Twentysomethings hate fifty shades of grey—and, by that, I mean uncertainty. I know this because I spend most of my days talking with people in their 20s about things that aren’t black and white. Is my career choice right? Is my boyfriend going to break up with me? Should I move to Boston or Austin? Knowing something about the twentysomething brain tells us what twentysomethings can—and can’t—do about living in the grey.
By now we’ve all heard that the brain’s frontal lobe doesn’t fully mature until sometime during the twentysomething years. What most people don’t know is that this is where we tackle uncertainty in all forms. It is where we anticipate the likely consequences of our actions. It is where we plan for a future we can never really see clearly. It is where we think about probability.
Because this area of the brain is still under construction twentysomethings can be what psychologists call “uneven.” Many of my clients went to good colleges but they don’t know how to start the lives they want. Or they were valedictorians but they don’t know how to make decisions about whom to date and why. Or they can’t figure out how twentysomethings who did not do as well in school are now outpacing them at work.
These are different skill sets. Being smart in school is about solving problems that have black-and-white solutions and imposed deadlines. But dong well in your 20s and beyond is about how you think and act even—and especially—in uncertain situations.
Unfortunately, this fact about the late-maturing frontal lobe has been misunderstood. Too many twentysomethings imagine that if they postpone decisions—and life—until their 30s, then all will be certain. Then they will have the sure answers to their lives. But adult dilemmas in the 20s and beyond—whether to leave one job for another, where to live, whom to partner with, when to start a family, whether to stay married—don’t have right answers. The frontal lobe never becomes able to see the future in the stars. It never finds guarantees.
The frontal lobe is simply the part of the brain where we learn to manage the distress that goes with uncertainty. It is where, hopefully, we move beyond the futile search for black-and-white answers and learn to tolerate—and act on—better shades of grey.
The twentysomething brain is capping off its last major growth spurt. So now is the perfect time to practice facing uncertainty. Now is the time to learn to tolerate the discomfort that comes from not knowing how work or life or love will turn out. Now is the time to train your brain to think in terms of probabilities, not certainties.
Adult life never does become black-and-white, with practice we just get better at managing the fifty shades of grey.
In my next post, I’ll provide a few tips on how.