking work so intensely personally can make a forty-hour workweek long indeed.

The truth is that this is valid for almost everything. Somebody posts something on Facebook that offends me? I get defensive. Somebody says something that sort of makes me feel like they’re saying what I think is stupid? I get upset and suddenly want them to agree with everything I say. But the reality is the “art of being wise is knowing what to overlook” (not my quote, or Jay’s quote, it’s actually William James’ quote). Pretty much, not everything is worth getting all worked up about. The trick is to recognize which things are worth getting worked up about, and being willing to change them, and realizing what isn’t worth getting worked up about, and then just taking a chill pill.

What Jay recommends to help 20 year olds is to practice reappraising situations. When somebody has a problem at work, or in their personal life, reappraise its value. Is what happened solvable? You may need to ask your boss or a mentor for help, but it’s probably not permanent. If it’s solvable, then it’s not worth losing too much sleep over. “Reappraising lessens, and even prevents, bad feelings” (page 154). And less bad feelings… equals more happiness. More contentment with how our lives actually are right now, and more perspective that whatever we feel like is so terrible… it actually could be worse; our life isn’t that bad.

I don’t want my readers to think I’m an angel, because I’m not. I get mad and upset just like everybody else. I have stressful days at work where I just feel like punching my desk. I’ve driven while angry before. I previously admitted I’ve even sat on the bathroom floor and cried into my arms before (although now I work from home, so these days I just lay on my bed and sob into a pillow). I say and write embarrassing things, and sometimes feel like the world is going to end, just like everyone else. But now, instead of letting those horrible things ruin my day, I realize that every problem can be solved, and it’s all going to be okay. As one of my mentors once told me: “Don’t let anyone or anything ruin my day”.


Outside In

How many of us have looked at ourselves in our jobs and just thought “Why on earth did they hire me? I have no idea what I’m doing?!” Well, I definitely have! And it turns out, I’m not alone. The truth is that many 20 year olds have a lack of confidence. “Twentysomethings who don’t feel anxious and incompetent at work are usually overconfident or underemployed” (page 147). And I have a guess that an increase in confidence would make most people a little bit happier.

Well, according to Jay, “[confidence] doesn’t come from the inside out. It moves from the outside in” (page 159). When we have successes that we can point to—things we’ve done well—we’re more likely to realize for ourselves that we’re capable. Confidence comes from a mastery at what we do. And how do we achieve mastery? By putting time and experience into our work. I don’t just mean our career-work, although this principle applies to our careers. This can be carried over into anything: making friends, forming relationships, etc.

For example, if I was to start making this website my first year of college (and therefore my first year of coding classes), there’s no way I could do it. I’d be overwhelmed and frustrated within a day. But now that I’ve been coding for six years, it comes faster and more intuitively. Every day I’m amazed at how well I’ve been picking up my new job, especially since that wasn’t my experience at my first job (long learning curve). But the truth is that the past three years I’ve been working full-time, I’ve refined my skills, and my work is starting to come easier for me. I’m not a genius. I’ve worked hard for several years… and that pays off.

Confidence is basically just self-efficacy: one’s ability to be effective or produce the desired result. Confidence is trusting yourself to be able to get the job done. And that trust can only come from having gotten the job done many times before. However, if the job isn’t challenging, then it won’t increase your confidence. This is why we get so much more satisfaction and reward from completing something difficult than for doing something easy (whatever an “easy” thing might be for you).

For success to lead to confidence, our work must require some sort of effort, and we can’t just be carried along by our coworkers all the time; we need to prove to ourselves that we can do it. And sometimes, we need to mess up. As Jay says, “[a] long run of successes creates a sort of fragile confidence, the kind that is shattered when the first failure comes along” (page 160). This is why I have so much more confidence in my work now: I’ve done well many times before, but I’ve also screwed up, and learned from those mistakes.

So how much time should we be expecting to put in in order to master our work? Jay says about ten thousand hours. Uffda. How long is ten thousand hours? Well, that’s about five years of full-time work, or around 7–10 years of maybe a graduate program or part-time work. So yes, 20 year olds aren’t masters yet, and anybody that thinks they are probably just have some fragile confidence. The truth is that 20 year olds must put in the time and effort required in order to gain a mastery of their skills, and with that mastery will come more confidence.


And You Thought Math Didn’t Matter

When I was a senior in college, a friend brought up a concept to me called relative time. The idea (from an overview) is that we measure time based on how much time we’ve already lived. This why our grandparents always pinched our cheeks and said “I remember just yesterday, you were this tall” while holding their hand up to their knee. It’s because your grandparents have lived so many more years than you, that a single day of their life is a smaller percentage than a single day of an eight year old’s life.

