Quarter-Life Crisis: How did you handle it?
March 2, 2005 11:41 AM   Subscribe

Quarter-Life Crisis: How did you handle it?

After perusing Wikipedia's entry on Quarter-Life Crisis, I've come to the conclusion that I currently suffer from most of the common characteristics listed. I don't mind my job, but I feel a longing to travel and pursue my dreams outside of being "responsible". Who out there in MetaFilterLand shares (or has shared in the past) a similar situation? How did you handle it? What effect do your choices have on you now? Were there any moments of clarity that helped you become content, or did becoming content make things worse?

** Note: re-posted, now with more clarity!
posted by nitsuj to Society & Culture (23 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
I think a more appropriate question would be who out there in MeFi land has NOT shared a similar situation. I pretty much think this is a universal phenomenon, statistically. I don't know anyone who has not gone through this. The number of people I know who still struggle with this in their 30s, myself included, is greater than the number of people I know who don't. I mean, basically in this society you are asked to define a large chunk of your future at a very early age with extremely limited and prejudicial information. It's no wonder most people get out of college and get into the work world and go "WHOA..what the HELL is this? I didn't sign up for this!"
posted by spicynuts at 11:49 AM on March 2, 2005 [1 favorite]

Re-answered, now with more clarity! (Maybe.)

The only thing that made me feel "better" was to try lots of stuff. I had lots of experiences in college, but mostly with a career focus rather than exploring personal fulfillment. So I think I had too many choices swirling around in my head, and I couldn't separate the meaningful ones out from the ones that were just fun to do once... until I tried them. I didn't have to try out every notion; after a year or so I started to figure out the theme of my life, really, and then I could tell which ideas were mere notions and which I really needed to direct my attention to.

Books that helped: I Could Do Anything if Only I Knew What It Was, The Artist's Way.

I did short-term (week-long/month-long) solo travel, internships, classes, joined groups, etc. I also had to seriously investigate buying a house in order to figure out what place I wanted home ownership to occupy in my life goals.

I just want to add that my bias is towards the non-traditionally-responsible: I'm now 32, in a creative field, I have debt, I don't own property, I travel lots, I may not ever have children, I prefer to be my own boss, etc. So I don't know how well these explorations would sort out someone who needed or wanted to return to the 9-5 afterwards.
posted by xo at 12:02 PM on March 2, 2005 [1 favorite]

I agree, it's something that pretty much everyone goes through.

I can't remember the exact line, but there's a scene in Lost in Translation where Bill Murray's character more or less describes how you get out of it: you just slowly become more and more sure of who you are and what you want, and the energy that used to go into self-doubt and navel-gazing instead starts to get directed towards pursuing your dreams.

The biggest thing, to be honest, is to realize that everyone else is struggling. That realization is sort of empowering; it lets you look at someone who's doing something you'd like to be doing and think "well, if that idiot can swing it, so can I."

In my specific case, this meant spending my early- and mid- 20s sitting around writing awful fiction and telling myself that I was a misunderstood genius because the publishing world wasn't actively seeking me out. As I approached thirty, I slowly started to gain a clue about how the world works, stopped feeling sorry for myself, and started thinking about how to actually make enough money writing to live off of it. I'm not there yet, but I've made progress, and that knowledge feels pretty good.

It also helps to realize that you have a choice in almost everything you do. Most people don't realize just how much they let inertia control their destiny, and cruising on inertia is the biggest cause of quarter-life crisis, if you ask me.
posted by COBRA! at 12:03 PM on March 2, 2005 [1 favorite]

This is a really tough question, with a huge list of pros and cons. If you *really* want to travel, and you have no dependents, figure out how to go. I wanted to, and I went, and in the end took about 6 years off to travel.

I'd recommend starting off in non-bridge-burning style. You could try to negotiate say three months off, and spend all that time in another country. At the end of that time, you'll know if you love it, or are indifferent to or hate it. If you love it, everything else will fall into place, with a little effort. If you hate it, at least you know you will have given it a go.
posted by carter at 12:13 PM on March 2, 2005

just to correct a misconceptions several people have posted. it's not universal - that list rings no bells with me. coincidence maybe, but i spent a year abroad after leaving university (although i got a phd first - something that cures any yearning for "student life" because you have to live with the immature idiots), which supports carter's thesis.
posted by andrew cooke at 12:31 PM on March 2, 2005

I am a young guy with a family. I used to play in a band full time (before I was responsible), playing lots of shows etc. But my biggest regret now that I am 'responsible' is that I didn't take more time to travel.

