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Lessons from a Quarter Life Crisis

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

 

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9 thoughts on “Lessons from a Quarter Life Crisis

  1. Gray McCarty says:

    Hey Kevin,

    Great post–I really enjoyed it. I think you hit the nail on the head with a few of the points you made. I also think, as cliche as it sounds, that making some of these mistakes you mention, and dealing with the uncertainties of life really do help you find the ‘proper path’ for yourself–even if it means going through some rough times. I’m a firm believer in the idea that you learn from your experiences, and your mistakes are so much more valuable than your triumphs. That being said, I think it’s important that people realize the ‘normalcy’ of a Quarter Life Crisis, and when it’s taking too much of your life away from you. It’s called a Quarter Life Crisis because it happens at the quarter marker in your life–i.e. life goes on. Learn from the past and leverage this knowledge to make yourself a better future.

    I think you gave some great tips too for people struggling with their QLC. I don’t think I’m there yet per se, but just having finished school 2 weeks ago I’ve had freakouts about the thought of entering the ‘real world’, and I’ve certainly envisioned myself going through somewhat of a QLC in the near future.

    Anyhow, just wanted to say I enjoyed the post! Hope you’re well.

  2. Kevin Morris says:

    Gray, thanks for that.

    Huge for me was two of your points:

    1. When it’s taking too much of your life away from you. It’s frustrating to see people face the crisis and throw the baby out with the bath water. Balance is everything.

    2. Life goes on. Learning could have been a whole other section of that post, but you got it. It’s about making a better future based on the experiences you’ve had thus far.

    Thanks for the comment.

  3. Katie Edmonds says:

    SO important to remember, and something I often forget: “Your job, degree, apartment, etc. do not define you.” It is very easy (and I am guilty of this) to feel lost and confused when one (or all) of those things are not going the way you planned. Thanks for the post 🙂

  4. I like the point you make about our perception of life moving too slowly after school. Its definitely something people our age need to keep in mind that things don’t happen immediately and instead take time.

    Overall this is a post I definitely have to store away. After graduating from school. the ‘real world’ kind of hits you in the face and its a lot to take in. This post is a great reminder that we sometimes need to step back a bit and slow things down.

  5. Alanna Tobia says:

    Kevin,
    This post is a homerun! I think many 20somethings can relate, myself included, and really appreciate it. I cannot count how many times I heard the phrase “you can’t do nothing, you have to do something”. I am so thankful I had people in my life stressing that, and anyone who reads this post will be very grateful to have that bit of knowledge.

    Stagnation vs inaction had never crossed my mind and is definitely some food for thought moving forward.

    I had a little laugh to myself when I finished reading. It is nice to be reminded I’m not the only one out there who feels this way. Thanks for writing this, and reminding us young’ns to hang in there.

  6. lily says:

    Great post. I don`t think this issue or event in every young persons life is much discussed nor even positively acknowledged. The elders usually spot it as a negative.

    But what about those who entered school, worked the real world, done the whole big bang theory with experiments and reenter school. What do we call that or what suggestions are offered for those who do have a track record, but in one way or another are forced to start over from scratch. Something to think about.

  7. Kevin – eloquently put! Appreciate you capturing and sharing your retrospective thoughts. You display much vulnerability in sharing this, yet it is something that every ambitious twenty-something is experiencing in some way.

    The two questions I ask of myself and share with other ambitious twenty-somethings ‘looking’ for themselves are:

    1) What are the activities you do that make you lose track of time? Identify those and fit them into your life – it’s called full engagement! See: wedding photography.

    2) Who are the people that inspire you and what about them do you wish to emulate?

    I believe these two questions help create much direction. It is now the patience, consistent correction, and positive attitude that will help get us there… with some ups and downs along the way!!

    Great post!

    Cheers,
    S.

  8. jamie shea says:

    kev – love this.
    i’m sure i could share with you words far more poignant, but i’ll just leave it at that.
    thanks for writing.

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