As soon as my friend explained the concept to me, I was amazed. I suddenly understood why my sophomore year of college “went by faster” than my freshman year. And it’s unfortunate: the older we get, the more we come to appreciate the time we have, yet the less time it feels like we do have to use. And the scary thing about relative time is that it never ends. I learned about relative time when I was 21, and suddenly so much made sense. But now I’m 25, and it’s still going on. As each month passes, I’m amazed by how fast my life is flying by. Just the other day I was singing Taylor Swift’s 22 to myself on my 22nd birthday, and now I’m 25. The older I get, the more of my life is done (it seems obvious when you say it out loud, but it feels more like an existential crisis).

Relative time is one of the reasons why adults in their 20s oftentimes fail to plan for when they’re older. They make all of these long-term goals, but never split them up into actionable items with a timeline. They know they want to do X, Y, and Z by age 40, but don’t want to start thinking about doing them until they’re 35, at which point it’s already too late or they’ll be stressed out trying to do all three goals at once. The other reason young adults may have trouble planning is present bias. Present bias is the idea that we should focus on the rewards of now instead of the potential rewards of later (even if the later rewards will be bigger). An example would be buying a new luxury item (such as an expensive purse or video game) now, instead of saving our money for a new car in three years (when the car will most likely help your life more, after your current car breaks down). This is one reason why people in their 20s would rather have more spare change in their pocket now rather than save for retirement. People in their 20s have a harder time preparing and planning for themselves in the future.

I’m not saying you need to suddenly go hard-core and invest everything. The truth is, you want some money in a 401k to set you up for retirement, but you also want some money now, so that you can go out with friends, treat yourself to a nice dinner, or go on vacation. It’s a happy medium. Just make sure you do your math right. Don’t expect to have 40 years of 401k savings, and then not put any money into your 401k until you’re 40 years old. Don’t expect to have three kids, a law degree, and a consistent job as a lawyer by the time you’re 38 if you’re already 29, don’t have a solid relationship, don’t feel like going back to school yet, and are working as a barista (not that this isn’t possible, but just unlikely).

Do your math. Set up a timeline. Figure out where you want to be when you’re 60, or 40, and work backwards. What actions do you need to take now in order to ensure you can meet your long-term goals?

As an example, I’ve begun working through the Motherhood: Is It For Me? program, to figure out if motherhood is something I may want someday. I’m only 25, so right now I do have time, but my 20s are passing by faster than any other years in my life. And if I decide not to take parenthood seriously now, but want to eventually, I could be wasting years of opportunity (either in work, love, or my brain and body) that I won’t ever get back. I’ve changed my 401k elections to help boost my retirement, and I recently purchased my first stock (although I’ve only made about $400 so far). I may only be in my mid-20s, but time won’t stop just because I may want it to. Our 20s are valuable to us, because as Jay puts it, “[our] twenties are when we have to start creating our own sense of time, our own plans about how the years ahead will unfold” (page 197).


Our Bodies at their Prime

When I was around 22 or 23, I saw on Facebook that one of my friends from college was expecting a child. She had married her husband pretty much within a year after graduation from college, and now they’re a family of three. At this point, her son is around two years old. But at that moment, when I learned she was pregnant, I was stunned. I didn’t think of myself as “child age”. I still felt like a kid myself. I had freedoms and hardly any responsibility (except a job that I went to and a landlord to pay). It was hard to imagine that somebody my age could be ready to attempt to keep a baby alive. My point is, some people have this innate desire to have children quickly. They know they want to be parents, and are ready to hop on that train as soon as they’re able to and it makes sense. Others…. feel differently. There’s nothing wrong with those feelings (after all, I’m the person that’s scared of holding babies and is nowhere near wanting kids). But, it’s important for me to remember that I’m 25… and I won’t be 25 forever.

This isn’t just a story for the women out there, but for the men, too. In several studies, “older sperm may be associated with various neurocognitive problems, including autism, schizophrenia, dyslexia, and lower intelligence” (page 177). It’s important for both sexes of future parents to know that there is a timeline, and it’s ticking away for everyone.

There are many young adults who feel that they want children, but that kids shouldn’t happen until work and love are already “figured out” (if that was a thing) and consistent. And because adults are living longer and marrying later, it doesn’t seem like there’s a rush to have kids in our 20s. However, the truth is that, as soon as womens’ bodies hit age 35, the probability of getting pregnant decreases significantly. Of course, we all hear those stories about women that are getting pregnant later, and if they’re celebrities, it makes the front pages of magazines. But the truth is that those women probably underwent fertility treatments, have been trying to get pregnant for a while, and possibly had a few miscarriages in there as well.