I am pretty much content now (jonmc had a great comment in the "are you having fun" thread where he summed it up as such: "So, crack a beer and turn on Family Guy. That's about as good as it gets. Unless you have some chips.") Thats about my life. Which is fine, but...

I would do whatever it takes to just do it. Follow your dreams now, because there is more and more pressure to "grow up" as you... erm.. grow up.
posted by Quartermass at 12:34 PM on March 2, 2005

For many middle-class Americans, being in The Real World is so different from being in school that it takes a few years to figure out what's going on. Change is hard. You need to find new ways to meet the needs that have previously been met by school. Problems can include meeting people socially; having real responsibility; worrying about money; getting bogged down in the minutia of bills, insurance, repairs; and finding some sort of meaning.

It's reasonable to feel nostalgic for an environment with lots of friends, lots of free time, opportunities for romantic relationships, clear expectations, and often "free" food, housing, gym, and expenses.
posted by callmejay at 12:49 PM on March 2, 2005

Response by poster: Just to add a bit more of a personal touch, I've been out of college for two years, though I didn't graduate. I'm working two very different jobs simultaneously, and I enjoy both for the most part. I make decent money, and don't have any real financial stress, and I'm actually starting to save money. With that said, I just don't feel satisfied. I'm not unhappy, I've got a great girlfriend and good friends and family, but I feel that I'm missing something.
posted by nitsuj at 12:55 PM on March 2, 2005

I think a more appropriate question would be who out there in MeFi land has NOT shared a similar situation

Me. Left college to start a PhD program and never looked back. Now, lots of people go into grad school not really knowing what it's about, but as I got into it and moved through the program it became clearer and clearer that I had chosen well. Any questioning I did about whether I chose a good path was in the "geeez it's hard to get a job" camp, not the "I don't know if this is for me" camp.

Any financial or interpersonal stress in my mid-late 20's seems, in retrospect, to have been rooted pretty firmly in reality and not just vague dissatisfaction.

It probably helps that for a long time, I hadn't wanted to write the great American novel or be in a band or create a graphic novel or any of those other stereotypical ``big dreams' that people give up to be responsible. I wanted a job that was at least partly fun with interesting people, a little house with a garden and birdfeeders, enough money to not have to worry about buying books, and someone I love to come home to and share that with.

It also doesn't hurt that I get summers sort-of off for travel, and around a month at Christmas/New-Year's, and that I can just not show up one afternoon and see a movie while regular folks (or as I like to call them, "the Dirty People") are at work.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 1:08 PM on March 2, 2005 [2 favorites]

I'd have to agree with andrew cooke here, no one I know has experienced such a thing.

However, the advice you are getting is pretty close to what I would say:
Why not go out and travel? If you aren't attached, parenting, or otherwise tied to where you are, why not take a chance and do something?

It may not help your feelings, and it might even make it worse, but hey, at least you'll have tried.

My advice for young, single people has always been the same:
If you think you'll regret not doing it, then do it.
You only get one shot at being 23 living over a bar in Prague, or 22 in Thailand on your backpacking tour of the world.
posted by madajb at 1:10 PM on March 2, 2005 [1 favorite]

You only get one shot at being 23 living over a bar in Prague, or 22 in Thailand on your backpacking tour of the world.

Oddly enough, it was the opposite realization that has helped me. I can live over a bar in Prague when I'm fifty, and it may even be more fun to be the crazy old lady who gives young folks tea and listens to their problems. I have plenty of time, so as long as I'm doing one thing I love, I don't worry about the others; I keep them in my head and when the chance comes, I'll grab it, but I won't kill myself over making choices.

There are two things that go along with that though: First, I have a nontraditional bent, and don't really have a hankering over house/family/children. That means the things that encumber some people aren't really a worry. But even if you have kids, they're portable, so they aren't going to stop you from doing something you really want to do.

