The Twentysomething’s Guide to Success

In the last few years the term “survival” has come to describe a whole new way of living. People are going out on their own for longer periods, buying their first place and trying to figure out what comes next in life. This guide will help you successfully navigate your twenties through all this change.

The “don t waste your twenties” is a blog created by someone who has lived through the struggles of being a twentysomething. The blog offers advice for those in their 20s on how to be successful and happy.

Business executive giving presentation with line graph illustration.

In Part I of this two-part series, we looked at the twentysomething brain’s first once-in-a-lifetime opportunity: its proclivity for profound love, strong curiosity about people and the world, and fearlessness in the face of danger. However, these characteristics are only beneficial if they are utilized in the manner they were intended: as incentive to embark on deliberate, forward-thinking endeavors that lead to increased learning opportunities, personal growth, and independence. Taking a chance to try shotguning a drink won’t get you any closer to your perfect future.

Rather, you should use the second big opportunity of the twentysomething brain: the potential to actively shape the growth of the executive side of your mind, at the same time that you’re launching your hobbies.

If your twenties are for launching and your thirties are for building, now is the time to teach your “builder,” the prefrontal “CEO” to whom you’ll be passing the reigns of your post-twenties “start-up.” Moving from your twenties to your thirties is a lot like starting a business that you know you’ll eventually leave; while you’re getting things going, you also have to train the guy who will eventually take your place, giving him the skills and abilities he’ll need to steer the ship once you’re gone. The quality of this instruction will have a significant impact on the endeavor’s future success, i.e. the rest of your life.

Synaptic Pruning in Your Brain’s Orchard

Vintage man on ladder pruning tree.

The simultaneous revving up of the strong, emotional, risk-taking limbic system and the maturity of the stable, reasonable, impulse-checking prefrontal cortex is a vitally essential process occurring in your brain in your twenties that young people must grasp. But, specifically, how does the prefrontal cortex develop?

Our brain growth is divided into two stages: overproduction and pruning. The brain, for starters, overproduces millions of synapses, much more than it can ever need — it over-prepares for what’s to come. The brain then organizes and prunes this vast network of neural connections, removing those that aren’t in use and strengthening and stabilizing those that are, much to how an arborist prunes dead branches from a tree.

This overproduction/pruning process happens throughout an infant’s first eighteen months of life, which has long been recognized. The brain increases cell production to prepare the child for rapidly absorbing a large quantity of knowledge about language and the environment around him. After age three, it starts to gradually prune away non-used connections, resulting in a human brain that is 95 percent formed by the age of six.

A second phase of overproduction and synaptic pruning occurs in adolescence and lasts until a person’s mid-twenties, according to current research. This time, the brain’s overproduction of synapses is focused on talents crucial to maturity — logical cognition, reasoning, impulse control, goal-setting, and planning – rather than on things a newborn needs to know like language and motor skills. Synaptic pruning is the method by which the prefontal cortex matures – it’s how you train your “CEO.”


It’s either use it or lose it.

So, what is synaptic pruning and how does it work?

While everyone’s prefrontal cortex will mature to its full potential, not everyone’s corti will “set” in the same manner. Your brain’s growth is influenced not just by your age, but also by your experiences.

Your brain does not randomly prune its superfluous synapses. What is used and what is let to lay fallow determines what is kept and what withers away.

According to Meg Jay, author of The Defining Decade:

“The frontal lobe connections we utilize are kept and accelerated in a use-it-or-lose-it pattern; those we don’t use simply fade away via pruning.” Every day, we become what we hear, see, and do. We don’t become what we don’t hear, see, or do on a daily basis. This is referred to as’survival of the busiest’ in neuroscience.

Dr. Jay Giedd, a neurologist, describes it thus way:

“Those are the cells and connections that will be hardwired if a teen [or twentysomething] is pursuing music, sports, or academics.” These are the cells and connections that will survive whether they’re lounging on the sofa, playing video games, or watching MTV.”

In layman’s terms, this implies that the education, experiences, and relationships you seek in your twenties will shape the synaptic pruning process in your brain.

This implies that you must be deliberate in tweaking your prefrontal cortex for best performance in the next decades! What kind of training do you want your prefrontal CEO to receive? What are the talents and abilities you want your brain to master for the rest of your life?

Some people dismiss the twenties as only a dress rehearsal for what’s to come. However, if that’s the case, you should consider what character you’re planning to play. Is it true that practicing with just casual hookups will prepare you for the role of loving, devoted spouse in the future? What type of preparation are you receiving right now for the job of independent company owner if you’re aiming to achieve it?

When the iron is hot and the metal is pliable, strike.

