The Defining Decade Why Your Twenties Matter--And How to Make the Most of Them Now
By Jay, Meg
Twelve Copyright © 2012 Jay, Meg
All right reserved. ISBN: 9780446561761
Adults don’t emerge. They’re made.
—Kay Hymowitz, social commentator
We are born not all at once, but by bits.
—Mary Antin, writer
Helen came to therapy because she was “having an identity crisis.” She moved from nanny job to yoga retreat and back again as she waited for what she called “that lightning bolt of intuition.” Helen always seemed dressed for an exercise class whether she was going to one or not and, for a time, her casual lifestyle was the envy of friends who had gone straight to the “real world,” or its runner-up, graduate school. She came, she went. She enjoyed life for a while.
But before long, Helen’s inner search for self became torturous. At twenty-seven, she felt as though the very friends who used to covet her adventures now pitied her. They were moving forward while she was pushing other people’s babies around town in strollers.
Helen’s parents had been specific about what college should be about: Tri-Delt and pre-med. All this despite the fact that Helen was a talented photographer who not-so-secretly wanted to major in art—and was not at all the sorority type. From her first semester, Helen hated pre-med classes and did poorly in them. She envied the interesting reading her friends were doing and grabbed every opportunity for artsy extracurriculars. After two years of suffering through biology requirements and packing her spare time with what she really enjoyed, Helen changed her major to art. Her parents said, “What are you going to do with that?”
After graduation, Helen tried her hand at freelance photography. Once the unpredictability of work began to affect her ability to pay her cell-phone bill, the life of an artist lost its luster. Without a pre-med degree, a clear future as a photographer, or even decent grades from college, Helen saw no way to move ahead. She wanted to stay in photography but wasn’t sure how. She started nannying, the checks flowed under the table, the years ticked by, and her parents said, “We told you so.”
Now Helen hoped that the right retreat or the right conversation in therapy or with friends might reveal, once and for all, who she was. Then, she said, she could get started on a life. I told her I wasn’t so sure, and that an extended period of navel-gazing is usually counterproductive for twentysomethings.
“But this is what I’m supposed to be doing,” Helen said.
“What is?” I asked.
“Having my crisis,” she replied.
“Says who?” I asked.
“I don’t know. Everybody. Books.”
“I think you’re misunderstanding what an identity crisis is and how you move out of one,” I said. “Have you ever heard of Erik Erikson?”
Erik Salomonsen was a blond-haired German boy, born to a dark-haired mother and to a father he never knew. On Erik’s third birthday, his mother married a local pediatrician who adopted Erik, making him Erik Homburger. They raised him in the Jewish tradition. At temple, Erik was teased for his fair complexion. At school, he was teased for being Jewish. Erik often felt confused about who he was.
After high school, Erik hoped to become an artist. He traveled around Europe, taking art classes and sometimes sleeping under bridges. At twenty-five, he returned to Germany and worked as an art teacher, studied Montessori education, got married, and started a family. After teaching the children of some very prominent psychoanalysts, Erik was analyzed by Sigmund Freud’s daughter Anna, and he went on to earn a degree in psychoanalysis.
In his thirties, Erik moved his family to the United States, where he became a famed psychoanalyst and developmental theorist. He taught at Harvard, Yale, and Berkeley and wrote several books before winning a Pulitzer Prize. Hinting at his feelings of fatherlessness and his status as a self-made man, he changed his name to Erik Erikson, meaning “Erik, son of himself.” Erik Erikson is best known for coining the term “identity crisis.” It was 1950.
Despite being a product of the twentieth century, Erikson lived the life of a twenty-first-century man. He grew up in a blended family. He faced questions of cultural identity. He spent his teens and twenties in search of himself. At a time when adult roles were as ready-made as TV dinners, Erikson’s experiences allowed him to imagine that an identity crisis was the norm, or at least ought to be. He felt that a true and authentic identity should not be rushed and, to that end, he advocated for a period of delay when youth could safely explore without real risk or obligation. For some, this period was college. For others, such as Erikson, it was a personal walkabout or Wanderschaft. Either way, he stressed the importance of coming into one’s own. Erikson thought everyone should create his or her own life.
