Elizabeth Segran was 34 years old when it hit her. She had just gotten married and had her first child. After spending two hours getting her young daughter to bed, she looked into her living room, which was full of toys and covered in crushed blueberries.
"I looked at my husband, and I was like, 'What happened to our life?' " Segran says.
It wasn't that Segran's life wasn't good — just more settled. A bit more permanent.
"When I was in my 20s, life had felt so fluid and full of possibilities," she says. "And then all of a sudden, over the span of a few years, I had made decisions that I didn't even realize I was making at the time that had sort of set me on a trajectory that would be my life for the next 40 years."
Segran wanted to dig deeper to better understand how all her choices in her carefree 20s would lead her to her current life. The result is her book, The Rocket Years: How Your Twenties Launch the Rest of Your Life.
I talked with Segran right before the pandemic, but her advice that there's no one right path to achieving your goals still stands — and might be more true than ever. Even though life looks different now, there's still room to make more intentional life decisions when it comes to hobbies, friendships and careers.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Meghan Keane: What's a good mindset for people to have when starting your book?
Elizabeth Segran: I think it's really important for people to realize that there isn't just one right path in life. And this book is not trying to tell you which path to take or give you rules to follow. We're living in an age where we have more choice than any other generation before us. We have so much choice over who we marry, when we marry, if we have children, what kind of career to pursue and how we fill our time. We're surrounded with all of this choice that allows us to create the lifestyle that we want. And that is hugely empowering. But sometimes I think it can also feel a little paralyzing.
My book gives readers an opportunity to stop and think about what they really want out of life and what is really meaningful to them. Then, they can use some of that data to chart out a path that aligns with their desires. I think it would be a mistake to think that you've already missed the boat or you're doing it wrong, because there's really no such thing as the wrong way to do this.
You break up each chapter of your book into different arenas of life. So let's start with the first one, which is career. You talk about how the dream job is a totally new concept that has arisen recently. Is that right?
That's absolutely true. For most of human history, nobody had any real choice about what job they did. I looked at some data that showed 95% of older Gen Zers and millennials think finding a career is their most important objective in their 20s. In fact, it's much higher than finding a life partner or starting a family, which is a huge change from even 50 years ago — from our parents' generation.
What I think most people don't realize is that it actually takes between 10 and 15 years to find a job that really aligns with your skills and your values. And in that 10- to 15-year period, most people are job hopping a lot. The average American will have 12 jobs between the ages of 18 and 50, but half of those jobs will be in their 20s.
What's happening in that period and in each one of those jobs is that you're gathering information. Maybe you didn't have the skills necessary to pursue the job you had in mind. Maybe your skills are actually elsewhere. Or maybe you had lofty ideas about what a certain industry was going to be like, but in practice you're not actually getting to do the work that you find meaningful. All of that information is really valuable to getting that dream job.
What advice do you have for people in their 20s about things they shouldn't do in pursuit of a dream job? How can they make sure that they're not burning out in the hopes of finding a dream job?
Part of the problem with the idea of the dream job is that it's so much more than just a paycheck. Eighty-six percent of millennials say they would be willing to take a pay cut to work at a company whose mission and values align with their own. But I think the problem is that a lot of 20-somethings end up doing work that actually does not compensate them very well or offer good benefits. I think a job that doesn't compensate you for the work that you're doing is, by definition, not a dream job.
The other thing that I found is that a lot of millennials don't actually take any time off. And again, I think it comes back to this idea that people are so passionate about their work that they think they can just work remotely from their vacation because they don't want to miss anything or because they're worried about not moving forward in their career. But I think all of this will eventually lead to burnout and, I think, in the long term make them much less productive in the pursuit of your dream job.
I was really glad that you spent time seriously delving into why friendship is so important, especially in a person's 20s. Why are friendships so important at that time in a person's life? What's going on in a person's 20s when it comes to friends?
A lot of research shows that our circle of friends seems to peak at the age of 25. On the one hand, our 20s are this magical friend-making time — by the time we're in our mid-20s, the average person has about 18 close friends. But as you get older, that circle of friends begins to shrink. And there are many reasons for that. One is, you have less time; especially as you get married and start having children, it just becomes much harder to nurture your friendships.
What are the things that you can do to be more intentional about friendships in your 20s?
First of all, be aware of that drop-off. The next step is to figure out the friends that you really want to have in your life in the years to come. Be very intentional about the people that you want to stay in touch with. That doesn't mean that you necessarily have to see that friend every week like you did when you were in your 20s. The form of the friendship can be different.
Also, actively make new friends. Friend-making is actually a skill. Sociologists say that there are three steps that go into making a new friend. First, you need to be in physical proximity to the person. To best establish a friendship, you also need repeated and unplanned interactions with the person. And the final step is trying to maintain an emotional bond with that person.
You devote a whole chapter to hobbies and why the 20s are such a crucial period for picking a hobby. Why is it important for us to keep up hobbies as we get older?
It's just harder for our brains to learn new skills and new habits. And so the combination of these two things means that most people resist picking up new hobbies in their 30s and 40s and 50s. And the downside of all of this is that hobbies are really important because they allow us to pursue things outside of work and family and have a much more balanced life.
Some studies show that hobbies are actually really important to your mental and physical health. Some doctors recommend hobbies as an intervention for health and psychological problems. So actively think about the hobbies that you'd like to pick up in your 20s and actually create the time to pursue them, knowing that it will only get harder to adopt new habits later in life.
You talk about a lot of different other things in the book. You talk about fitness; you talk about marriage and family, faith and politics. We don't have time to get to all of those, unfortunately. But what's one tidbit of research from one of those topics that you keep coming back to?
One thing that I discovered is that people who are politically active in their 20s actually remain politically active throughout their whole lives. So people who go to protests, who vote and develop the skills they need to be part of the political process, tend to have much richer political lives later on.
Voting is a complex process, as I'm sure that many people listening to this will realize, and learning how to do that in your 20s isn't just great in your 20s — it has this huge impact on your political engagement later on in life.
How can people in their 20s balance a desire to achieve and also take the time to explore and try new things and maybe not get everything right all the time?
I think the main tension that most of us experience in our 20s is this feeling that on the one hand, we need to make good decisions because we have this limited amount of time to set ourselves on the right course, and on the other hand, it's a time to date lots of people, travel the world, quit a job and just explore what is out there for us. I think that most of us feel pulled in these two different directions when really they're both part of a really important process.
In my book, I describe it as purposeful exploration, because here's the thing — you need to make all these decisions in your 20s. But during those years, you're still getting to know who you are as a person and what the world is like. I think the pull to be a bit impulsive is a very valuable instinct because it helps us develop self-knowledge so when we eventually have to make a decision, we have more data at our fingertips that will allow us to make better decisions.
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The podcast portion of this story was produced by Clare Schneider, who also adapted the interview for digital.