10/14/2013 04:44 pm ET | Updated Jan 23, 2014

The Quarter-Life Crisis

Imagine you spend 24 years preparing for something. Each of those years is built upon the preparations of the past years, each year spent looking forward, counting down, to the moment those preparations culminate in -- whatever. Would the reality ever match up to the expectations? And what would you look forward to next? Or are the days of looking forward over, and all there is- - is what is? Happiness, they say, is in the striving. So, reaching the goal, and what follows, will almost certainly be a letdown.

Until a certain age, life is all about preparing -- for life. Preschool is a stepping stone to kindergarten, which is on the way to first grade, and middle school and finally 12th grade or college or graduate school. The entire focus of education is, in a way, the future: There are the tools you'll need in the real world; these are the classes to teach you how to compete in the workforce; these are the social skills you'll need to be a part of a community, a marriage, a family. And then, all of a sudden, you get there. You've made it through kindergarten with the building blocks and classroom pets; sixth grade with puberty and the other gender; twelfth grade with SATs and applications and nerves. Perhaps you've made it through college, or graduate school, and you're all prepared. You're finished. Ready for the real world. And then you're there.

That's how I felt when I graduated college nine months ago. I was done with schooling, sick of schooling, in fact, and ready to take on the adult life. I had a job lined up, and that job will become full-time tomorrow. I couldn't wait to get started. I didn't quite think about it this way, but everything in my life had pointed me toward this moment. It couldn't possibly meet my expectations, even if my expectations were hazy at best. All I wanted was independence, really, a steady job that would challenge me and satisfy my creativity, a happy, dependable life. I didn't think I was asking for too much. So when I got it, when my job turned out to be creative and challenging and with a paycheck to boot, when I dispensed altogether with my student I.D. and burst forth into the independent adult world, I didn't expect to feel -- disappointed. Lost. Floundering.

I couldn't find the right word for it, but something was wrong. But what, I would ask myself, could possibly be wrong? I have everything I need and everything I want. I'm newly married, I have a great job, wonderful friends, extraordinary family -- there must be something wrong with me that I'm still not satisfied. I tried different things: I started training for a half-marathon for charity (endorphins + a good cause = satisfaction); I started writing fiction as a little side project; I signed up for classes in Photoshop to advance my skills. I looked for a volunteer organization to join. Maybe it's just me, I thought, when I still felt whatever I was feeling. Maybe I need therapy again, more meds, a good smack on the head. All I needed, it turned out, was to realize that this wasn't a problem uniquely my own. What I jokingly referred to as my quarter-life crisis was a feeling being shared by others in similar situations.

Humans of New York, the photoblog capturing ordinary people and revealing their unique beauty, posted a picture a few weeks back that put my mind at ease, if only because every bit of it reflected my own situation so perfectly. In it, a happy, well-dressed couple lounge in Rockefeller Center. Their caption reads as follows:

"I think we're both going through a quarter-life crisis right now."
"What does that mean?"
"Well, so much of your energy in college, and immediately afterwards, goes into finding that first job. Then you finally get a job, and you get settled in, and you get past that initial hump of excitement. Then you start to ask yourself some big questions."
"What kind of questions?"
"Things like: Is my work getting recognized? Is this job leading me toward my larger goals in life? Do I have balance?"

I have never identified with a HONY picture so strongly, and I've probably seen all of them. They, too, seemed to have all they needed and all they wanted. They, too, seemed to be in a happy relationship. And they too were questioning their lives. One of the comments underneath, said in jest but nevertheless discrediting, read, "First-world problems." And it's true. This is only a problem that can happen in an affluent country to well-educated and well-off people. But that doesn't make it any easier or any less of a struggle.

When all your years are designed as a preparation for entering the real world, the real world will disappoint. Not because your expectations have been dashed or the world has been misrepresented, but because suddenly, there's nothing to prepare for anymore. You're done looking forward; now you have to look down.

The "quarter-life crisis" isn't tragic. It's a phase in life, and hopefully one that won't end with the purchase of a sports car. But it does present me with the need to grapple with what it means to be happy. I need to discover balance, to find a way to be happy with what I have as opposed to what I'm aiming for.