My Quarter-life crisis

We all want to be “somebody,” and we have exactly 25 years to do it in.

On the morning of my Dad’s 50th birthday, I remember my uncle Colin calling him and saying, “Well, you don’t have to be somebody anymore!” I smiled at the thought. Little did I know, that this was something that would afflict me for the next 25 years, and currently seems to be at its height. There is not enough credit given to your twenties. There are so many important decisions in this decade that set the tone for your future and the opportunities seem endless. And as such, the potential mistakes and pitfalls triple that.

This period is broadly defined as a crisis involving anxiety over the direction and quality of one’s life. You’re probably settling into a job that you kind of like but are pressured to say that you love. You might have found someone that you really think you could make a go of this life thing with, a partner that might stick it out with you. You hope. You finally understand the true scarcity of money and resent your dependency on it, but may still be hopeful that you can outsmart the chase for it. You really wish you could be one of the best in your field, whatever it may be, or at the very least respected for it.

So why then, is it so hard to decide? Surely, one should sit down, decide what’s important to them and then go ahead and work towards the goal? If only it were that easy and didn’t take close to a decade to formulate a plan. And probably more accurately, perhaps a lifetime. (I wouldn’t know, I haven’t formulated a plan yet!)

Fortunately, even while we sit and ponder our existential purpose, life goes ahead and keeps living. So whether or not you do anything about it, it goes on. Before you know it, you’re paying off a bond and you’ve had a baby and the dimensions of your world have been redefined. Our anxiety around all of this, is the fact that we want to live our best life. And that begins with defining what succeeding at that means to you.

A small but important hurdle here is deciding to scrutinize society’s expectations of you. Some are valid and well worth achieving, they are norms because they have been proven time and time again, to in the long run benefit you. Others are however, manufactured. These require careful consideration and often involve career paths, money and status. These bars are often set by people without any of these things and are therefore likely to be misperceptions of what such a life would truly entail. The trouble with externally defined goals is that each individual is privy to only their direct experience, of which no two are the same and this is what makes the navigation of this time ever the more confusing. Because there is no blueprint for your life.

It is here, that upon recognising the complexity of the life experience, we begin to forgive our parents for their short comings. Or that is, what we perceive them to be. In a sense, this is actually a forgiveness and acceptance of the self. That perfection is an illusion, it is neither attainable nor universally defined. And therefore, not a viable pursuit. For most people, the relationship with one’s parents takes a bit of a turning point here, the acknowledgment of the difficulty of being a perfectly consistent human being, both relieves them and yourself of the expectation of perfection. But rather, places more reasonable and realistic goals on your future. Having learned from some of their mistakes, it is time to move on.

The best plans have a backup plan, and therefore it may be useful to make them as fluid and as flexible as possible. There are likely to be surprises along the way and your tactic should be able to accommodate the flux. One important choice I have pondered recently is where my partner and I would like to live. It’s one of the major decision sets because to some extent this determines your general lifestyle, your work and livelihood options and therefore your quality of life. Factors influencing this are vast, and raised several important questions. Do I want to raise our children in a city? Will we cope being further away from our families than we already are? Will we have enough career options available to us that wouldn’t have us overworked but still fulfilled? Wouldn’t it be nice to be part of a smaller but more engaging and interdependent community? It has become easier to define a theme of our preferred lifestyle instead of nominating a hard and fixed location. Who can really tell where their life will take them in a few years time, when so much changes in just twelve short months. It might be more important to have a framework rather than a schedule.

A personally more difficult decision for me has been to decide on a specific career path. I am quite happy with my day to day job and find in it, an engagement that satisfies my need for a sense of purpose and fulfils my current developmental needs. It won’t always. Hence the ongoing crisis.

The irony of this position is that we are often expected to make these assertions about our futures when we have very little experience in living. But neither does this have to be a once off decision nor a single path.

It was the prerogative of our parents’ generation to find a job and stick to it for most of their lives, developing largely unilaterally until they had “made it.” Modern employment however is moving away from this, versatility is a more sought after trait and people are finding they take up several different but related jobs. Perhaps this style of employment allows us more room to manoeuvre and meet the different needs we might have at different stages in our lives. To make long term rigid commitments to your future can be entrapping and potentially disappointing.

It also makes you wonder if it doesn’t actually matter what it is that you do, and that it is more important that you get started on working on “something.” In time, this will flourish into something you have invested in and value. This could be your project of sorts that you have tweaked to suit your interests and that you ultimately get enjoyment out of. It seems true purpose or fulfilment are closely tied to the emotional investment in something and its development into an extension of yourself that contributes to your sense of self-worth.

Whatever your crisis, often we all face very similar stressors, the key is to remember that this is as much a rite of passage like any other. The anxiety born of a sense of indecision is part of the process and for a time serves the purpose of building the desire for change. This is in fact a quiet process of elimination and subsequent definition of preferred themes of your life. If each day can rather be filled with meeting the criteria of what’s important to you, then the rest will fall into place. The objective must just be, to begin.