And that's the other part of it, the doing what you really want to do. When I turned twenty-five last December, I decided that I needed to put up or shut up when it came to writing. So I've been making sure I actually work on the writing almost every day. It's not only made me feel better because it sates my ambition, but because having a project has mitigated the indenity confusion and boredom with social situations. That is, I have something big worth doing and that feels rad.
posted by dame at 1:50 PM on March 2, 2005 [2 favorites]

if you think you'll regret not doing it, then do it.
You only get one shot at being 23 living over a bar in Prague, or 22 in Thailand on your backpacking tour of the world.

I sort of agree, I didn't do any of those things then and while I definately don't have any regrets with where my life ended up, I am forty and have never been farther out of the country than Toronto. A kid and mortgage and car payments and upstanding type job tend to get in the way of vagabonding across the continent. On the other hand, I'll be an empty nester in a couple of years and still not too old to enjoy a beer in Prague.
posted by octothorpe at 2:15 PM on March 2, 2005

Oh wow. So you know when you have a creepy moment when you realize that your worries about not accomplishing anything, struggling to cope with a new social structure when you just figured out how the old one worked, and wondering why with all your education and work ethic you're barely getting by --- it's not unique and most people just give up (or accept) the inevitable? That's for the pick-me-up. Just as I was convincing myself to wait it out and it'll eventually work out. Anyone want to just buy a minibus and drop acid for a few years? Or is that horribly normal too, and I'll still end up in the suburbs?
posted by geoff. at 2:39 PM on March 2, 2005

Anyone want to just buy a minibus and drop acid for a few years?

I'm in. Anything to prolong this wondrous decade that is my twenties. Everything is seemingly within reach, and contentment is but a speck in the distance.
posted by rooftop secrets at 3:17 PM on March 2, 2005

Anyone want to just buy a minibus and drop acid for a few years? Or is that horribly normal too, and I'll still end up in the suburbs?

My parents dropped acid and drove hippy cars for a few years, and they wound up in the suburbs with five kids and a minivan.

One of those kids dropped acid and roamed the country in a 30-year-old VW minibus for a few years, and now he's in a small town with a fiance researching mortgages and talking about having kids of his own.

It doesn't seem to hurt to take a few years out for acid or whatever -- travel the world, write a book, live your adventures.
posted by croutonsupafreak at 5:08 PM on March 2, 2005

Every single person I know went through this.

Actually, I don't really know why it's even defined as a phenomenon. You go to college and have maximum freedom and minimum responsibility. Someone else pays for your life. You sleep as late as you want, drink as much as you want, do whatever you want. There is food available just by going down the hall. Nearly any screw up you make can be fixed by a sympathetic dean.

And then you have to go to work. You have to deal with a boss telling you what to do, you have to get to work early and not go home all day, and you don't get to hang out with your friends very much. You have to pay bills, and you can't afford all the things that you could when your parents were paying for your insurance and your school provided toilet paper.

And you don't like the change. Not very surprising. It sounds pretty reasonable, actually -- wouldn't most people, given the choice, rather be able to do whatever they want and have someone else take care of the logistics and responsibility of living? It's just not really a viable option for most of us. It seems to me that college does people something of disservice by being so divorced from the realities of life.

Anyway, I handled it by working at a job that made me want to poke my own eyeballs from boredom. I really hated the hell out of that, but it got me to figure out what I really wanted to do. I think that the important thing is to do something.
posted by LittleMissCranky at 6:03 PM on March 2, 2005 [1 favorite]

Actually, I don't really know why it's even defined as a phenomenon. You go to college and have maximum freedom and minimum responsibility. Someone else pays for your life.

Whoa, sign me up! All this time, I've been working to pay rent and tuition!

I've been thinking lately that this phenomenon might be a larger version of the "good god, get me out of this hick town!" phase that nearly everyone in my rural high school went through around grade 12, a phase that I find strangely absent here in Toronto. Perhaps it gets translated to wanting to be out of the country? Personally, I'm happy just being in the city, far away from small town Ontario.
posted by heatherann at 7:17 PM on March 2, 2005 [1 favorite]

For me the quarter life crisis is about internalizing the fact that I only have a finite amount of time in this world and no matter how hard I try, I'll never get to do and experience everything. That makes me feel a bit of urgency to decide which of several major forks in the road I want to travel in my life.

My adult life has been so focused on achieving financial security that, aside from some spectacular isolated instances of exploration, I've never really allowed myself to consider anything other than the steady-job-career path. I'm working in an area that I love, but after a few years of chasing the career carrot, I've really started to ask myself a lot of questions about how I will look back on my life-to-date if this is how I spend my twenties.