Helen and I talked about how Erikson went from identity crisis to the Pulitzer Prize. Yes, he traveled around and slept under some bridges. That’s half the story. What else did he do? At twenty-five, he taught art and took some education classes. At twenty-six, he started training in psychoanalysis and met some influential people. By thirty, he’d earned his psychoanalytic degree and had begun a career as a teacher, an analyst, a writer, and a theorist. Erikson spent some of his youth having an identity crisis. But along the way he was also earning what sociologists call identity capital.
Identity capital is our collection of personal assets. It is the repertoire of individual resources that we assemble over time. These are the investments we make in ourselves, the things we do well enough, or long enough, that they become a part of who we are. Some identity capital goes on a résumé, such as degrees, jobs, test scores, and clubs. Other identity capital is more personal, such as how we speak, where we are from, how we solve problems, how we look. Identity capital is how we build ourselves—bit by bit, over time. Most important, identity capital is what we bring to the adult marketplace. It is the currency we use to metaphorically purchase jobs and relationships and other things we want.
Twentysomethings like Helen imagine that crisis is for now and capital is for later when, in fact, crisis and capital can—and should—go together, like they did for Erikson. Researchers who have looked at how people resolve identity crises have found that lives that are all capital and no crisis—all work and no exploration—feel rigid and conventional. On the other hand, more crisis than capital is a problem too. As the concept of identity crisis caught on in the United States, Erikson himself warned against spending too much time in “disengaged confusion.” He was concerned that too many young people were “in danger of becoming irrelevant.”
Twentysomethings who take the time to explore and also have the nerve to make commitments along the way construct stronger identities. They have higher self-esteem and are more persevering and realistic. This path to identity is associated with a host of positive outcomes, including a clearer sense of self, greater life satisfaction, better stress management, stronger reasoning, and resistance to conformity—all the things Helen wanted.
I encouraged Helen to get some capital. I suggested she start by finding work that could go on a résumé.
“This is my chance to have fun,” she resisted. “To be free before real life sets in.”
“How is this fun? You’re seeing me because you are miserable.”
“But I’m free!”
“How are you free? You have free time during the day when most everyone you know is working. You’re living on the edge of poverty. You can’t do anything with that time.”
Helen looked skeptical, as though I were trying to talk her out of her yoga mat and shove a briefcase into her hand. She said, “You’re probably one of those people who went straight from college to graduate school.”
“I’m not. In fact, I probably went to a much better graduate school because of what I did in between.”
Helen’s brow furrowed.
I thought for a moment and said, “Do you want to know what I did after college?”
“Yeah, I do,” she challenged.
Helen was ready to listen.
The day after I graduated from college, I went to work for Outward Bound. My first job there was as a grunt in logistics. I lived at a base camp in the Blue Ridge Mountains and spent the better part of a year driving vans all over the backcountry, bringing granola and fuel to dirty, haggard groups of students on backpacking trips. I have incredibly fond memories of driving fifteen-passenger vehicles along washboard dirt roads, music blaring from the radio. I was often the only other person these groups would come across for days or weeks at a time. The students were always so happy to see me, because I reminded them that life was still happening elsewhere.
When an instructor job opened up, I jumped at it. I tromped all over the mountains in North Carolina, Maine, and Colorado, sometimes with war veterans and other times with CEOs from Wall Street. I spent one long, hot summer in Boston Harbor on a thirty-foot open sailboat with a bunch of middle-school girls.
My favorite trip—the one I led more than a dozen times—was a twenty-eight-day canoe expedition that ran the full length of the Suwannee River, about 350 miles from the black waters and cypress knees of the Okefenokee Swamp in Georgia, through northern Florida, to the sandy coast of the Gulf of Mexico. The students on these canoe trips were adjudicated youth, the official term for kids who were fondly (but unofficially) called “hoods in the woods.” These were either inner-city or deeply rural teenagers who had committed crimes: grand theft, assault and battery, drug dealing—anything short of murder. They were serving their sentence on the river with me.