Vintage metal workers in workshop melting heating metal.

This last stage of brain growth is similar to a wiring upgrade: once done, the prefrontal cortex will operate quicker and more effectively. However, you sacrifice flexibility in exchange for quickness.

As a result, the time between now and the completion of the wiring project is a moment of tremendous potential. You may – and must – take an active part in determining how the wire is placed while your brain is still pliable and malleable. Never again will it be so simple to mold yourself, master new skills, and grow into the man you choose.

Don’t get me wrong: our brains are “plastic” all the time. Whether we’re 20 or 60, we can always modify our routines and actions. However, after the teenage brain has completed its development and “sets,” reversing our trajectory becomes more difficult. The plastic of an adolescent’s brain is more pliable, but the plastic of an adult’s brain is tougher to form and requires more kneading and heat.


Consider it this way: sculpting your conduct up until your mid-twenties is like carving tracks across a grassy field. When your brain is fully developed, it will want to follow the route of least resistance, which will be the trails you’ve previously blazed and the neuronal connections you’ve already established. Creating a new route in the twenty-first century will entail slicing a passage through a field that has morphed from pleasant grass to a thick, weedy jungle that will take a lot more work to plow through. It’s possible, but it’ll be challenging.

Gray matter brain comparison ages 12, 16, and 20.

Gray matter is trimmed during adolescence and into the mid-twenties as neuronal connections that aren’t used “atrophy,” while those that are used are consolidated and organized more effectively. Addictions that start in youth get “wired” into the brain as they “set,” making them difficult to break in maturity.

This explains why, around the age of thirty, your ideas, emotions, actions, and personality become generally set and consistent, according to studies. There isn’t much disagreement among specialists on this topic: some believe that nearly no modifications are conceivable beyond thirty, while others believe that modest adjustments are, and that’s about the extent of the disagreement. What they all agree on is that by the age of thirty, the majority of who you are has been crystallized, and as Jay explains, “our personalities change more during the twentysomething years than at any other time before or after.” In our thirties, we simply “continue with, or correct for, the moves we made during the twentysomething years.”

The reason there are still thirtysomething men (and women) who are head-scratchingly immature is that they thought they could spend their twenties drifting and partying, and then everything would magically come together for them when they turned thirty, and they’d be ready to shift into another gear. The things that were going on in their life at the moment – waking up on someone else’s floor and working at Starbucks – had been engraved into their corti when their brains “set” – the plastic solidified.

Sculpt your prefrontal cortex in your twenties by seeking out experiences and commitments that will exercise and challenge your ability to plan, set goals, and discipline yourself. If you don’t want to be the guy who lives like he’s twenty-three at forty-four (even when he himself is tired of that life and is ready for a different stage), sculpt your prefrontal cortex in your twenties by seeking out experiences and commitments that will exercise and challenge your ability to plan, set goals Stretching yourself now will establish the best neural connections, develop and season your prefontal cortex, and provide a cognitive foundation that is ready for a lifetime of enjoyment and contentment, not just a few years of fun.

Listen to my podcast with Meg Jay, a psychologist and author:


Spend Your Twenties Wisely

Vintage young man running down stairs with diploma.

Understanding how the brain works reveals that, contrary to popular belief, the activities you engage in, the connections you build, and the choices you make throughout this decade may have a huge, outsized influence on who you become and how the rest of your life ends over.


This information, together with our previous discussion of the specific abilities of the twentysomething brain, should have persuaded you that “thirty is the new twenty” is a load of nonsense. “Don’t be concerned,” they say. “You’ve got all the time in the world,” although well-intentioned, is incorrect – the twenties are not interchangeable with any subsequent decade. They aren’t anything that can be thrown away.

Your twenties are certainly a once-in-a-lifetime experience. You owe it to yourself to make the most of a tremendous, but limited window of opportunity created by a confluence of variables.

But what exactly does it imply? Is it necessary to forsake exploration and adventure in your twenties in order to settle down as quickly as possible? Hardly.

Your twenties are the ideal age for adventure and discovery, but the activities you pick should be deliberate. They should not only expose you to new experiences and allow you to try new things, but they should also extend your horizons, influence your character, and assist you in learning and growing. Seek for situations that allow you to channel your interests while also exercising and stretching your executive functions.

In your twenties, you should consider working on a ski lift at a resort, but you should also consider taking disturbed teenagers on wilderness adventures. There’s a time and a place for aimless wandering across Europe in your twenties, but there’s also a time and place for a well-building mission to Africa. It’s a great time to date, but it’s also a fantastic time to tie the knot.

