Bad Advice: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love My Crisis

Submit your questions to [email protected] or leave a question in the comments section, and I’ll answer it in Bad Advice!

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Dear Bad Advice,

I don’t know what to say. Nothing specifically is going wrong in my life, but I just don’t feel like it is where I want it to be. I’m only in my twenties, so I know I’m just getting started, but I can’t shake the feeling that I should be doing better. I have an okay job, a good group of friends, and an alright place, but I can’t stop thinking about the things I want: an even better job, a nicer apartment all to myself, more glamorous experiences. I feel like I’m stuck in spin cycle and I’m not getting any closer to the things I want, though. I still get help from my parents, and my job’s going nowhere and I’m not even sure if that’s what I want to do anymore, or what else I could do. Is there any way out?

-Quarter Life Crisis

I get this kind of question a lot from my friends. I’m no stranger to the quarter-life crisis; after all, while trying to think of the best way to write this column, I was looking at Game of Thrones embroidery and wondering if I was ever going to be as productive as I wish or as incredibly talented and skilled as the woman who created those costumes. Obviously I’d be a lot more productive if I weren’t spending hours on Buzzfeed whenever I got exhausted or discouraged, but that’s the sneaky part of the quarter-life crisis: I actually did write this column, and I will wake up tomorrow and keep doing things to pursue my goals (however long that might take) despite all my supposed time-wasting, but I won’t feel accomplished. Because life isn’t school, and those of us who were lucky enough to stay in school full-time until the age of 21 or 22 or even later have spent our entire conscious lives seeing goals as things that can be accomplished in a semester, and we get frustrated with anything with a longer lead time. We think that you have to crunch to get anything done, like studying for an exam; but life doesn’t have a lot of exams, and a lot of it is spent simply working slowly but steadily toward something that doesn’t have a handy pre-affixed date, like graduation.

This is going to sound like bad advice, but your quarter-life crisis isn’t a crisis. It’s just life.

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1) The first part of getting over your quarter-life crisis is recognizing that life is not school.

Work will not be over at the end of the semester. You will not automatically progress to the next level as long as you hand everything in on time. There is no graduation.

A lot of people have already written bashing Millennials and their famous quarter-life crises as self-absorbed and entitled. While I think there’s some truth to that, there’s also a more compassionate explanation for why my generation seems to get so mopey after graduation: because the life of a full-time student has become so divorced from the experience of the average working life that even the most ambitious, hardworking, determined grads wind up hitting reality hard and wondering what happened to them. In fact, it’s the high achievers who seem to suffer the most — because if they’ve worked so hard to jump through the hoops at college, it could be because they bought into the idea that college represents real life and success there will prepare them for success outside. It’s a pretty rude awakening to go from that idea to reality: that your straight As and flawless club leadership landed you a spectacular gig as a part-time office assistant placed by a temp agency.

There are lots of young people who struggle with the transition from school to life, for reasons more serious than their yearning for the frat parties of yesteryear. Your twenties are a period of exploration, and if you read a little Dickens you’ll find that feeling lost and directionless at that age is not something that’s new to this generation, or even this century.

The first step to emerging from Millennial Malaise is to stop fighting the feeling that the world is unjust for not more closely resembling school. Dwelling on the pain of realizing that your grades don’t matter won’t make it any better. Stop seeking the same kind of rapid progress in your job or personal goals that you found in college. I’m not saying it’s not possible to make progress; but you’ll find that without the structure of a semester pushing you along, you can reach your goals at a different pace. Be patient. And try to enjoy the process, too. You might have a crap job at the bottom of the totem pole, but if you’re not weighed down with the responsibility of managing anyone else yet, enjoy the freedom a little. Try to learn from the people around you. You have more than three months to “finish” this assignment.

2) Live within your means

That might sound impossible on a pitiful entry-level or part-time salary, especially if your career takes you to an expensive city. But do what you have to to make it. There’s no shame in needing some help when you’re first getting started, but at some point you’re going to have to make that rocky transition to self-sufficiency, and it will be rocky, even if you think you have your budget all sorted out. You might make enough money to pay all your bills once you trim down your expensive phone plan or move to a cheaper place, but then you’ll discover the joys of cash flow management.

But one thing that will make you feel better about your life will be the feeling that you don’t have to depend on anyone else. And being totally self-sufficient means that you also fully own all your own decisions. You don’t have to seek the approval or advice of whomever’s paying for them.

Taking control of your expenses means taking control of your life. It seems like a pretty basic point to make, in the midst of a twenty-something existential crisis, but taking charge of your own budget can also help you figure out what you really want in life: for example, are you willing to put up with a high-paying, but soul crushing, job just to get HBO? Or do you realize that comfort is actually very important to your happiness and you find yourself curiously at peace leaving a creative field as soon as you know you can make more money as an office drone? Careers aren’t always about making as much money as possible: they’re about finding the balance between making enough money to lead the lifestyle you realistically desire, and finding a tolerable job: one that won’t make you so unhappy you’ll feel incapable of enjoying the money you do make.

You’ll only discover what your limits are if you actually take the dive and support yourself.

3) Consider all your options. ALL of them.

It’s easy to feel stuck between the walls you’ve built around yourself. You can feel stuck in a city, even though you haven’t really looked for work anywhere else. You can feel stuck in a career path even though you keep looking for future jobs in the same field. You can feel stuck behind a desk when, yes, there are non-office jobs out there you could consider.

Most often when we feel stuck it’s because we aren’t really open to all the options around us, because we tell ourselves they’re crazy or unacceptable or beneath us, or simply because they never occurred to us. If you feel like tearing your hair out every day you work in front of a computer, try hunting down some non-office jobs. Some of them might pay less, but if you took advice #2 above, you might have an idea of how little you’re willing to make, in exchange for preserving your sanity and happiness.

If you feel like you can’t spend the rest of your life doing marketing/sales/research/computer programming/accounting/fundraising, then don’t. Even if it means “starting over.” If you have less than five years of experience, you don’t exactly have far to fall. And while you might even step down in salary too, you have decades to climb back up and surpass where you were. Even if you don’t, you mind find you mind less when you’re doing something you love.

Make some bad decisions. Run out of money every once in a while and live on rice for a week. Take the wrong job, then quit it and take another job. Move across the country or across the globe. And stop wondering when you’re going to “get there.” You’re there. “There” is the rest of your life. It’s a ride, not a destination.

Submit your questions to [email protected] or leave a question in the comments section, and I’ll answer it in Bad Advice!


images courtesy shutterstock / alphaspirit / Tom Wang

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