A rare one from me – a bit of a personal post. I generally try to keep a pretty tight profile online and don’t get into life issues all that much, but this one’s been on my mind for a while now and after a recent event – I figured I’ve got at least some insight here as to what’s happening in the minds of us ‘young people’. Perhaps what I’ve learned can help others. If that’s the case, please leave a comment below with your thoughts or experiences, particularly if they differ from mine.I’ve been incredibly fortunate in university and in my early career to work with young people. It’s the thing I love most about what I do. Through university, I worked as a don in residence and helped transition first year students to what was likely the scariest thing they had done to date. They mostly did this by themselves, but I feel lucky to have played a part (even if microscopically small) in many of those students really becoming comfortable in their own skin and maturing into happy, kind, contributing individuals in society. They not only did great in school, they formed incredible circles of friends, balanced great relationships with partners and family, and felt prepared to take on the overwhelming challenges that come with those university years.
First year university is an amazing time for that. Many who feel the weight of peer and family pressures during high school arrive to a utopian campus hell-bent on individuality, expressiveness, and exploration. That can be transformational for students over a four year period. I’ve seen students too shy to speak in first year go on to run councils and clubs by their fourth year. It wasn’t easy, but the university environment provided the right conditions and connections to do so.
A scary thing happens just after university, however. Unfortunately this time around, there’s no campus, no guidance department, no residence life don, and no curriculum. This is life.
For a select few, the path is easy. They’ve known what their careers will be for a long time, they have the right support to get there, and there’s a clear road map to a life of being content, happy, and headed in the right direction.For the majority, though, it’s a deep, personal struggle. And I don’t think it’s talked about enough – at least in terms that are helpful. This is the Quarter-Life Crisis.
Even on Wikipedia
, there’s limited information on what the QLC entails. With the exception of a few studies
, there’s no definitive guide to what happens in the life of a young person during their twenties in regards to self awareness, ‘finding oneself’, and gaining direction. From what is
on Wikipedia, here are some of the symptons:
-insecurity concerning ability to love oneself, let alone another person
-insecurity regarding present accomplishments
-re-evaluation of close relationships
-disappointment with one’s job
-loneliness, depression, suicidal tendencies
-a sense that others are doing better than oneself
Eye Weekly ran a piece on this
almost exactly two years ago, but with no real relief for those going through it other than the assurance that others were reporting similar experiences.
“Welcome to your Quarter Life Crisis,” they started the article. “You can’t make any decisions because you don’t know what you want. And you don’t know what you want because you don’t know who you are. And you don’t know who you are because you’re allowed to be anyone you want. How messed up is that?”
Sound familiar? I’ll be the first to admit it – I’ve been there.
Experts and journalists still argue about whether the ‘quarter-life crisis’ even exists
, but that might be because there’s a different environment now for new grads and young people. Debt is high, fulfilling jobs hard to come by, the cost of living is enormously high, and change happens fast – even for us young’ns. Regardless of whether there’s a scientifically proven condition like the QLC, it doesn’t take more than a candid conversation with the twentysomething(s) in your life to see that something deep is going on.
While I’m still in my 20’s myself and, heck, still battle a lot of this, I think I’ve done okay since I first met the challenge of the QLC (see my note at the end of this post with more on that).
Somehow, through some combination of luck, advice from others, and being in the right place at the right time, I’ve come out happy with how I’ve met these challenges. That hasn’t come easy, but there are a few things I can pinpoint as helping to push me through. The following are the best pieces of advice that I can offer to others dealing with the QLC:
1. Stagnation (mindset) vs Inaction (avoidance)
There’s a difference between what can feel like stagnation and what is inaction. Let me explain.
You might feel like your life has ‘flattened out’. That is, you get into routines with partners, have been in the same place career-wise for what feels like an eternity, and can’t seem to get ahead on that student debt you racked up in school. Why does it feel like you’ve peaked before you even got started?
Let’s think about the contrast here to the former stage in your life. In school, things moved fast. With four month semesters, eight month academic years, and the next significant exam, test, or assignment always just a few days away – it happened at light speed and now feels like a blur looking back.
Now, out in the ‘real world’, nothing exciting has happened in ‘forever’. That can be painful, and hard to understand. If you’ve been working for a total of 2 years, you’ve quickly gone through the highs of graduating, interviewing, landing a job, celebrating, and getting settled in. Now, all that exciting change has grinded to a halt. You might feel like nothing positive has happened in months.
But let’s take some perspective on that. Even at 2 years in the ‘real world’, 4 months of no ‘significant change’ is a big percentage of your total career to date! What’s going on, you might be thinking? Are you peaking? No! You’ve left the world of academic sprinting, and you’re now a marathon runner. There will be what seems like long stretches with boring scenery – just like any good adventure. Trust me, there will be plenty more scary, uncomfortable, exciting moments of change that push you like you wouldn’t believe. The times in between will give you the sense and balance to be the most successful you can be when getting through the ‘edgy’ moments.
With this, comes the ability to think in the present. Dwelling on the past is extremely unproductive. There will always be a million things you could have done differently. I won’t get too zen here, but if you can learn to make decisions based on being present in any given situation, you’ll find a new level of fulfillment and satisfaction in dealing with challenges. This one takes practice.