Since I'm still tangled in the middle of all of this, my advice doesn't have the weight of proven wisdom behind it, but these are the things I am trying and hope will work. Find something that you really love doing and structure your life so that you can spend time on it. That could be a hobby, it could be a family, it could be exploring the world or creating something or yoga or volunteering for a cause that is dear to you. Only you can say what this thing is. Whatever you choose, it should be something that brings you enough satisfaction that you would keep doing it even if you never achieved any recognition from other people for it.

Once you truly know what your goals are, you won't spend so much energy worrying about whether you're doing the right things with your life. If travel is what you want to do, you'll figure out a way to make it happen. If you decide that something else is more important, you'll make your peace with staying where you are now and instead spend your time on other things.
posted by rhiannon at 7:44 PM on March 2, 2005 [1 favorite]

The way I dealt with it was to reread Walden, give away my earthly possessions, and hit the road for what turned out to be decade of wandering. Twenty years on, there is not a day that I don't recall some adventure from those years.

Your "crisis" is simply your soul telling you what you need. If you are about done with college stay and finish if you can bear it, but then hit the road. It hardly matters where, the world is so fucking incredible wherever you go. Good luck.
posted by LarryC at 7:46 PM on March 2, 2005 [1 favorite]

Whoa, sign me up! All this time, I've been working to pay rent and tuition!

Do you actually support yourself? Pay all of your own bills and tuition? Or do you work to make ends meet and live off either loans or family members? There's not anything wrong with the latter -- it's how most people do it. But it's vastly different from the real world. I paid my own rent and tuition, too, but it was in no way the same as working full time to live.

If you're entirely self-supporting, you're different from most traditional college students. I don't suspect you would go through as much of the post-college angst as more pampered students -- I know that I didn't "suffer" as much as some of my friends who didn't work at all until they graduated.
posted by LittleMissCranky at 8:30 PM on March 2, 2005

I'd like to add a data point, here, to clarify things a bit: I've never been to college in the traditional manner and only had a very brief, less than a year, period of college-like freedom in my life (and at a slightly earlier age than the average person's life path offers it). I have worked to support myself since my late teens. Now, in my early 30s and operating as a responsible adult I have lived for a couple of years with many of the symptoms as described.

I'm not sure that the "crisis" in question is entirely post-college angst; at least that's inapplicable in my case.
posted by majick at 11:47 PM on March 2, 2005

Meant to post yesterday, got swamped at work. :)

Are you looking to abdicate responsibility/ avoid committment? Get out of a boring job? Have a go at "being creative"? Fulfill a life long dream of "seeing the world"? Just take a couple of months off? What about the effects on your relationship with your girlfriend? Is she okay with you leaving? Does she want to come with you? These are all things you're going to have to think about before leaving.

Carter mentioned doing things in a "non-bridge burning" way. It's smart, and there are lots of ways to do it. I'm about to finish my undergrad. I spent a year studying abroad and it only whetted my taste for adventure. I'm going into the Peace Corps (a dream for a while), and the nice thing about it is that it'll set me up for options when I finish. I can continue wandering (the most likely outcome), or I can use what I've learned and the contacts I've made to get a great job in the States or elsewhere. There are lots of programs for volunteering abroad.

As far a short-term travel is concerned, you may want to look at foreign-language institutes. They often have short (one to three month) and summer programs. You'll be surrounded by college aged Americans, but there will also be a significant amount of older students too.

Of course, you could always just sell off everything, pack your bags, and hit the road. I'm lucky, in that my obligations here are few and far between, but really. Volunteering and studying abroad may not be what you're looking for. If you want something new, just get up and do it.

But if you are looking at studying/ volunteering, check out your local university's study abroad office. They'll have a ton of information for you.
posted by asnowballschance at 6:09 AM on March 3, 2005 [2 favorites]

maybe this isn't the thread to say so (if so, sorry), but in my opinion travelling itself doesn't seem to be that useful. i've travelled a lot more than average, i would guess, and looking back it's difficult to think of anything particularly useful that i've learnt from that. maybe the benefit comes from what travel stops you from doing - it forces you to live in a certain way, without so many "connections". i think you could do that without travelling - i guess you could take walden as evidence for my case.
posted by andrew cooke at 2:59 PM on March 3, 2005 [1 favorite]

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