Women’s fertility peaks in the 20s. The most fertile any woman will be is when they’re in their late 20s. Around ages 30 and 35, there’s a drop in fertility, and around age 40, fertility will drop significantly. Our (because I’m a woman) egg quality will decrease and our endocrine system becomes less effective… menopause, anyone? As Jay writes, “[lower-quality] eggs have trouble implanting and maturing. Even good eggs can be derailed by hormones gone awry” (page 180). Basically, less pregnancy, more miscarriages.

Let’s look at some numbers:

Compared to their twentysomething selves, women are about half as fertile at thirty, one-quarter as fertile at thirty-five, and one-eighth as fertile at forty.

Trying to conceive a baby naturally results in about a 20–25% chance of conception for mid-20 year olds. That drops to about 5% at age 40, 3% at age 41, and 2% at 42. And that’s pretty small likelihoods. So what about fertility treatments? Yeah, those are an option. The average cost of fertility treatments for a couple in their 20s is about $25,000. Expensive, but not unmanageable, given the fact you’re about to bring a child into your life for the next 18 years. By age 35, that cost has risen to about $35,000… a nice car. But if you’re 40 years old, it can cost an average of $100,000 for a live birth. If you’re 42, the average increases to $300,000. This is why so many celebrities get pregnant at later ages; they can afford the fertility treatments.

However, even if you were a celebrity who had $2 million, the likelihood of these fertility treatments working is quite low. After age 35, intrauterine insemination only has a 5–10% of success. In vitro fertilization has a 10–20% chance of properly working. In fact, the likelihood of treatments working with older women are so low that many clinics won’t work with women in their mid-40s; “the failed attempts bring down the success rates the clinics are able to advertise” (page 182).

Waiting longer to have children isn’t just a biological issue either. It can affect marriages and relationships. If a relationship formed later, and therefore marriage happened later, then couples may feel rushed to try to push out children right away. And studies have found that this strains marriages. Jumping right from a happy partnership and wedding to insemination kits, expensive fertility treatments, and miscarriages thrusts couples into “what research shows are typically the most strained years of marriage” (page 184). And, hint hint, that’s not good for either your marriage or your happiness. And if this is also colliding with your peak earning years from a career perspective, you’re bound to have conflicting interests.

Furthermore, if you are lucky enough to birthe a child and start your family, then you’ve got to think about who will help take care of your kids. If your parents waited until their late 30s to have children, and you’re now 40, your parents are going to be in the mid-70s when you’re raising toddlers. If you’re lucky, your parents will still have enough energy and ability to help out with childrearing, but it’s quite possible they won’t. 75 years ago, grandparents were 50. Now, they’re 70. And those 20 years make a difference. They say it takes a village to raise a child. Well, the longer you wait to have kids, the more likely your village will be smaller.

Here’s a different perspective. If you’ve been waiting to start your career, then it’s possible that by the time you’re in your 30s, you finally feel like you’re making something of yourself. Maybe you finally have a job you’re proud of, and you’re finally making enough money to be able to put consistent money into a savings account. Well, each child is estimated to cost around $284,570 per child up until age 18. That’s a quarter of a million dollars over 18 years. That’s a middle class family, too. If you’re expecting family vacations, summer camps, sports, private schooling, etc, then your numbers will be even higher. If your finances are just getting in shape now (or aren’t yet), then having children is just going to strain your wallet even more. This’ll give you more motivation to work harder and longer hours. But then, you’re missing out on being with your family, which is one of the core reasons why people want children; they want to spend time with a loving family.

My point is, with both this blog post section and with all three blog posts, from every angle you look at your 20s, there’s motivation to start now. By starting in your 20s, you’ve got everything to gain. You’ve got opportunities, growing experiences, a chance for love, time and energy to master your work, and the possibility to plan for your futures. But by waiting until your 30s to even think about a long-term career, relationships, or families, you’re potentially risking everything. The choices you make today are writing your story, rewiring your brain, and forming your life for years to come. That may be scary, but it’s also exciting. It means you’re finally in the driver’s seat, a place where so many of us wanted to be for years when we were kids. You finally can choose where to go, the trick is to be able to navigate through the bad weather. And if you don’t start driving now for fear of getting lost, you’ll never explore anywhere new.