Here’s my tip: Things might seem epic in proportion, but how will they really impact you? Important to remember here: what can feel like stagnation, might just be a matter of perspective. Also, don’t put your eggs in one basket. Balance out the highs and lows of a new school-free lifestyle with side-projects. Some people snicker when I mention I do wedding photography on the side. It doesn’t exactly go hand-in-hand with my day job. I don’t do it for the money. I do it for the adventure, for the incredible people
I work with on that project (see point #3 on people), and for the creative vehicle it provides. I could make a really great living doing that ‘full time’, and that’s a great option to have. But for now, it’s about getting out of the ‘stagnation’ feeling and working on something positive.
2. Why Doing Nothing is so Dangerous
On another hand, I’ve seen a handful of seriously talented, highly intelligent, scholarship-winning, headline-making young professionals watch all of that exciting possibility and potential absolutely vanish. What happened? They couldn’t tolerate any degree of stagnation, and instead of moving to the next opportunity, or shifting their perspective, they decided to do nothing. They couldn’t figure out what to do, so they chose nothing and waited. And they’re still waiting.
This is why inaction is so, so dangerous.
But you don’t know what you want to do with your life?
Just do something, now. You don’t have to be married to it, you don’t have to sign a lifetime contract, but at the very least you will learn and you will push yourself and you can eliminate options of things that don’t work for you. Remember that you don’t have to make the right choice for your lifetime career here.
I think there’s a big misperception about successful people and how they got started. Very, very rarely did that person start in their young twenties with the intention of creating what actually happened 10, 20, or 30 years later. Don’t know what I mean? You need to watch this
It was impossible to connect the dots looking forward when I was in college. But it was very, very clear looking backwards ten years later.Again, you can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something — your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever. – Steve Jobs, Stanford Commencement Speech, 2005
Tip: Just do something. Have fun with it, and learn from it. The dots will connect for you later.
3. Don’t go nuts. Keep the constants. (**most important in this post)
I made this mistake, more than once. I veered off into what I thought were brave new directions with blind ambition and unreal expectations. I also crashed pretty hard after many of those decisions.What did I get wrong? At each turn, I thought I needed a full restart, that I needed to reinvent myself, my life, and totally change the inputs present in my environment. I abandoned friends, family, and even business partners. I thought I needed to shed the past to create a better future. And that I would find the answers through isolation.
My friends wouldn’t hear from me for months, so they would call and call. “They just don’t understand,” I’d think to myself. “I’m doing big things here.”
That was so, so wrong. And if there’s one thing I could change it would be those decisions. Those ‘constants’ could have helped me in ways I was too blind to see.
While you might be exploring and on the search for what is right for you, it’s critical to keep in touch with your roots. That doesn’t have to mean staying in your hometown and following in your parents’ footsteps. It does mean really reflecting on the relationships, learnings, and value in those places. If we think about our twenties as a series of ups and downs, the ‘constants’ create some natural limits (good limits) that will keep you in check.
Here’s a little diagram that might help explain:
Those yellow dots are why you need those constants in your life. They’re critical, but can be easy to overlook. Here are some examples
Dot #1. This could be a situation where things are going so well at work lately you decide to plunk down some money and commit to a mortgage on a house. Your father, as much as it frustrates you, tells you to give it some time. Instead of shooting through that dotted line and into a higher ‘high’, you only take a slight bump. It’s still a bump, but it doesn’t get to the extremes.
Dot #2. You didn’t get that promotion you were hoping for. You come home to find your boyfriend waiting with roses to take you out for dinner. “Hey, things are going to be okay.” Instead of facing it by yourself and dwelling on all the things you could have done differently, you have a reason to focus on the positives and move closer to making progress, sooner.
Some important notes on this:
First of all, this doesn’t mean the highs and lows won’t be there. What it does mean is they won’t be as extreme. You won’t get up to those blindingly high places, which means you won’t crash as hard coming down and spiral into lower places.
Also, there’s an extension here that’s just as important as having the right people around you to get those constants in place. And that is cutting out the people that put opposing pressure on those good forces. I can’t stress this enough: you are as good as the company you keep. This is the most frustrating for me to see happen, and also the most frustrating to be going through. It can be a tough one, but this is a question of values and energy. If you should have high expectations about anything, it should be the people you choose to spend your time with. At all costs, avoid people that are arrogant, negative, unmotivated, and lack a moral compass.
But they’re your friends? Maybe offer them help (**big maybe. This is tricky and sensitive) or be extremely careful how much you put into these relationships. They will suck more energy, passion, and potential out of you than you will ever be able to see for yourself.
You’ll thank yourself in five years.
On a related note, there’s another lesson under this category that many people come to realize early in their ‘school-free’ life. Your job, degree, apartment, etc. do not define you. These are branches and extensions of external choices you’ve made. What does define you is your character, your contributions to others and meaningful projects, and the constants.
A personal note: I was crippled by this for a long time. Whether the Quarter Life Crisis officially exists or not, it’s a crazy time in your life – but also one filled with incredible opportunities for laying the foundation for an exciting, enriching life ahead. The doubt, negativity, and insecurity that come with this time are masks for what is really underlying. These are not problems – they are opportunities. Working through them, keeping the above in mind, can be extremely rewarding in a number of ways. Find your constants, do something, and get to work! Look back in five years and the progress will be astonishing.
And of course, I’m not saying anything a simple JM song could have explained anyway:
Stop trying to figure it out
It will only bring you down
You know, I used to be the back
porch poet with my book of lines
Always open knowing all the time I’m probably
Never gonna find the perfect rhyme
For ‘heavier things’Cause ever since I tried
Trying not to find
Every little meaning in my life
It’s been fine
I’ve been cool
With my new golden rule