Basically, the more of your interests that go towards your eventual objectives, however indirectly, the better. It’s not necessary to achieve all of your objectives in your twenties. When I say the twenties are the best decade for launching major ideas, I don’t mean “ending” – I mean “starting.”

While I began the last essay by highlighting some of the remarkable achievements of men in their early twenties, I did so to highlight the immense, and often underappreciated potential of young men. But a list that highlights the activities twentysomething men were doing that didn’t bring them instant success but placed them on the route to it is just as telling:

Plato became a pupil of Socrates when he was 20 years old. This association allowed Plato to create new methods of thinking that would later become pillars of Western philosophy.

With the initial rush of gold-seekers, Jack London sailed out for the Klondike at the age of 21. Many of his most popular articles and books would be inspired by his adventures in the north.

At the age of 22, Charles Darwin agreed to serve as the naturalist aboard the HMS Beagle on a five-year expedition to South America and the Galapagos Islands. Despite his father’s warnings that it would be a waste of time, Darwin’s extensive notes and observations, as well as the specimens he collected along the way, would lead him to formulate his theory of evolution.


At the age of 25, future mythologist Joseph Campbell leased a hut in Woodstock, New York, and began a five-year period of intense solo study, reading the classics for nine hours a day.

“Johnny Appleseed” arrived in the Ohio Valley at the age of 26. In his twenties, he was literally sowing seeds.

At the age of 27, Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. left his job at GE to pursue a career as a full-time writer, while Henry David Thoreau went out to live alone in a cottage at Walden Pond for two years.

The twenties aren’t about checking off all of your objectives; instead, they’re about laying the groundwork that will enable you to continue working toward them for the rest of your life. “There’s a tremendous difference between having a life in your thirties and beginning a life in your thirties,” as Jay puts it. Starting your life and laying a strong foundation entails finding out knowledge, experiences, and activities that are aligned with your objectives, challenge you, and therefore build “identity capital.” Identity capital includes things like degrees, occupations, and volunteer work on a CV, but it also includes things like people skills, the capacity to be resilient in the face of failures, the ability to solve issues under pressure, and a grasp of culture, the world, and human nature. According to studies, “twentysomethings who take the time to explore while still having the courage to make commitments along the way create stronger identities,” Jay says. Higher self-esteem, persistence, realistic expectations, a clearer sense of self, more life satisfaction, better stress management, stronger reasoning, and resistance to conformity are all linked to these identities. All of these traits will serve you well no matter where your life takes you. Identity capital serves as the currency of professions and relationships; the more you have, the “richer” you become, and the more doors you may open as you enter your thirties and beyond.

Brett, hold your horses! This Series Has Completely Bummed Me Out! I’m Over Thirty, and This Series Has Completely Bummed Me Out! Is it true that I have no hope?

I did notice a number of comments on the first piece that said something to the effect of: “Well, this is gloomy.” I wish I’d known about this book earlier in my life. It’s too late for me now.”

Those of you in your thirties and forties, cheer up! (or ye spry, tech-savvy seventysomethings). This series was created to encourage boys in their twenties to realize how much potential they have in this decade of their lives, and how it should be fully used. But I don’t want elderly people to feel as if there’s no hope for them and that they’ll have to make due with where they are in life.

I honestly feel that the twenties are the best time to make critical choices, start huge projects, and make commitments because the teenage brain’s unique but declining features make it simpler than it will ever be again. But achieving huge things and changing your life beyond your twenties isn’t impossible; it’s simply more difficult. History is littered with instances of those who made their greatest contributions to society later in life (we plan to put together a list of these late bloomers one of these days as well as cover steps you can take to turn things around). I also know a few normal Joes who, after wandering through their 20s, turned their lives around around 30 and now live happy, full, and prosperous lives. The door to greatness is always open to the diligent and devoted.


To summarize, if you’re a youngin’, I implore you to strike while the iron is hot and not let your twenties pass you by. And if you’re a bit older, don’t look back on what may have been, but instead press ahead with all your might. A strong and knowledgeable captain can always turn the ship around, regardless of age.



One of the finest books I read last year was The Defining Decade: Why Your Twenties Matter–And How to Make the Most of Them Now. A must-read for everyone in their twenties. Why is the Teen Brain Drawn to Danger? Is it a danger or a virtue to have a half-baked teen brain? Beautiful Intelligence Risks Facing Adolescents Tolerance for ambiguity drives taking behavior. Researchers claim that adolescent brains are malleable and vulnerable.

The “What Other People Accomplished When They Were Your Age” generator was used to find out what twentysomething males were up to in their 20s.



The “how to avoid a 3 car pile up in your 30s” is a guide for people who are just starting out and want to know how to have the best possible experience.

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