Is this it?: Dealing with My Quarter Life Crisis
The Quarter Life Crisis Rite of Passage
It's safe to say that 2019 has been my year of the quarter life crisis. At age 27, I had been living a life that looked great from the outside. I had a six-figure job as a Product Manager at a startup with a flexible work schedule, a steady girlfriend and solid living situation in beautiful Charleston, SC. Fast forward to the end of 2019 and I voluntarily have given up all those good things. Let me explain.
I had been at the startup longer than most people there, so I had built trust and could pretty much do whatever I wanted as long as I got my job done. On paper, I had a great life. In fact, for most of 2017 and some of 2018 I felt very content, challenged, and genuinely fulfilled on all levels. Then a few times in 2018, I found myself wondering more and more "Is this it for me? Is this my life?".
My existence started to feel like groundhog day. Where does this path lead? Is this the pinnacle for me? What's next?
After reading up on this phenomenon, it became clear that many people in their upper 20's and lower 30's experience a quarter life crisis. It usually happens after you've graduated university, have been working for a few years and start getting the itching feeling "is this it?". The quarter-life crisis can be onset by a stagnant career, boredom of routine, or an upcoming birthday. Others say they get panic attacks or get derealization as if you're living in some simulated reality, depression and insomnia from thinking too much.
For me, I thought about my age and my 28th birthday a lot. 'Wow, in 2 years, I'll be thinking about turning 30,' I thought to myself. Then it's almost time to have a family. Then there's real pressure. What am I doing with my life right now?
When you're younger you always have natural breaks in life to give you an end date to look forward to: high school graduation and then college graduation. Once you hit around 26 or 27, you realize there is no next natural break. There's no next graduation. Theoretically, you could do this until you die. An Endless groundhog day of existence.
The cycle is vicious because around 27, you've typically been in the working world for around 5 years. You don't simply have a job anymore, you have a career now. It's not as simple as quitting and trying something new. At age 22 this was a viable option, but at age 27, you actually have something to lose now (or at least it feels that way).
For some cubicle monkeys, the existence around age 27 is a mindless, expensive, and unfulfilling cycle. They take up drinking, and get fatter and dumber by the day. For me, this was less of a problem I felt different from others caught in this cycle; I was in pretty good shape and only drank a couple times a week. I wasn't a cubicle monkey, I was only actually ever sitting at my desk less than 8 hours a week. I just felt like I had stopped learning and growing. I could skate by and get my job done without the same effort it once took. When I looked at the next career opportunity of maybe being the Director of Product Management, I knew it wasn't for me. It felt like it would go from being somewhat creative to a middle manager babysitting without executive authority. No thanks.
The Quarter Life Crisis Onset
When these thoughts and feelings arose in November 2018, I started taking up long distance running to deal with them. I posted a few video stories on Instagram of me jogging and ranting that raised the eyebrows of some friends and family. The biggest take-away from my long runs was that I needed to get back to speaking my truth and being my authentic self.
At work, I became more aggressive and direct with my views. I stopped going along to get along, and generally had the 'IDGAF' mentality with everyone including superiors. I was radically honest with everyone around me, for better or worse. I felt lighter, more energized.
Still, the same feelings kept coming up. I started running against traffic for a little excitement, in wind storms on the bridge, in rain and snow. Anything to feel more alive. I needed risks to feel alive. The song Racecar was one of my go-to running songs:
Every time I thought about leaving the job, I just kept coming back to the same line of thinking: "This is such a great situation. Where else did I have the industry and company experience to command the salary, flexibility and power I had. If I made a move in the same job role, I'd have to start behind where I was now."
I began to think that spending more time in Austin, TX around family and a bigger city might fix the problem. So in January, I decided to rent an apartment in Austin with my then-girlfriend who had just gotten a job there, and split time between the Austin apartment and Charleston. This didn't fix the problem. In Austin, I was just doing the same slack/email/jira/zoom routing from a remote location, but now without any established social life. I was only there for a week or two at a time so it was difficult to create a social life without being all-in. I actually enjoyed coming back to my big house and life in Charleston and not being woken up by a city train 3 times per night. It felt peaceful to have land and lots of space.
Then in April I had a clear gut feeling my girlfriend and I weren't a good longterm match so I broke up with her pretty suddenly. I started giving my job one more shot. I thought maybe I could transition to a different creative role and leverage my industry, company, and product knowledge. Still, I wasn't fulfilled. In May, I started taking surfing lessons, journaling and writing more. I deleted my email and slack apps from my phone to distance myself from work, and stopped obsessing over work like I once had.
In June I went on vacation to New England and San Francisco and on the plane ride back decided to quit my job with no plan for what was next. I just couldn't fathom the thought of going back to my lukewarm existence for something I had lost passion for and had stopped growing in. In July, I decided I wasn't going to look for another job and was going to travel for the rest of the year, write, and surf. So from August 18th to Thanksgiving I traveled around Asia, having the time of my life.
So now, here I am. In December. A full year after the quarter life crisis started. No cozy salary. No girlfriend. Still no clear idea of what's next after the travel come down.
The come down is real.
I'm doing fine financially. But that's not all that matters. The struggle is coming back to the States and seeing friends on more set career paths. Even if they are working soulless jobs, they at least know what their lives look like. Some are following their dreams.
When you're traveling, most of the people you meet are a little bit lost. You feel normal meeting others that don't have it figured out.
It's a process. Reinventing yourself isn't easy.
But I'm sure glad I took the risk of quitting the job.
As Steve Jobs said, "Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Because almost everything — all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure — these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart."