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An eye for business

Kate talks candidly about her "odyssey"


by Jo Leonard

Training and coaching 20-somethings on career planning, job search and the associated social skills required to be successful, is not easy. Generation Y, as they're often called, are an interesting and challenging group. I've been working with them exclusively for a decade and I love every minute of it. Why? Because of young adults like Kate, whose story you can read below. She epitomizes her generation and the wonderful assets it has to offer.  I am convinced that with some guidance and wisdom, Kate and her peers will find their way through their 20's and become happy, fulfilled and independent adults.  If you have a 20-something in your family, this is for you.

Kate always smiled when she served me my iced coffee at Starbucks, and she knew my name.  She clearly stood out. Two months after noticing Kate, I hired her as a tutor for some of my clients, and as an administrator for the non-profit I serve. Kate is the quintessential 20-something on her own personal odyssey, and I'm happy to say that she is moving through it with grace and style.  I asked her to write about her experiences, so as to demonstrate how her generation analyze their lives and feel about their futures. Here is her story:

"I know I'm not the only one who feels caught in between two stages of life. And my mother is not the only mother who feels anxious, not completely understanding the decisions this 20-something has made.

I'm a twenty-three year old graduate student studying to become a Secondary English teacher. I live at home with my mother, so I am especially aware of the concerned motherly eyes that watch me. They fear I will never settle into a calm and responsible adult life.  I graduated college, started my graduate degree, took a job at Starbucks to pay some bills and figured that I was on the right track. But I didn't like my job and felt as if I was wasting time.  

When I made the decision to leave the warm, smell-good Starbucks environment to pursue two other part-time jobs, I was nervous. My new mentor handed me a book and an article and I read them both that night. My fears subsided considerably and remarkably, I now find myself in a period of re-evaluation, making decisions about my career and my life that are well considered and more importantly, strategic.

The article, written by David Brooks called "The Odyssey Years", discusses the stage of life that 20-somethings go through between adolescence and adulthood.  Some adults laugh at this stage, but I'm not laughing.  Life is not the same for my generation as it was 20, 30 or 40 years ago.  College is more expensive, jobs are harder to find, and the cost of living is much higher, requiring many of us to move home after college.  And we've been raised with high expectations to create a successful life with quite a few trimmings!

The book, recently published by Dr. Meg Jay called "The Defining Decade: Why Your Twenties Matter and How to Make the Most of Them Now," has really changed my outlook and I now realize that I am more in control of my life than it may seem to outsiders. This feeling is empowering and gives me confidence to stay focused and on track.             

Our Odyssey Years are more than just a transition period; it's an actual stage that can span up to a decade during which we "improvise our lives." We wander easily from city to city, school to school, job to job, love to new love. To older generations, it may seem like a directionless, risk-free, even lazy period of life, but this judgment underestimates its value.  Many social scientists regard this time as a developmental sweet spot as we transition from childhood to adulthood, forming and revising our identity based on our experiences: the moments of our odyssey.

In the past, 20-Somethings developed into adults without prominent odyssey stages, but recent times have created a different environment for us to grow. David Brooks explains that the formation of this stage is "a sensible response to modern conditions." Society has changed drastically since the transition from adolescence to adulthood lasted the length of time of a wedding ceremony. The balance of power between genders has shifted as more women earn college degrees, which has decreased (but not eliminated) the wage gap and altered the variables of courtship.  Also, the job market is less accommodating and more fluid. People are forced to work multiple jobs they are not prepared for and for which they are probably overqualified. Brooks further explained, "There are intense competitive pressures as a result of the vast numbers of people chasing relatively few opportunities."

In The Defining Decade, Dr. Jay and other sociologists and psychologists, identify the value that can be gained during this period as Identity Capital, which is very different from aimless wandering. She writes, "Identity Capital is our collection of personal assets. It is the repertoire of individual resources that we assemble over's how we build ourselves - bit by bit."

And yet it is not random. Identity Capital accumulation must be done with intention. It must be earned, relevant and sought out with consideration, otherwise it can be a pile of mis-shapen rocks that do not fit together to form a livable building, and can take too long to build. As long as I make decisions (jobs, trips, relationships) based on the intention to take the most value out of every situation, I will have a greater chance of collecting this precious type of capital. At Starbucks, although I learned customer service and making a good cup of coffee, I didn't learn anything particularly relevant to my proposed career choice.  Now, as a key part of a non-profit organization that focuses on educating foster care kids, and a tutor of English, I feel that everyday I'm building my Identity Capital.

There is a lot invested in an odyssey. After reading David Brooks and Dr. Jay's position on the significance of my stage of life, I am more aware of what is at stake when I make a decision. They helped me understand that there is a great danger of not expanding enough, not collecting enough resources and experiences, not building a large enough network, and passing the opportunity to develop identity and eventually flourish in the future.  Dr. Jay reminded me that this stage requires me to say "yes" to things that interest me and scare me at the same time, spend time with people outside of my close circle of friends, and pursue and trust my ideas and aspirations.

Hold on to the intention to acquire as much identity capital as this decade has to offer you. If your parents are worried about you, too, tell them it's not a vacation: you're in the midst of a grueling, frightening, inspiring, and defining odyssey.


Jo Leonard

Jo Leonard, President and Founder of Jo Leonard, LLC. "Partners in College & Career Navigation" brings together over 40 years of experience in corporate, non-for profit and academic environments. With a charismatic and results-oriented approach, Jo has inspired audiences that include Fulbright scholars, senior level professionals and many Generation Y and Millenium Generation college and career starters. She travels around the U.S. speaking to and training high school and college students in the art of mind-mapping and creative brainstorming to develop career and major ideas and then helps them translate those ideas into personal presentation both in person and on paper. To reach her, please visit her website,





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