01/06/2011 04:16 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

How to Navigate the Quarter-Life Crisis

It was 6 a.m. on March 13, 2009. I leapt from my bed knowing both Yale and Harvard had responded to my graduate school applications. Sitting at my kitchen table, I logged in, waited, knowing my future was on the line in two emails. My heart sank. It was a "light envelope" morning: I had been rejected by both schools. Like many men would do in these situations, I picked up my guitar and played the blues, and a catharsis came over me. It was the worst year to graduate from college since the Great Depression, and like most of my classmates that year I found myself with no job prospects and little hope. In the months that followed, I received my B.A. in theology and religious studies, applied for 30 jobs, got two interviews, and no job offers.

Welcome to real life. It inevitably happens, and it often invariable sucks. Generation Y experiences a distinctly Millennial kind of existential crisis. This is more than a coming of age tale of in the style of The Graduate or Garden State; the moment when you have to face adulthood. I call this the "six month slap in the face," though it is more commonly called the "quarter-life crisis." It hits at the end of a tough break up, the minute you lay your hands on a $120,000 diploma, the middle of a family emergency, or your first day on the job. The paroxysms of terror you feel may be the first time you discover your own non-invincibility, the day you cease to be a stubborn Sisyphus and become a falling Icarus. And you feel like everyone around you is getting engaged and has a better job, it sucks.

You might be a hotshot grad from a top college, yet still find yourself yearning for more, trying to accomplish a task just out of reach. Last year, I had an opportunity to launch an online start-up, and it was no cakewalk. Though it was loads of fun, it ate all of my time. One can only work 80-90 hours for so many weeks. My time management skills were embarrassingly bad, and my relationships with family and friends suffered. My name was in several national newspapers, and I had nothing but an empty apartment and the early stages of carpal tunnel to show for it.

My quarter-life crisis ended with a return to academia: I'm now a graduate student who mainly reads, writes and takes photos. How does one last through months of uncertainty, depression and the occasional pangs of chest-crushing anxiety? The following survival techniques have helped me through the quarter-life crisis.

Walk It Off

You must obey the basic needs of your body. Facing the toughest moments of your twenties practically requires proper diet and exercise. I can't emphasize the importance of physical health enough. Take the time to run for 30 minutes, three times a week. I'm no medical professional, but I'd imagine that even they have a hard time measuring the amount of stress that running can destroy. Fast food will not make you feel good. Throw your junk food away and buy fruits and vegetables. Does any sane diet reject veggies? No. Changing your diet for the better helps.

I fight anxiety off with evening walks. Twenty minutes of fresh air and contemplation goes a long way to restoring mental health. If that doesn't work, journaling to organize your thoughts helps, even if it's just to get your ideas out of you. Coping methods are important and are by no means weaknesses.

Hold The Course

Don't make major decisions when times are really tough. Changing directions repeatedly is a great way to get stuck in the quarter-life crisis. Making major life changes to get out of the QLC is a quick fix, which like so many quick fixes, can prolong your problems. You might move to a new city, transfer to a new college, drop out or quit your job. But if you're bummed out or depressed, your mind is not sound. Serious life decisions should wait for the calm after the storm, lest you make rash decisions that leave you with regrets later.

Perseverance is a virtue. At several times in my grad school career, when my papers piled high and my prospects looked bleak, I was ready to quit. But each of those times I put my nose to the grindstone and worked harder. In those stressful times I had difficulty contemplating perseverance, but sticking with my commitments has only made me stronger.

Stick Together

You shouldn't go it alone. Life will repeatedly slap you in the face during your quarter-life crisis, but good company will soothe your swollen cheeks. Your friend groups will shift after college, and you will keep in touch with those you care about and lose touch with others. We are social animals: don't pretend you're the only one going through this episode. Lean on others, demand home cooked meals, and breathe every once in a while.

Many of us will find ourselves in new environments where we don't know anybody. Cure yourself of your isolation. Volunteer at a local organization like the Boys and Girls Club or a community center. You are bound to find other twenty-somethings, and the law of averages guarantees that some of them will be fun people. When times got tough and I knew I needed to keep my mind busy, I started taking pictures again and took on a volunteer gig at a community center.


And not just with alcohol. Celebrate for any reason you can cook up. There is a lot to be said about the festival, something our culture has lost to heavy commercialization. Have game nights, go out with friends for every little success, and make adventures out of otherwise trivial victories. When you can't land a big job right out of school or can't get into graduate school, remember the little things and make a big deal out of the good ones. Diplomas and grades don't define you. Some of the greatest moments of my life have been playing board games with friends or taking short day hikes with people I love.

A Satisfied Mind

I was eventually accepted by my top choice for grad school, Duke University. Though I was waitlisted at first, I continued sending extra letters of recommendation and called them until I got in. Spamming is apparently an effective admissions tactic. Perseverance paid off, but don't think of perseverance as some kind of fundamental disposition. Margaret Wheatley, a well-known organizational consultant says, "perseverance is a choice. It's not a simple, one time choice, it's a daily one. There's never a final decision."

Hang in there. You can't plan your whole life out. Most of the opportunities that will come your way will happen randomly. In the end hold on to what is important, or to quote my one of my favorite Johnny Cash covers, "money can't buy back your youth when you're old, or a friend when you're lonely, or a love that's grown cold. The wealthiest person is a pauper at times, compared to the man with a satisfied mind."