Three Books Every 20-Something Needs to Read
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After graduating college and starting my first job in 2017, I was faced with an unsettling question: Now what?
I had walked the path, I had earned a degree, I had been offered a job, and I was moving step by step into a pretty uncertain and shaky future. Was I making the right choices? Was I doing the right things? It felt like there were landmines at every turn. What if I messed up my entire future at 22?
I had no idea then that the next three years would be filled with failures and successes, wins and losses, laughter and tears. I would make lots and lots of mistakes. I would do the wrong things. I’d make many wrong turns. But… I’m still here. I’ve learned from those mistakes. I’ve grown in my faith, in my career, and in my character. Mistakes are key to life, as long as we learn from them. And I’ll probably keep making them. But now I know that that’s okay.
A big part of this realization came from three books that completely changed my life. These are books that I buy for friends, quote at length, and return to at least once each year. Reading helps us to learn from the mistakes and wisdom of others, so that (hopefully) we don’t have to botch it all ourselves.
Here are the three books I couldn’t recommend more highly for anyone in their 20’s and 30’s to read:
1. The Defining Decade
Dr. Meg Jay’s 2001 book is a staple for any recent graduate (or anyone in their 20s). Dr. Jay is a clinical psychologist who specializes in working with young adults. Her main message is that our 20s are the “Defining Decade” of our lives. The choices we make, the careers we pursue, the places we live, the habits we form, the friends we make, the people we date – these decisions level up to create the basis for our lives. It sounds heavy, but this book gave me SO much peace.
One of the key topics of this book is “identity capital.” We don’t need to pick the perfect career at 22. But we should look for things that make us excited. We should aim to find people and jobs that challenge us, empower us, and push us forward. Our identity capital is not only formed by our professional work, but also by our extracurriculars. I got my first job because the hiring manager thought it was interesting that I had competed in pageants – she referred to me as “Miss America” throughout the hiring process. It worked! I got the job, and I stood out because I was pursuing something I loved that was pretty unique.
Key Takeaway: Our 20s are important. It’s a decade for trying new things, making mistakes, and taking risks, but also for working towards growth and advancement in our career and lives. 10/10 read.
Buy The Defining Decade here.
Oooh baby. I reread parts of this bad boy every few months. Boundaries are very tricky – and they become trickier as we become older. Bosses, roommates, family, friends – a loss of boundaries leads to burnout, frustration, and disappointment.
This book, by Dr. Henry Cloud and Dr. John Townsend, breaks down different boundaries and relationships we should consider in our lives. They’re both Christian, so they often reference scripture and lean on their faith to make their points.
This book helped me navigate boundaries with my first boss, with moving away from my family, and with experiencing changing friendships through my early 20s.
Key Takeaway: Healthy boundaries are key to our relationships with God, friends, family, and colleagues – and we have far more power in implementing and upholding them than we think.
Buy Boundaries here.
3. So Good They Can’t Ignore You
I’ve written about this before, but early career is hard. We are often stuck doing jobs and tasks we don’t want to do. This book, by brilliant Cal Newport, emphasizes that the most successful people with the most enviable jobs got there because they invested in a skill and, through “deliberate work,” grew into experts.
It’s so tempting to look around and want to change our lives or jobs when we see what others are doing. But Newport’s point is that when we dig into our strengths and interests and invest in deeper knowledge, we can go much further and much faster that when we jump around from one thing to another.
Key Takeaway: Great careers aren’t just stumbled into. They are the result of deliberate work, continued education, curiosity, and focus.
Buy So Good They Can’t Ignore You here.
The bottom line? Things are going to be okay. I hope these books bring you as much joy, encouragement, and peace as they did for me!
Any books that I missed? Let me know in the comments below!
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Jane Kennedy lives in Washington, DC. She is a graduate of UC Santa Barbara and works in criminal justice reform. When she’s not working or writing, she’s probably catching up with friends on FaceTime, getting lost in Rock Creek Park, quoting C.S. Lewis, or trying to recreate Salt and Straw ice cream at home.