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.)

14 comments on “The Odyssey Years
  • That sounds like a good plan to me; it’s what I’ve been doing for the past four years :-). It’s sometimes hard to explain this “plan” to people, though, especially potential employers. I really hate the question, “Where do you see yourself in five years?”, which seems to get asked on every single job interview I go on.

  • Love this, Ben. Can’t really emphasize how important I think this is. I’d also add that I think even if those low-risk years have passed, most people could benefit from figuring out a way to afford taking them later in life if they missed out earlier.

  • I absolutely agree with this, and wish that more people would just accept it rather than persuading others to be the norm. I had 2 businesses, and worked at few corporate jobs. It is only this year that I’m getting a little more clear about what I want to do in the long run. However, my family is getting sick of my adventures, since most people my age are married with kids, and they worry that I’d never grow up.

  • I’d love to take advantage of these “Odyssey years” to become more worldly, as you said. Even though I think I have a pretty clear idea of what I’d like to do with my life, I’d love to just get out and travel the world. There’s so much out there, waiting to be seen, explored, learned — it’s enough to make me think of that old adage, “My education is getting in the way of my learning.”

    Now, I suppose actually funding said Odyssey is an entirely different story…

  • It’s very easy to mess about when you have a safety net. No safety net means you have got to get a job quick. Oftentimes that doesn’t mean you get a chance to “find yourself.”
    There’s nothing wrong with being on a career track so long as it’s of your choosing and you’re open to the inherit instability that is life.

  • Charles, this is still worth doing even if it is not “very easy” to do so. I did it, with no safety net at all, and never looked back. (Struggle is very good for us.)

    Antipodeans really seem to get this. It’s de rigeur for them to do the gap year(s) thing, go travelling and work their way through it – bartending, waitressing, washing cars, temp jobs, and whatever else they have to do to finance their Odyssey Years. Why is it so easy for them to get their heads round this and so difficult for people from other cultures?

  • Out of school, I took a position as a bank analyst in corporate America. Interesting work, yes, but I soon grew more and more in fear that, “when I came to die,” I’d “discover that I had not lived.” (Thanks Thoreau!)

    With our first child on the way, I quit that job and volunteered for a year at a non-profit. I was responsible for raising my living, and I could only raise bare living expenses.

    Everyone I knew said I was crazy. I disagree. Best decision I ever made.

  • I like your idea of “exploration” Ben; however, most people in their odyssey years (in my view) end up moving back home after working odd jobs in random environments.

    I argue the majority of human beings need structure in their lives. Let’s face it, we are a society that demands instant gratification. If it’s tough, most people quit. The typical 9-5 is just fine. Living this routine works because there are set expectations and minimal risk for failure.

    Someone like yourself does not like structure because of how your mind operates. Thinking different comes naturally. Overcoming failure builds character, which makes you more likely to try the next time…and the next. Starting a company at 12 years old is not the norm. Most people are afraid to try in fear of failure.

    So, how does a person mitigate the chance of financial failure and family judgment? Easy. Go to college right after high school and attempt to blend in…..

  • Terrific post followed by brilliant, insightful comments.

    I find that the decision “To Odyssey or Not” is often influenced by (a) the cost and fear of failure and (b) what others would think. I also think Odyssey-ing is stage (and age) agnostic. In fact, I would even say – the later you do it, the better. You can mitigate the cost of failure by preparing early, by building that decent cushion from your (normative) work life, have a home, tuck away a savings kitty and later go fishing in Alaska without a worry.

    On (a), I go the fear of failure is of course the risk part of the risk-reward equation. If you don’t cross that hurdle, you have no choice but to trudge along the norm.

    As regards (b), you probably wouldn’t worry about what people think of you if you could know how seldom they do. They have their own worries that you don’t recognize. Happy is the man who has broken the chains which hurt the mind, and has given up worrying once and for all. Suffering is unavoidable; but worrying is optional. (relevant for Noelle’s comment above)

    So if you want to be successful, just go straight ahead and do what you love. But be frugal early, build that cushion. Nothing else matters.

  • Ben, what are your high level values and goals? Did you sit down and consciously articulate them, or have you kind of naturally come to discover them over time?

  • Hey I agree. The word passion is far too misleading sometimes. Tina Seelig, author of “What I Wish I Knew When I was 20” puts it best. You gotta find that sweet spot where the market demands what your passion can provide for them.

    Like what Ben said, finding this would take sometime. But by no means should you do whatever you want, and somehow wait and expect to get paid for it.

    I’m 24, and I’m trying really hard on this path of self discovery too…

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