7 Lessons Learned From a Quarter-Life Crisis

Honors-level grades, extracurricular activities, global exposure, multiple internships at recognized institutions— I had it together, or so I naively thought.

Things came together fairly easy for me in college, so I thought that the same would follow in the real world where all the pieces would just magically fit together. I couldn’t have been more wrong.

Real” life is more like a scattered puzzle with loosely fitted pieces and multiple — sometimes contrasting — instruction maps.

Learning the rules to the school of life can feel like starting back on square one: there’s no clear-cut path to follow, support networks are no longer within arms-reach, and most punishingly, your dreams are disrupted by the harsh constraints of reality.

Straight out of college, I found myself sinking into a quarter-life crisis — a state that I can only describe as an out-of-control free-fall into the abysmal pit hole of adult life. I questioned my self-worth, doubted my career choices, and dreaded the uncertainty of life ahead.

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1. Don’t fool yourself into wanting what others want

This is more easily said than done. As social beings, we are so often influenced by our role models, mentors, family, and peers that it can be hard to distinguish between the dreams of others and that of our own.

As a liberal art major, I pretty much knew from the start that my career path wasn’t going to be profit-drive, but rather purpose-driven, aka a “do good” career. I steered away from the rat-race of the corporate ladder and thought that was enough to prove that I knew what I wanted instead of simply following the herd. Instead, I just found myself in another type of rat-race.

Just as those in the corporate world, I was diving into things that sounded great on paper but did not make me feel fulfilled, setting empty recognitions as end goals, and trying to fit into a mold of what I thought society expected of me.

Then one fateful day, not long ago, I stepped into a meeting with a potential work partner and gave him a 10-minute pitch about my “do good” proposal, only to have him stop and say:

“Look, you don’t seem passionate about this. I want to hear you pitch to me something you’re passionate about.”

He saw right through my façade and it was just the alarm I needed to wake me up from my illusion.

A three-hour conversation later, I realized: to simply “do good” is not enough; rather, it’s a matter of “how” to best combine passion with strengths to reach the greatest potential and impact in “doing good.”

2. Know your guiding principles

For people with ten-year plans that outlines step-by-step how they will achieve their goals, good for you; I was never one of them.

There are many benefits to not having a plan: the mindset to live in the moment, the flexibility to switch gears and the thrill of diving into the unknown. Whether you are a planner or not just depends on your personality type and what you are comfortable with; there’s no clear winner between the two. But not having a life plan is not an excuse for not setting principles to help lead the way.

As a wise acquaintance ten-years my senior once told me:

“Life is far from a straight path. It’s okay to not know which exact step to take next or to even take a wrong turn sometimes, but you must have principles to help guide the way and act as signals to alert you to turn around when you find yourself on the wrong path. It doesn’t matter how hard you hustle if you are only going further and further away from your intended destination.”

For example, if I strongly hold an eco-friendly principle, then I cannot possibly be happy working for a corporation that heavily pollutes the environment. The same concept can be applied to all aspects of our life.

Once principles are set, finding the missing piece (or pieces) to your puzzles can become a whole lot simpler.

3. Don’t be afraid to take a break to do some soul searching

No, I’m not suggesting a Bali beach bum break (go for it if you need a short-term fixer), but a reflective break to step outside of your comfort zone and explore new possibilities whether it be at home or abroad.

Throughout college, I was the poster child for hustling through every summer break by taking on one, sometimes two, full-time internships. For most other long-breaks, I either partook in pieces of training or public service activities. Don’t get me wrong, I gained a lot out of those experiences, but it also wouldn’t have killed me to utilize those breaks to explore other possibilities outside of school and work.

In the “real” world, I would feel extremely guilty if I was not busying myself with one project or another — there was this constant fear that I was wasting time, hence “wasting” the most critical few years of my life away. With so many projects on hand, I was losing touch from a core focus and pushing off things I’ve always wanted to do but never delegated time for — writing was one of them.

A few months ago, I finally summed up the courage to take a 3-month long break and headed off to Thailand on a one-way ticket. It was a well-needed opportunity to reflect and re-orientate my life and I’ve got to say, it was the best decision I’ve made in my adult life thus far.