The work was extraordinarily meaningful, and even more fun. I learned to play a mean game of Spades from the kids who frequented the detention centers. After they zipped themselves into sleeping bags at night, I sat outside the tents and read bedtime stories aloud from chapter books like Treasure Island. So often, I got to see these kids just get to be kids, jumping off the riverbanks, their troubles back home nowhere in sight. Reality, though, was never far away. When I was only about twenty-four, I had to tell one adjudicated girl—a fifteen-year-old mother of two—that her own mother had died of AIDS while she was stuck paddling down the Suwannee.
I thought my stint at Outward Bound might last one or two years. Before I noticed, it had been nearly four. Once, on a break between courses, I visited my old college town and saw an undergraduate mentor. I still remember her saying, “What about graduate school?” That was my own dose of reality. I did want to go to graduate school and was growing tired of Outward Bound life. My mentor said if I wanted to go, I needed to do it. “What are you waiting for?” she asked. It seemed I was waiting for someone to tell me to get going. So I did.
The clinical psychology interview circuit is a scene typically loaded with shiny recent grads toting brand-new leather portfolios and wearing ill-fitting suits. When I joined in, I had an ill-fitting suit and a portfolio too. Feeling somewhat out of place having spent the last few years in the woods, I crammed my portfolio with scholarly articles written by the faculty who would probably interview me. I was ready to talk smartly about their clinical trials and to pretend to be passionate about research I might never do.
But no one wanted to talk about that.
Almost invariably, interviewers would glance at my résumé and start excitedly with “Tell me about Outward Bound!” Faculty would introduce themselves to me by saying, “So, you’re the Outward Bound girl!” For years to come, even on residency interviews, I spent most of the time answering questions about what happened when kids ran away in the wilderness or whether it was safe to swim in a river with alligators. It really wasn’t until I had a doctorate from Berkeley that I started to be known for something else.
I told Helen some of my story. I told her the twentysomething years have a different economy than college. For some, life may be about neatly building on Phi Beta Kappa or an Ivy League degree. More often, identities and careers are made not out of college majors and GPAs but out of a couple of door-opening pieces of identity capital—and I was concerned that Helen wasn’t earning any.
No one was going to start off Helen’s next job interview by saying, “So tell me about being a nanny!” This gave me pause. If Helen didn’t get some capital soon, I knew she could be headed for a lifetime of unhappiness and underemployment.
After my urging to get an over-the-table job, Helen came in to say she was days away from starting work at a coffee shop. Helen also mentioned she had an interview to be a “floater” at a digital animation studio, an interview she wasn’t planning to attend. Working at the coffee shop seemed “cool and not corporate” and, besides, she said, she wasn’t sure about “just paying dues” and “basically working in the mailroom” at the animation company.
As Helen sat talking about her plan to work at the coffee shop, I tried to keep my jaw from hitting the floor. I had seen what another one of my clients calls “the Starbucks phase” unfold many times. Everything I knew about twentysomething underemployment, and about identity capital, told me that Helen was about to make a bad choice.
At one time or another, most twentysomethings, including my van-driving self, have been underemployed. They work at jobs they are overqualified for or they work only part-time. Some of these jobs are useful stopgaps. They pay the bills while we study for the GMAT or work our way through graduate school. Or, as with Outward Bound, some underemployment generates capital that trumps everything else.
But some underemployment is not a means to an end. Sometimes it is just a way to pretend we aren’t working, such as running a ski lift or doing what one executive I know called “the eternal band thing.” While these sorts of jobs can be fun, they also signal to future employers a period of lostness. A degree from a university followed by too many unexplained retail and coffee-shop gigs looks backward. Those sorts of jobs can hurt our résumés and even our lives.
The longer it takes to get our footing in work, the more likely we are to become, as one journalist put it, “different and damaged.” Research on underemployed twentysomethings tells us that those who are underemployed for as little as nine months tend to be more depressed and less motivated than their peers—than even their unemployed peers. But before we decide that unemployment is a better alternative to underemployment, consider this: Twentysomething unemployment is associated with heavy drinking and depression in middle age even after becoming regularly employed.
I have seen how this happens. I have watched smart, interesting twentysomethings avoid real jobs in the real world only to drag themselves through years of underemployment, all the while becoming too tired and too alienated to look for something that might actually make them happy. Their dreams seem increasingly distant as people treat them like the name tags they wear.
