A full-time job? A long-term relationship? A gym membership? Those can all wait until my 30s — or can they? Dr. Meg Jay, assistant professor at the University of Virginia and author of The Defining Decade: Why Your Twenties Matter – And How to Make the Most of Them Now, says the 20s are the time to go for our goals. We caught up with Dr. Jay for tips on how to achieve success during those 10 years.

Photo by Jen Fariello

What prompted you to write about the importance of the 20s?

I had been working with 20-somethings for a lot of years and I felt like 20-somethings were hungry for real information about this time in their lives. And they were sort of misled about what the years were about and what was going to lead to happiness in their 20s and 30s and beyond. So I wanted to empower people by giving them better information.

In the book you talk about your experience in your early 20s as an Outward Bound leader, and you describe it as “very meaningful” work. What makes an experience meaningful during somebody’s 20s?

Probably relevance for them, for whatever seems important or meaningful for them. I think one thing that makes 20-something jobs feel the worst is when they feel like they’re not relevant, that they’re just a paycheck and they’re not gonna’ lead to anything that we want. I can’t even try to remember how little I earned when I worked in Outward Bound but it felt very relevant to what interested me, which was helping professions and psychology. I was very much underemployed but it didn’t feel so bad.

Do you have any regrets from your 20s?

I think work became relevant sooner for me than relationships did. I was straight out of school, I was working at Outward Bound, being what I thought I wanted to be. Many 20-somethings, especially women, they want [relationships] but they feel like they’re so far off. I wish I had taken my relationships more seriously sooner. I ended up getting what I wanted in that I’m happily married and I have two wonderful children but it was like many gen X-ers — I mean we were the first generation really to postpone and do a lot of these things later. I was pretty tight on time in my 30s in that regard.

Are there big differences between the way men and women experience their 20s?

It may sound stereotypical but it’s very true that the young women who are in my office are very concerned with their relationships. I think a lot of them want better relationships sooner than they think they’re allowed to. Young women aren’t always honest with themselves about what they really want from someone. They’ll say, “Well, I’m fine for it to just be casual,” but it turns out that they’re not fine about it. They really privilege relationships more than a lot of 20-something men. But you know I obviously wouldn’t say that’s a black and white truth.

What are some of the common dating and relationship mistakes people make during this time?

The biggest one in the 20s is without question the idea that the relationships they’re having don’t matter. All these relationships that sort of feel like throwaway relationships are actually teaching us things about what happens between people or our self-worth. I cannot tell you how many clients I have who are in their very late 20s who are really only just beginning to take who they date very seriously at all, and that’s with my urging. To just begin to think about what you might like in a partner or how you feel about yourself in a relationship at the very moment you start to freak out about getting married or having a baby is not good timing. It’s sort of like with a job, you wanna’ experiment, get out there, so when you’re in your 30s you’ll have that great career you want. The same thing goes for relationships. That’s the whole benefit of the fact that people get married later now.

If somebody graduates from college and they’re not sure what kind of career or graduate degree they want to pursue, how can they explore their options productively?

Everybody knows something. You may not know where you wanna’ be in 20 years, but you know about the things you prefer over the things you don’t prefer. And the way to explore or experiment productively is to explore and experiment. Many 20-somethings tell me they wish they’d explored more with their jobs, that they would actually go out and get a job or get an internship earlier, as soon as possible. What people do instead a lot is they kind of choose nothing while they think about it, meaning they do a job they know they don’t want forever like waiting tables or working at a coffee shop. We’ve all been there and have to do that sometimes to pay the bills but that’s not a good way to figure out what you want. You just get burned out and sort of stomped on. So I think to search productively you go try something and if you realize you don’t like it then you try the next thing and the next thing. There are skills and assets coming out of that sort of exploration. I think too many people think they’re making a 20-year decision with every job and it’s more like one to five years, something you can change at any point.

You write a lot about uncertainty. How do you think socioeconomic factors play into that idea and what about 20-somethings who feel like they don’t have as many options about their job or where they live?

[I had] a fortune cookie one time that said, “A wise man makes his own luck.” Some of the most successful clients I’ve had have come from very disadvantaged backgrounds and they have figured out how to work the system because they had to. They’ve kind of figured out how to create opportunities for themselves. The great thing about the 20s is that’s really the time life opens up. It’s not about college tuition anymore; it’s really about who knows how to use relationships and use yourself to get ahead. Right now I think it’s anybody’s game.

How important do you think this decade is for the development of different health habits?

It’s incredibly important. People change so much in their 20s. Their lives are changing; their brains are changing; everything’s up for grabs. If you wanna’ change your relationship to your body and eating and exercise the 20s are really the time to do it. It’s become more common for me to have women in my practice who really don’t feel good about the way that they look, who don’t know how to eat healthfully or how to exercise. And this has an enormous impact on how they feel about themselves and on dating. And it makes the 20s really, really difficult.

If you had to give a 20-something just once sentence of advice, what would you tell them?

That your 20s matter a whole, whole, whole, whole lot!

For more from Dr. Jay, visit her website and follow her on Twitter.