During my break, I’ve:

  • Rested my soul in the Thai countryside by practicing mindfulness
  • Learned skills I never would have been able to in the city (i.e. agriculture, duck herding, warehouse painting)
  • Discovered the importance of hobbies and reconnected with my lost ones
  • Befriended people who have enlightened me to new ways of living
  • Absorbed new ideas and concepts that have changed the way I view the world
  • Opened up relationship-wise and learned more about myself and what I seek in a potential partner
  • Strengthened my determination to live a minimalist lifestyle
  • Became family with peace practitioners from around the world in a meaningful learning environment

And most importantly…

  • Solidified my principles and determined “how” I can best utilize my passion to “do good” for myself and others

Coming back, I am more invigorated and motivated than ever to set about creating the life I’ve come to envision with more clarity and precision.

4. Talk to strangers for everyone is a teacher

As an introverted extrovert, talking to strangers doesn’t come naturally for me, but you always have more to gain than lose when you make the effort to learn more about those outside of your immediate social bubble. Everyone is a teacher in some way or form, simply by way of their being.

One of the best career advice I’ve received thus far, was from chatting with a fellow traveler in a Bedouin tent under the night skies of the Wadi Rum Desert in Jordan, and she wasn’t even trying to give me advice — she was simply sharing her story.

Nothing beats the feeling of finding ourselves in others, no matter the difference in our age spans or places of origin, for it is a joyous reminder that we are bonded together by common humanity, in which we may learn from and build off of the experience of others.

5. Give yourself time to grow into the person you want to become

This is probably the hardest of my advice to follow. Living in fast-paced environments, I felt the constant need to hustle for fear of being “left behind” by my peers. Not only that, but it becomes incredibly hard to refrain from measuring myself against others.

I used to look to my peers that had their life together and wondered what they were doing right that I wasn’t. It wasn’t until an acquaintance told me that he started critically thinking about his “calling” at the age of 11, getting over his so-called “quarter-life crisis” way before I even started mine that I realized — everyone goes at life in their own pace and there’s no added value in making comparisons.

As someone who has only seriously started thinking about what I wanted to do with my life in my early twenties, I can’t objectively compare myself with someone who’s a decade ahead of me in that respect, despite our similar biological age; nor should I have to. There are things that I’ve reaped at a young age that he probably didn’t; we can’t always have it all.

So, sit down, breathe, and give the vision of your ideal self-time to manifest.

6. There is no grand destination in life; it’s a multi-stop ride

I used to think that life was this one long stretch journey that led to this “grand destination,” whatever that may be; as time went by I realized that there is not one destination, but multiple ones to be reached and eventually passed on our way to the next.

In my previous mindset, I would work hard to reach my set out “grand destination” at the moment and experienced that brief moment of joy when I did, only to be left to ponder: this is it?

Now, I ask myself: where to next?

Don’t get me wrong, I still find joy in reaching my set out destinations, but now I have the bonus of knowing that there is always more to look forward to and strive for, and that’s where lasting joy and motivation lies.

7. Be the lone driver, but not the lone passenger

During some of my lowest points, I felt like I was alone while my peers seemingly had it all together. It didn’t take long asking around, however, to realize that many of my peers were on the same boat as I: they were just as lost about how to navigate a meaningful life and forge ahead into the uncertainties of adulthood.

I often discussed those issues in dept with some of my closest friends, and we formed a support network of mutual guidance and encouragement — one that I could not have done without. I also formed meaningful connections with friends or mentors older than I and learned from their experiences. From such networks and connections, I’ve gained valuable insights and life lessons that have indefinitely fueled my growth.

It is important in this process, however, to go back to point one: don’t fool yourself into wanting what others want — to remember that friends and mentors might give well-founded advice, but it is ultimately up to you to take the driver’s seat and navigate this confusing journey called life.

I can’t say I look forward to my next crisis of sorts (mid-life crisis?), but I feel sound to have these hard-learned lessons to hold with me in the journey ahead.

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