Economists and sociologists agree that twentysomething work has an inordinate influence on our long-run career success. About two-thirds of lifetime wage growth happens in the first ten years of a career. After that, families and mortgages get in the way of higher degrees and cross-country moves, and salaries rise more slowly. As a twentysomething, it may feel like there are decades ahead to earn more and more but the latest data from the US Census Bureau shows that, on average, salaries peak—and plateau—in our forties.
Twentysomethings who think they have until later to leave unemployment or underemployment behind miss out on moving ahead while they are still traveling light. No matter how smoothly this goes, late bloomers will likely never close the gap between themselves and those who got started earlier. This leaves many thirty- and fortysomethings feeling as if they have ultimately paid a surprisingly high price for a string of random twentysomething jobs. Midlife is when we may realize that our twentysomething choices cannot be undone. Drinking and depression can enter from stage left.
In today’s economy, very few people make it to age thirty without some underemployment. So what is a twentysomething to do? Fortunately, not all underemployment is the same. I always advise twentysomethings to take the job with the most capital.
I heard Helen out. Then I told her that working at a coffee shop might have some benefits, like easygoing coworkers or a good discount on beverages. It might even pay more than being a floater. But it had no capital. From the perspective of the sort of identity capital Helen needed, the animation studio was the clear winner. I encouraged Helen to go to the interview, and to think about the floater job not as paying dues but rather as investing in her dream. Learning about the digital art world and making connections in the industry, she could raise capital in untold ways.
“Maybe I should wait for something better to come along?” Helen questioned.
“But something better doesn’t just come along. One good piece of capital is how you get to better,” I said.
We spent our next sessions helping Helen prepare for the interview. Her less-than-stellar pre-med grades, combined with the sting of her parents’ reaction to her art major, had left her feeling professionally insecure. But what I haven’t yet mentioned about Helen is that she was one of the most personable clients I have ever had. Her college career was imperfect, but Helen had all the pieces of identity capital that don’t go on a résumé. She was socially adept. She was an excellent communicator with a quick wit. She was a hard worker. I felt sure that if Helen got herself to the interview, her personality would take it from there.
Helen and the hiring manager had easy conversations about pre-med and freelance photography, and about the fact that his wife had also majored in art at Helen’s school. Two weeks later, Helen started at the animation company. After six months, she moved from floating to “a desk.” Then, a movie director spent a few weeks at Helen’s office, only to decide Helen would make an ideal cinematography assistant. She was brought to Los Angeles, where she now works on movies. This is what she says about her twenties, about the pieces of identity capital that are helping her now:
I would never have believed it, and it’s probably not the best thing to tell someone still in school, but seriously not one person has asked for my GPA since I graduated. So unless you are applying to grad schools, yeah, everyone was right, no one cares. Nor do they care if you did the “wrong” major.
I think about my parents’ question: “What are you going to do with your art major?” It makes no sense to me now. No one I know really knew what they wanted to do when they graduated. What people are doing now is usually not something that they’d ever even heard of in undergrad. One of my friends is a marine biologist and works at an aquarium. Another is in grad school for epidemiology. I’m in cinematography. None of us knew any of these jobs even existed when we graduated.
That’s why I wish I had done more during my first few years out of college. I wish I had pushed myself to take some work leaps or a wider range of jobs. I wish I had experimented—with work—in a way I feel I can’t right now at almost thirty. I felt a lot of internal pressure to figure it out, but all the thinking I did was really debilitating and unproductive. The one thing I have learned is that you can’t think your way through life. The only way to figure out what to do is to do—something.
Whenever I hear from Helen, I think about how different her life might be now if she had gone to work at the coffee shop. Her fun and carefree underemployment would probably quickly have become a depressing and alienating experience, one that might have dragged on longer than expected just as other twentysomethings were going to, say, work in digital animation.
She wouldn’t have been at the coffee shop forever, of course. But she also would not have been swooped up by a director, because any director ordering coffee from her would have seen her as a clerk, not as someone who might be relevant to the film industry. On it would go from there. Five or ten years later, the difference between coffee-shop Helen and digital-animation Helen could be remarkable. Sadly remarkable. Helen’s life got going when she used the bits of capital she had to get the next piece of capital she wanted—and it didn’t hurt that she and the hiring manager’s wife shared the same alma mater.
