THE BLOG
04/02/2014 11:30 am ET | Updated Jun 02, 2014

My 20s Weren't Supposed to Be Like This: Getting Through the Quarter-Life Crisis

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Two weeks ago, I got a new haircut. Last week I joined a dating site. Today, I told my landlord that I would not be renewing my lease because I planned to spend the next year backpacking. Through where? I do not know. All I know is that I feel stuck.

I am 25 and confused and in the middle of what has been referred to as a "quarter-life crisis." I feel permanently behind, as if time sped up and forgot to take me with it. I am overanxious and underwhelmed. Every piece of mail seems to be either a bill or an invitation to a wedding or baby shower, and I don't even have a plus one. This is not how my 20s were supposed to turn out.

I recently looked back at the Crayola timeline of goals that I had scribbled for myself to accomplish by the age of 21. I have achieved one. I finished college. I am neither a lawyer nor a screenwriter. I am a graduate student reading about the law and media theories. I am neither a wife nor a mother. I am single, childless, and have recently considered freezing my eggs and someone's sperm. I feel hopeless. Damian Barr describes similar feelings in his book Get It Together: A Guide To Surviving Your Quarter-Life Crisis<: "You may be 25 but feel 45. You expected to be having the time of your life but all you do is stress about career prospects, scary debts and a rocky relationship."

Disney movies, our parents' expectations, and childhood platitudes ("just think positive, things will work out, something will turn up, look on the bright side...") don't prepare most of us for our 20s. No one warns us that "dream jobs" are a myth or that "the one" doesn't exist and that "happy endings" are something that you pay for in massage parlors. We do not learn about unemployment and debt, loneliness and structural inequality -- we do not experience reality. Instead, we are told to get good grades so that we can go to a good college and get a good job and find a good husband or wife. Where is the Dr. Seuss book on what to do when your reality seems to consist only of a bunch of unmet expectations -- unemployment, a job you tolerate, debt you can't afford to pay, a relationship status that makes you want to deactivate your Facebook?

As a member of the Google/WebMD self-diagnosis generation, I took it upon myself to seek a virtual diagnosis. After pinpointing signs and symptoms, I detect that I, along with many other twenty-somethings, am a victim of Obsessive Comparison Disorder and Undefined Purposeness. Paul Angone, author of 101 Secrets for your Twenties, defines this new OCD as "our compulsion to constantly compare ourselves with others, producing unwanted thoughts and feelings that drive us into depression, consumption, anxiety, and all-around discontent." In other words, we waste far too much time clicking through select Facebook albums, telling ourselves that everyone "has it better," instead of celebrating our own accomplishments and trying to figure out where we are going next and how we plan to get there. Which takes me to "Undefined Purposeness." I define this as a lack of knowing one's life purpose, which results in a state of stuckness, an inability to live a truly meaningful life.

I have yet to figure out my true purpose in life, and unfortunately, everything that you do -- in your personal life, professional life, free time -- falls out of a grasp of what your purpose is. Until you figure that out, you are pretty stuck.

In an attempt to cure my recent diagnoses, a friend recommended that I read Clayton Christensen's How Will You Measure Your Life?. The author suggests that a major reason so many of us end up unfulfilled is that we have a fundamental misunderstanding about what motivates us. Too many of us focus our attention on factors that determine dissatisfaction ("hygiene factors"), such as income, status, and work conditions, rather than those that determine true satisfaction ("motivators"), such as interesting work, personal growth, and recognition. Good hygiene factors may feel great at the moment, but the problem is, this is not what makes us happy in the long run. According to Christensen, "That's not enough. You have to work out what you really love doing, what gives you a chance to shoulder responsibility and achieve meaningful things, what makes you want to get up in the morning and feel like your job is an absolute joy."

I am currently trying to figure out my motivators. Instead of constantly thinking about how my life is "supposed to be," I have started to write and reflect more on what makes me happy. Searched for healing in the wounds. I also remind myself that life takes time and that to even be able to have a "quarter-life crisis" means that I am privileged, and more than anything, should be grateful. Yes, the falseness of "happily ever after" has left me, as well as many others, delusional and unfulfilled. But let us not forget about the millions of people who cannot afford to eat, let alone Google cures for their unhappiness, because of the falsities of popular myths such as "the American Dream."

As I get ready to backpack with no (physical) destination, I plan to use what remains of my Millennial OCD to figure out my purpose. Instead of comparing myself to my recently engaged friends, I hope to embark on a journey of self-discovery, in which I find a more productive way to measure my life and the direction necessary for a happy, satisfying, and purposeful future.

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