Managing your quarter life crisis, Part I
“What you should not do, I think, is worry about the opinion of anyone beyond your friends. You shouldn’t worry about prestige. Prestige is the opinion of the rest of the world. When you can ask the opinions of people whose judgement you respect, what does it add to consider the opinions of people you don’t even know?”
- Paul Graham, Essays
Leaving school for the first time, after nearly 20 years of education, can be a shock. For years and years you are told that you are the best and the brightest, you are going to change the world, and you will do great things.
There is often a large contrast between that undefined “great thing” that you were supposed to accomplish and the reality of an entry-level job. But even the recent grads that land prestigious jobs with good pay and opportunities to travel either for work or pleasure often fall into a “quarter-life crisis” at some point in their 20s. Why are THEY so unhappy?
1. AMBIGUOUS GOALS
During college, we march through school with a single concrete goal in front of our noses – earn high grades and graduate. As long as we do well on our tests and our homework, we believe we will be rewarded upon graduation with an awesome job that is mentally stimulating and will allow us to make a difference in the real world. All other worries fall away as we focus on our graduation. Thanks to a clear system of homework and tests, we can see exactly how well we are doing (A’s, B’s, and C’s) and how much progress we are making towards our goal (number of credits needed for graduation).
However, once we graduate the goals that we are working towards become very ambiguous – Make lots of money? Become famous? Help the poor? Work on art / music / other ventures that rarely pay the bills? Non-career goals become more urgent as well, such as meeting a husband or wife. Worst of all, it is difficult to see if we are making any type of progress towards any of these goals – nobody tells us if we are building the right skills, or moving closer to getting the dream job we want.
2. THE PARADOX OF CHOICE
The problem with having many ambiguous goals, and many choices in general (job opportunities, places to live, people to date) is that we become paralyzed by the “paradox of choice.” With many seemingly attractive choices, we start thinking in terms of the trade-offs (“missed opportunities”) rather than the positive aspects of the path we choose to take. Dwelling on the missed opportunity and wondering whether we could have made a better choice ends up leaving us uncertain and unsatisfied. The minute your dream job in advertising gets monotonous, you wonder whether that non-profit job could have been more fulfilling, or whether you should have been following your true passion of becoming a professional clarinet player (just kidding).
3. KEEPING UP WITH THE ZUCKERBERGS
At age 18, you are defined mainly by what University you attend and what clubs you are a part of within your University.
However, in the real world, our work becomes tightly connected to our identity. “So, what do you do?” is a common question when meeting new people – and sometimes determines whether the person will want to continue talking or will find an excuse to “get something to drink.”
The problem is, we constantly hear about everybody else’s career successes, and start measuring ourselves against them. But how can we compare ourselves to those one-in-a billion occurrences; a 17-year old pop star selling millions of records, a 27-year old Internet CEO worth $20 billion. Thanks to Facebook, we can also now compare ourselves to other people in our social circles – the jerk from high school who is now a YouTube rock star, the girl from high school who just started a fashion line that appeared in some stupid magazine.
And though nobody wants to admit it, it would be completely natural to feel some inkling of jealousy.
When we were in school, we were told to just “follow our dream” and everything would be alright. Unfortunately as we identified, the real world is a bit more complicated.
There obviously isn’t a solution that can fit into one paragraph. But hopefully we’ve piqued your interest – keep reading in the coming weeks, and we’ll talk more about specific strategies to find happiness, work-life balance, and professional fulfillment.