That’s almost always the way it works.
[Those] deeply enmeshed in [a close-knit group] may never become aware of the fact that their lives do not actually depend on what happens within the group but on forces far beyond their perception.
—Rose Coser, sociologist
Yes is how you get your first job, and your next job, and your spouse, and even your kids. Even if it’s a bit edgy, a bit out of your comfort zone, saying yes means you will do something new, meet someone new, and make a difference.
—Eric Schmidt, executive chairman of Google
A few summers ago, a big box showed up at my house. The return address on the label was a major publishing house in New York City. The box was addressed to me.
I was prepping two courses for the fall and had ordered some textbooks to look over but, when I opened the box, I found not textbooks but about a hundred paperback books—some fiction, some nonfiction, some academic, some popular. The invoice inside listed the name of an editor. I put the box of books in the middle of my dining-room table and friends who came to the house would ask about it: How did I find time to do so much reading? Had I lost my mind? No one found my explanation of “it came in the mail and I don’t know why” very satisfying.
After some time, I made an attempt to follow up. I e-mailed the editor on the invoice to let her know I might have a box intended for her. She discovered the books were sent to me in error but said to enjoy them. I thanked her, and we exchanged a couple of e-mails about choosing textbooks. Some months later, she asked if I would be interested in writing an instructor’s guide for a book she was editing; I said sure. At the next barbecue at my home, the big box of books was still on the dining-room table. I told friends to please take home whatever titles looked appealing. It made a good story.
About a year after the box of books arrived, I started to want to write a book of my own. My private practice and classes were filled with twentysomethings who sincerely wanted, and needed, help moving forward. I envisioned a book that pulled together what I knew about the twenties from teaching and research and clinical work, a book twentysomethings anywhere could read.
I borrowed a sample book proposal from a distant colleague, and I went to work on the project in my spare hours. When I finished the proposal, I asked the editor whose books I had accidentally received if she would give me her impressions. She read it and quickly introduced me to interested parties. Soon, the book had a publisher.
I had never met the editor with the box of books or the publisher who ultimately acquired my book. I had only once met the colleague whose proposal I used as a model. No one had any reason to give me preferential treatment and, business is business, so no one did. This book, like most things in adulthood, came to be because of what is called the strength of weak ties.
The Strength of Weak Ties
The urban tribe is overrated. For the past decade or so, there has been much talk about the urban tribe, or the makeshift family that has come to the fore as twentysomethings spend more years on their own. Sitcoms and movies tout the value of the tribe, the fun of having a place to go with that store-bought pumpkin pie when we can’t make it “home-home” for Thanksgiving, how nice it feels to have a group to call our own.
Without a doubt, these friends play a crucial, supportive role for many twentysomethings, and they provide lots of good times. Essentially the college buddies of the twentysomething years, the urban tribe, are the people we meet up with on the weekend. They give us rides to the airport. We vent about bad dates and breakups over burritos and beer.
With all the attention paid to the urban tribe, however, many twentysomethings have limited themselves to huddling together with like-minded peers. Some are in almost constant contact with the same few people. But while the urban tribe helps us survive, it does not help us thrive. The urban tribe may bring us soup when we are sick, but it is the people we hardly know—those who never make it into our tribe—who will swiftly and dramatically change our lives for the better.
In work that predates Facebook by more than twenty-five years, sociologist and Stanford professor Mark Granovetter conducted one of the first and most famous studies of social networks. Granovetter was curious about how networks foster social mobility, about how the people in our lives lead to new opportunities. Surveying workers in a Boston suburb who had recently changed jobs, Granovetter found it wasn’t close friends and family—presumably those most invested in helping—who were the most valuable during the job hunt. Rather, more than three-quarters of new jobs had come from leads from contacts who were seen only “occasionally” or “rarely.” This finding led Granovetter to write a groundbreaking paper titled “The Strength of Weak Ties” about the unique value of people we do not know well.
