If you’re a relatively intelligent, ambitious person (and you probably are if you’re reading this), you probably spent all of your school years in K-12 focused on getting to the next level of “the game.”
Once you got there, you walked down the stage, took your diploma, and matriculated into the best university you could at the intersection of “prestigious” and “does not cost the GDP of a small European country.”
While there, you focused on getting the best internships and the best jobs for whatever your major or your school represented.
Once you landed that job, the game starts all over.
Usually, at this point, young people feel a pang of anxiety. There’s this feeling of, “why am I doing all of this?” and “who am I?”
Most young people brush this under the rug, going back about their work, going out with friends, and figuring it’s just part of the anxiety of growing up. Or they take the other end of the spectrum and go on silent meditation retreats or travel around Thailand.
The Quarter-Life Crisis
This is the quarter life crisis. This is the feeling at the back of your head that you may have just wasted the last couple years of your life or you are not living a life you want to live.
Like its cousin, the better-known Mid-Life Crisis, the QLC is exacerbated by feeling like life is out of your control. For highly competent, ambitious people — especially those raised with little adversity in their lives — the ability to coast through life is largely dependent on no major upheavals like a nasty divorce or a war or a corporate downsizing. Once an extra factor like that is thrown into the mix, life takes on a feeling of anxiety and chaos.
At its core, anxiety is a perception that the world is changing too quickly for you to handle.
This is why recent grads feel anxiety upon leaving the cocoon of the university — life moves based on days, not semesters. Or why somebody feels anxiety upon learning about a cheating significant other or a diagnosis of a terrible disease. The world is changing faster than they had anticipated.
You can take control of your quarter-life crisis, though. Not only that, you can leverage it as an opportunity to take control of the direction and speed of your life with competence.
The Road to Saving Yourself from the Quarter-Life Crisis
“If you can see your path laid out in front of you step by step, you know it’s not your path. Your own path you make with every step you take. That’s why it’s your path.” — Joseph Campbell
Once we understand that anxiety is simply the perception that the world is changing faster than we are prepared to handle, we can get control of the anxiety and master it through one of two paths.
Either, we can make the world change more slowly. This is how somebody obsessed with control reacts. They want everything to be in its expected place and will expend large amounts of energy to keep it in its place.
But this is really, really hard and a great way to live in a state of heightened stress. The world changes and is full of other people who not only move stuff around but also move around, themselves.
Or, we can become better prepared to handle the changing of the world. We can become more competent. When we see ourselves as competent at handling challenges and the changing landscape, surprises and changes in life are less jarring.
Of course, learning of a cancer diagnosis or that your partner has been cheating on you will always be an unpleasant experience. But you can be better prepared for whatever life throws at you by mastering the little things. A habit of high self-efficacy helps you understand yourself as capable of taking on anything life can throw at you.
Build Your Self-Efficacy
Self-efficacy is your own deeply-held perception of yourself as capable and competent. Somebody with high self-efficacy does things when they say they are going to and can push aside internal limiting beliefs and doubts about their abilities.
Think of the people whom you would call “effective.” These are the people who just get shit done and, once they figure out where they want to go, get started on that path. Things might come up that delay them on that path, but they soberly take care of these delays and get back on track.
That is what high self-efficacy looks like.
Having high self-efficacy really requires no more than doing two things:
- Doing what you know you should do.
- Doing harder things.
I have a brief interview on developing self-efficacy which you can find here.
Have you ever procrastinated for several days on going to the gym or doing your laundry? Or maybe spent two hours putzing around on Facebook when you should have been reading or cleaning your house? You not only feel out of shape or like a slob but you also feel like a complete mess. You feel like you don’t have your life together and that general lack of efficacy bleeds into other areas.
Achieving 1), doing what you know you should do, is as simple as doing just that. This is why you should make your bed first thing when you get up, go to the gym before work, and do the important work items at the beginning of the day. When you start your days with the most important items (what you “should do.”), you send the signal to yourself that you do, indeed, have your life together and are capable of doing things.
Different people with different personalities require different systems in order to succeed. If you are already highly conscientious, then keeping your room clean or establishing a habit of going to the gym will not be a challenge. If you are less conscientious, you may require an outside party to push you (or shame you) into doing the things you should do instead of putzing around on Facebook or Medium.
When struggling to get yourself together to do things you know you should do, imagine your life if you never got yourself together and only spent your time putzing around online and doing the things you are forced to do, like going to your job you hate. Then imagine how much different your life could be if you got your stuff together, found a job you love, and rediscovered the passion for life that the anxiety of a quarter-life crisis introduces.
As you start to get your life together, do increasingly difficult tasks. Start with cleaning and tidying and personal health. Move to things that require you to put yourself out there, like writing and publishing and interviewing for jobs. As you undertake increasingly difficult tasks, the relative difficulty of each task decreases. Before you know it, you are regularly doing things that you could only imagine yourself doing before.
Know Your Path: Set a Direction for Your Life
In addition to increasing our competence at dealing with changing landscapes, we can also decrease the likelihood that the landscape changes. If you know a general idea of where you are going and a map of how to get there, you feel less anxious when going into new territory. Even if you have to take a detour — a family member gets sick, you get laid off, or you get sick — you feel less anxious about that detour if you know that taking a few specific actions gets you back on track.
From a young age, we are told that we can be whatever we want. That’s not true. We can be only a handful of things in our lives. This realization that we have to choose and to choose a life of specificity leads to analysis paralysis in late teenage years and early adulthood. A desire to be “well-rounded” and to get as many opportunities as possible by going to a prestigious university (which often selects for “well-rounded”) does not help.
We develop an aversion to goal-setting. Goal-setting sets conditions for failure and lets us know when we have come up short. This is a painful experience. Why purposely inflict discomfort on ourselves when lack of goal-setting has worked well so far in rising through the academic ranks?
Imagine you are the leader of a corporate team (hence the “like a boss” title). Your team is blindsided by an economic downturn and the entry of a new, terrifying competitor like Amazon into your market.
Your team is debilitated. What to do? Where to go? Every day you wait is a day of runway being used up.
Do you just get everybody together and tell them to do their best and you are sure things will turn out better?
You develop an action plan. You figure out what you want to avoid (i.e., losses) and what you want more of (i.e., sustainable profit) and do less of the things that cause the first and more of the things that cause the second.
This is obvious, yet so many people choose the first option when they feel themselves going through the same kind of existential crisis. You are the boss of the team that is you — why not act like one?
It often does not help that we are never told how to find out what we want. “Move towards good stuff” is only helpful if we know what “good stuff” is. We can also move away from “bad stuff,” and we often have a better idea of what “bad stuff” looks like.
What will your life look like if you continue to live in anxiety? What are the things your quarter-life crisis brings to the front that you really do not like? If you could reform your life without any of the most uncomfortable components in it, what would it look like?
Work through a process of elimination to move towards a set of potential futures. Once you get out of the crisis, then you can ask yourself what specific good things you want from your goals. It is only once you are out of the forest that you can look at the stars.
Do not be ashamed of the fact that you experience a quarter-life crisis. More young people do today than ever before. Do not find comfort in your lack of shame, though. Know that you can escape this pit and live your life towards the one you imagined as a child. It just takes getting started and moving to a better place.
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