The Quarter-Life Crisis

What do you want to do with your life? Do you have it all figured out? Do you have a plan?

Wait…No? You don’t!? Well take a deep breath, because you are not alone. And there is a name for what you are experiencing. Let me elaborate.

I need to figure my life out.

Work is fine, but it’s not really that meaningful.

I don’t have my s*** together.

Sound familiar?

Those of us in the Millennial Generation, born in the 1980’s and 90’s, are now in our 20’s and 30’s. We are college students, freshly minted graduates, and young adults. We are starting our careers, pursuing graduate degrees, or even making a career change. We are shifting from a known and comfortable identity (Student) to a much scarier and nebulous one (Adult. Or the more colloquial title, Real Person).

There is a name for the anxiety and fear associated with this transition: Quarter-Life Crisis.

The Quarter-Life Crisis has many identifying factors similar to its namesake, the mid-life crisis. Both have a lot to do with time passing, finding meaning, and knowing one’s authentic identity. Usually these things are tied up in one’s job and/or family commitments. But whereas the mid-life crisis is characterized by a sudden awareness of unrealized dreams and how much time has been “wasted,” the Quarter-Life Crisis involves the preemptive fear of this very phenomenon.

Placeholder ImageMost often this manifests in a desperation to find paid work that is also meaningful and engaging. Other common symptoms include wanting to have “a good work/life balance,” a desire to “figure out what I really want,” and the pursuit of the ever-evasive “life plan.”

So what’s going on here? There is an argument that the Quarter-Life Crisis is unique to my generation, and regardless of whether this is true, there is a reason why the effect may be compounded for us.

Millennials were the first generation to grow up with the internet, or be introduced to it at a young and impressionable age.

I don’t remember life without the internet, and for this reason, my world is exponentially bigger than my parents’ world was at my age. I have a lot of information about what my life could be like if I pursue this path or that. I have a lot of choices.

I majored in psychology when I was at Dartmouth. But you probably don’t even need to take Psych 101 to know that:

some choice is good, but too much choice can be really bad!

…when it comes to making us happy, that is. As a promoter and a pursuer of a happy life, the question of what to do with too much choice is paramount.

My first step in confronting (and eventually overcoming) my own Quarter-Life Crisis was to get clear with myself on exactly what choices I was facing. I spent TWO YEARS in crisis before even asking myself, What am I really choosing between? I was simply living in a state of paralysis, with no idea why, other than the catch-all diagnosis of I don’t know what I want to do with my life.

Into the Unknown

Which wasn’t entirely true. I did know some things that I wanted. I knew I wanted to travel, for example. I also knew some things I didn’t want: I didn’t want to keep working seasonal jobs. I was averse to the idea of a permanent living location, but I didn’t have a clue how things like taxes or insurance or car registration work when you live in 4 different states in one year. The biggest thing I did NOT know was whether I wanted to keep ski racing. That was a very specific type of crisis, the Athletic Identity Crisis.

So how did I come through all of that to the place I am now: growing my own business, supporting myself financially, location independence, and racing again at an elite level?

Uncovering the hidden choices underlying anxiety is step one. For many of us, the anxiety of the Quarter-Life Crisis stems from the hidden belief that we cannot have all the things we want in life. Recently, I had a conversation with a friend which demonstrated this exact point. Here is a paraphrased recount of that conversation:

Chelsea (not my friend’s real name): I feel like I can’t move forward until I separate my athletic goals from my life goals.

Me: What would you say is an athletic goal?

Chelsea: Well, I really just like the feeling of pushing my body. I want to practice a sport with the goal of seeing how good I can become.

Me: How is that different from a life goal?

Chelsea: It doesn’t make me money. It doesn’t prove I’m doing something valuable with my life.

Me: But it is part of your lifestyle just the same.

Chelsea: Yeah, but…like, it doesn’t lead me to having an independent life.

Me: So what would you consider to be a life goal?

Chelsea: To have a job and be financially independent, and be able to take care of myself and know what I want.

Me: And you see your athletic goals as not contributing to your life goals?

Chelsea: Yeah. Like they don’t work together.

Me: Then do you really need to separate the two? Or are they already separate?

Chelsea: Yeah, I don’t see how I can have them both.

Me: Then I don’t think you don’t need to separate your life goals and athletic goals, you need to UNITE them. You already see them as separate entities, impossible to have at the same time. It seems like THAT is the limiting belief. In my experience, when you begin seeing the two as parts of a greater whole, you can start building a life around them.

Chelsea: But how?

Me: For me, that first thing was how I framed it. So maybe re-name “Life Goals” to represent what those goals truly are. The goals you have named are mainly financial goals. So rename them thus, and then tell yourself that Financial Goals and Athletic Goals are pieces of a whole life. Maybe we can call that “Chelsea’s Highest Life.”

Chelsea: So now they can work together to build a full life.

Me: Right. You have redefined “Life Goals” to better represent what you truly mean: Financial Goals. And you have re-framed the question. Now the question is not how to separate financial goals and athletic goals, but how to make them work together.

Chelsea: But how do I? They don’t work together!

Me: Why do they not seem to work together? How do they work against each other?

Chelsea: I’m not a good enough athlete to make money doing it!

Me: You’re not a good enough chef to make money doing that either. But you still cook, every day, and enjoy it. Just because you don’t make money at something doesn’t mean there is no way to do it, or no value in doing it. That’s an excuse we make out of fear. It’s always easier to say “I can’t” than “I don’t know how.”

“I don’t know how” leaves open the possibility that it can be done, but that we may not have the courage to do it. “I can’t” lets us off the hook. “I can’t” may be easier to accept.

But it’s not what I wanted to accept. I did not want to accept not being able to afford being a professional athlete. I did not want to accept travel and training as clashing goals. I did not want to accept seasonal jobs as my only means of sustaining a nomadic life.

Don’t settle for “I can’t.” It’s time to face “I don’t know how.” That’s the only way to give yourself a chance at discovering how.

Even if taking that first step feels like walking off a cliff.

My favorite real-life cliff to walk off. (Huntington’s Ravine, Mt. Washington, NH)


Want more? Find me on Instagram and Facebook @CarlyOutside_TheBox, and join my email list here.

If you enjoyed this post, check out a similar post, The Athletic Identity Crisis

One comment

  1. […] many ways, it’s not unlike the crisis of purpose I dubbed my “Quarter Life Crisis,” shortly after graduating from college. In some ways, this phase is harder, because everything is […]


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