According to Granovetter, not all relationships—or ties—are created equal. Some are weak and some are strong, and the strength of a tie increases with time and experience. The more we have been around someone, the stronger the tie because, likely, we have shared experiences and confidences. In childhood, strong ties are family and best friends. In the twentysomething years, strong ties grow to include the urban tribe, roommates, partners, and other close friends.
Weak ties are the people we have met, or are connected to somehow, but do not currently know well. Maybe they are the coworkers we rarely talk with or the neighbor we only say hello to. We all have acquaintances we keep meaning to go out with but never do, and friends we lost touch with years ago. Weak ties are also our former employers or professors and any other associations who have not been promoted to close friends.
But why are some people promoted while others are not? A century of research in sociology—and thousands of years of Western thought—show that “similarity breeds connection.” Birds of a feather flock together because of homophily, or “love of the same.” From the schoolyard to the boardroom, people are more likely to form close relationships with those most like themselves. As a result, a cluster of strong ties—such as the urban tribe or even an online social network—is typically an incestuous group. A homogeneous clique.
Here we get to what another sociologist, Rose Coser, called the “weakness of strong ties,” or how our close friends hold us back. Our strong ties feel comfortable and familiar but, other than support, they may have little to offer. They are usually too similar—even too similarly stuck—to provide more than sympathy. They often don’t know any more about jobs or relationships than we do.
Weak ties feel too different or, in some cases, literally too far away to be close friends. But that’s the point. Because they’re not just figures in an already ingrown cluster, weak ties give us access to something fresh. They know things and people that we don’t know. Information and opportunity spread farther and faster through weak ties than through close friends because weak ties have fewer overlapping contacts. Weak ties are like bridges you cannot see all the way across, so there is no telling where they might lead.
It’s not just who and what our ties know that matters. It is how we communicate with them as well. Because close-knit groups of strong ties are usually so similar, they tend to use a simple, encoded way of communicating known as restricted speech. Economical but incomplete, restricted speech relies on in-crowd colloquialisms and shortcuts to say more with less. Texters all know that FTW means “for the win” just as businesspeople know that JIT stands for “just in time.”
But in-group members share more than slang and vocabulary. They share assumptions about one another and the world. They may have gone to the same schools or have the same ideas about love. Our strong ties probably all watch Glenn Beck or Rachel Maddow or Stephen Colbert—or they decidedly do not. Whatever the particular sources of sameness, hanging out with them can limit who and what we know, how we talk, and ultimately how we think.
Weak ties, on the other hand, force us to communicate from a place of difference, to use what is called elaborated speech. Unlike restricted speech, which presupposes similarities between the speaker and the listener, elaborated speech does not presume that the listener thinks in the same way or knows the same information. We need to be more thorough when we talk to weak ties, and this requires more organization and reflection. There are fewer tags, such as “ya know,” and sentences are less likely to trail off at the end. Whether we are talking about career ideas or our thoughts on love, we have to make our case more fully. In this way, weak ties promote, and sometimes even force, thoughtful growth and change.
Meet Cole and Betsy.
Cole burst out of college toward his twentysomething years like a middle schooler runs toward summer on the last day of school. As an engineering major, he’d spent his undergraduate years solving equations while it seemed everyone else was having fun. His twenties were Cole’s chance to have a good time. He took a low-key job within a firm of surveyors, preferring to clock in and clock out without thinking much about work. He moved into an apartment with a group of guys he met, some of whom had not gone to college at all. Over some years, this became Cole’s urban tribe:
We’d sit around and drink and talk about how much we hated work or how the job market sucked. We were anti doing anything. We were all just preaching to the choir. None of those guys was thinking about a real career, so I wasn’t either. I was part of the cool club, I guess you could say. I wasn’t thinking about anything except the next basketball game I was going to or whatever. That’s what I thought everybody else was doing too because that’s what everyone I saw was doing.
Then sometimes I’d hear about somebody I knew from college who had made bank starting some business or who had some awesome job at Google or something. And I’d think, “That guy? That’s not fair. I was busting my ass in college while he was majoring in anthropology.” It was like the fact that he’d been doing something with his twenties while I’d been screwing around didn’t mean anything. I didn’t want to admit it, but after a while I wanted to be one of those guys who was doing something with his life. I just didn’t know how.
