It’s not really possible to waste your twenties

So, my friend posted this TED Talk on her facebook and I am going to write about it, even though it feels viscerally wrong to call attention to TED in any way, because I am bored and I have opinions.

The talk is all about how twentysomethings shouldn’t treat the decade as a throw-away time, but should be going ahead and getting their lives in order.

As someone whose life is roughly half-ordered, I have mixed feelings about this. I do think that experimentation and exploration are a bit overrated. It’s not possible to keep your options open, because when you try to keep your option open, you foreclose the option of becoming more specialized. When you change cities, you foreclose the option of becoming very entrenched in one city and one community. When you change fields, you foreclose the option of moving ahead in the one that you left.

Furthermore, even if you don’t actually move or change fields, maintaining the mindset that you’re going to move leads to behaviors that hinder your progress. You pass up opportunities to make new contacts, meet new people, gain relevant skills, etc, because you view your current situation as fundamentally temporary.

I know that in my own life, I’m extremely happy that I chose to pursue writing in a serious way. After the fact, it seems like the obvious choice: it’s the thing that gives me the mot satisfaction and interests me the most. However, when I started out, it wasn’t like that. It gave me zero reward and it was almost painful to do. Moving forward with it in a serious way was a conscious choice, and I consciously gave up other opportunities in order to do so. To a large extent, the satisfaction came as after the choice; not before it.

That’s how it is in life. When you start doing something, your brain rarely screams out: “This is what you NEED to do!”

Instead, you get all this very murky data: these hints and glimmers of what you might someday be able to feel. But on the basis of those hints, you have to make major decisions that will affect the rest of your life…and it’s very possible to make the wrong decision. But if you want to get ahead, you do eventually just need to close your eyes and choose.

But where I disagree with this talk is that its premise seems to be that there are these life events and the key is getting things locked up, and then, what…things are easier? You’re happier?

That’s not true (and the available happiness research backs me up on this). Human psychology militates against that kind of contentment. Accomplishing shit and making money and surrounding yourself with the right people is something of a game. It feels good, and it’s fun to do, but it doesn’t provide lasting ease.

Nothing does.

In modern times, whenever you read about what people “ought” to do, the premise is that they ought to do it because it’ll make them happier. But that’s largely untrue. There’s very little that makes a human being happier for very long. Money doesn’t do it. Love does, but only for a few years. Children really don’t do it (having children tends to make people unhappier).

So, given that, the real stakes in life are fairly low. There’s no such thing as wasting time or wasting your twenties. No matter what you do, it’s still a decade that you live through, and it’ll still be pretty much just as happy or sad as any other decade of your life.

4 thoughts on “It’s not really possible to waste your twenties

  1. Bridgesburning Chris King

    Great post. I think in addition to your logic is the the point that all things TED while interesting are not necessarily true. And I also agree that there is no such thing as wasting a decade. All roads lead somewhere and we are what we are through experience good and bad.

  2. xan

    I’m sympathetic to the existing happiness research, though I feel it leaves something to be desired. They are largely forced to ask people to self-report their happiness on a scale of 1 to 10. (I’m not sure it would be possible for them to do much better, given the current state of technology, though).

    The problem with asking people of different wealth (say) about their happiness — or for that matter asking the same person at different times — is that we can’t distinguish between changes in happiness and changes in the scale. And really, why should the scale stay constant when everything else changes? In particular, there are systematic reasons why we might expect the scale to change in exactly the wrong way (when you get happier, you might readjust the meaning of ‘8/10’ to refer to the new 80th percentile of your emotions).

    That said, I think it’s pretty true that we expect changes to be longer-lasting than they are, and that increased happiness is largely subdued by subsequent adjustments in our expectations. There are good biological and evolutionary reasons to believe that when we start to do better, our most basic internal reward mechanisms adjust to establish a new baseline.

    However, here are a couple observations:

    First, I have never seen a study that attempted to measure happiness as a function of *slope* rather than level. It could be that people who are constantly making progress are happier than people who are just sitting in place. The absolute level doesn’t seem to be very important for happiness, but the feeling of making progress is very satisfying and might sustain a constantly higher level of happiness.

    Second, this is all a discussion of happiness at a moment in time. But, if you like living, you should also seriously consider the fact that material prosperity can buy you many more days of life, and thus many more total days of happiness, even if it doesn’t have any effect whatsoever on your daily happiness.

    1. R. H. Kanakia

      Curses, Xan. Always chiming in with your dismal SCIENCE!!!

      Yes, I agree with your points. There’s a whole philosophical / neurological argument about how to measure the nature and intensity of subjective experiences. You’re basically saying that one person’s 8 might FEEL better than another person’s 8. Or that the intensity of an 8 might increase or decrease according to circumstances. I am sympathetic with that.

      For myself, I am fairly certain that I HAVE increased my overall happiness over the course of my life. In my case, it was almost entirely a result of quitting drinking, which, to me, seems to have restored the level of happiness that I felt in high school. So I am not entirely committed to the notion that happiness is unalterable. I’m like you, I think it’s just less alterable than we like to believe it is.

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