The Odyssey Years

David Brooks yesterday wrote about "The Odyssey Years," which he calls the decade of wandering between adolescence and adulthood:

During this decade, 20-somethings go to school and take breaks from school. They live with friends and they live at home. They fall in and out of love. They try one career and then try another.

All the while they are delaying marriage, delaying permanent employment, and remaining financially dependent well into their 20’s. Brooks calls this a "sensible response to modern conditions."

I agree with him. This is my generation. He’s right that many more of us are taking time to explore and experiment and wander. Maybe we do some foreign travel, or try to start a start-up, or work on a fishing boat in Alaska. The odyssey years are increasingly accepted, though there’s still pressure to jump on the fast track right away and resolve what’s being termed "The Quarterlife Crisis". I was one of only two students in the senior class who took a "gap year" after high school, for example.

I think some people should spend their 20’s wandering and exposing themselves to bulk, positive randomness mainly because a) the cost of failure is extraordinarily low when you’re young but only increases in time, so why not trek off the beaten path? and b) the only way to gain a more panoramic perspective on your life possibilities is to do a lot of different things. Through our two decades of formal schooling we are usually exposed to just a handful of 9-5 professions (doctor, lawyer, teacher, writer) when in fact there are thousands of possible ways to build an ideal life.

The reason I evangelize "wandering and experimenting" is because most of the ambitious, smart college students I’ve met when I speak at and visit universities think the only path to success is ultra focus on a specific career track right out of the gate. And most of the successful people I’ve met in the real world say they really had no idea their life would turn out as it had, and most have regrets not pursuing activities easier done when young which would have made them more interesting and worldly.

So to me it seems stupid to overly plan the first 10 years after college – the Odyssey Years. I hate life plans. Most life or career plans put the author in a mental straitjacket where he becomes blind to opportunities and possibilities that exist on the periphery of our everyday life. The best "life plan," in my book, would articulate some high level values and goals, but leave the first 5-10 years blank, with the label "Exploration". Not to slack off, but to play with different happiness formulas and try on different lifestyles to discover which path most excites and fulfills him.

(Thanks to Arnold Kling of the excellent EconLog for the Brooks pointer.)

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