Cole’s sister dragged him to her roommate’s thirtieth birthday party. Uncomfortably surrounded by people who were older and more successful, Cole passed the time talking to a young sculptor he met, a client of mine named Betsy.
Betsy was tired of dating the same kind of person. It seemed like the moment she broke up with one boyfriend who “didn’t have his shit together,” she started dating another guy who didn’t either. Eventually, Betsy came to therapy to examine why she was drawn to this sort of man again and again. But having more insight about it did not change the fact that she kept meeting the same fun and unambitious guys. “I can’t get a decent date,” she said.
Betsy didn’t want to be at the party any more than Cole did. She’d met the birthday girl in a spin class a couple of years earlier and had been declining her Evites ever since. In an effort to meet new people, this time Betsy replied “Yes.” She took a cab to the party, wondering why she was subjecting herself to this.
When Betsy met Cole there was a spark, but she was ambivalent. Cole was clearly smart and well educated, but he didn’t seem to be doing much about it. They had some nice dinner dates, which seemed promising. Then, after sleeping over one night and watching Cole wake up at eleven a.m. and grab his skateboard, Betsy felt less bullish.
What she didn’t know was that ever since he’d started spending time with Betsy, Cole had regained some of his old drive. He saw the way she wanted to work on her sculptures even on the weekend, how she and her friends loved to get together to talk about their projects and their plans. He eyed a posting on Craigslist for a challenging tech job at a high-profile start-up, but he felt his résumé was too shabby to apply.
Cole remembered that an old high school friend, someone he saw about once a year around town, worked at the start-up. He got in touch, and this friend put in a good word about Cole. After a handful of interviews with different people in the company, he was offered the position. The hiring manager told Cole he had been chosen for three reasons: his engineering degree suggested he knew how to work hard on technical projects, his personality seemed like a good fit for the group, and the twentysomething who vouched for him was well liked in the company. The rest, the manager said, he could learn on the job.
This radically altered Cole’s career path. He learned software development at a dot-com on the leading edge. A few years later, Cole moved over and up as a director of development at another start-up because, by then, the capital he’d gained at the dot-com could speak for itself.
Nearly ten years later, Cole and Betsy are married. She runs a gallery co-op. He’s a CIO. They have a happy life and gladly give much of the credit to Cole’s friend from high school and to the woman with the Evites. Weak ties changed their lives.
When I encourage twentysomethings to draw on the strength of weak ties, there is often a fair amount of resistance: “I hate networking” or “I want to get a job on my own” or “That’s not my style” are common reactions. I get it, but that doesn’t change the fact that, as we look for jobs or relationships or opportunities of any kind, it is the people we know the least well who will be the most transformative. New things almost always come from outside your inner circle. And twentysomethings who won’t use their weak ties fall behind twentysomethings like these, who have this to say:
Networking, using contacts, whatever, is not a bad thing. I never really was overly worried about it, but I have some friends who always were so stressed about working somewhere where a family member helped them get the job. I work in one of the top three companies in my industry, and literally I know only one person who actually got a job there without knowing someone. Everyone got it because they know somebody.
I hate randomly calling people I don’t know. Hate, hate, hate it. But my dad met someone at a holiday party who used to work at the company where I am now and he told him I was interested in the fashion industry. I finally called this person just to get some information, and he passed along my résumé. That is how I got the interview.
There was a hospital where I wanted to work, and I kept looking for them to post some job openings, but they never did. I finally called a friend of mine who worked there. I’d put that off because I wasn’t sure if that was wrong or if I’d be putting her in a bad spot. But right away she gave me the name of someone to call at the hospital. When I did call, they were about to post a job. I got it before they even posted. Everything can change in a day. Especially if you put yourself out there.
I think sometimes people think, “I don’t know anyone and everyone else does,” but people would be surprised at the untapped resources they have. Alumni networks from college and high schools can be really helpful, and if there’s not an official network, go through the Facebook group or LinkedIn group for your school. Look through and see where people work. If there is someone who does something you want to do, call or e-mail them for an “informational interview.” That is what everybody ultimately does.
Excerpted from The Defining Decade by Jay, Meg Copyright © 2012 by Jay, Meg. Excerpted by permission.
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