From College to Chaos
In the modern world, there is a certain existential dread that comes with being in your twenties. Certainly this is true in my case.
This dread creeps up on you in the years of struggle, confusion, and setbacks that many encounter after graduating university. There are many reasons for this.
One is that college simply does not prepare you for the so-called “real world.” In college, you know what you have to do, more or less. Every class has a syllabus. Every major has a list of required courses. You know your GPA and how many credits you need to graduate.
College lacks some of that uncertainty and ambiguity that life—particularly life as a young adult—so abundantly possesses. There is a clear direction forward and it’s already been charted out for you. You know where you’re going and what you have to do to get there.
Another big difference is that college life is fairly egalitarian. Somebody might have a cuter boyfriend, a higher GPA, a richer dad, or whatever, but in the end you’re all just students. As a consequence, envy doesn’t have very much scope. Not that college students don’t get envious, but there are far fewer things, and less serious things, to get envious about. You don’t scroll through your newsfeed and see friends bragging about promotions, proposals, babies, and paid vacations.
There’s one more big difference: nothing you do in college is potentially a big commitment. The biggest commitment you have to make is what to major in; and even that is only a commitment for four years or less. Your classes only last a few months, so you don’t have to care much about professors. You are constantly surrounded by people your age, so friendships and relationships are easy to come by.
Then you graduate, and you’re thrown into something else entirely. Big words like Career and Marriage and Adulthood start looming large. You start asking yourself questions. When you take a job, you ask yourself “Can I imagine doing this for the rest of my life?” When you date somebody, you say to yourself “Can I imagine living with this person the rest of my life?” If you move to another city, you wonder “Could I make a home here?”
You don’t see adults as strange, foreign creatures anymore, but as samples of what you might become. You are expected, explicitly and implicitly, to become an adult yourself. But how? And what type of adult? You ask yourself, “What do I really want?” Yet the more you think about what you want, the less certain it becomes. It’s easy to like something for a day, a week, a month. But for the rest of your life? How are you supposed to commit yourself for such an indefinitely long amount of time?
Suddenly your life is not just potential anymore. Very soon, it will become actual. Instead of having a future identity, you will have a present identity. This is really frightening. When your identity is only potential, it can take on many different forms in your imagination. But when your identity is present and actual, you lose the deliciousness of endless possibility. You are narrowed down to one thing. Now you have to choose what that thing will be. But it’s such a hard choice, and the clock keeps ticking. You feel like you’re running out of time. What will you become?
The American Dream
A few weeks ago I was taking a long walk, and my route took me through a wealthy suburban neighborhood. Big, stately houses with spacious driveways, filled with expensive cars, surrounded me on all sides. The gardens were immaculate; the houses had big lawns with plenty of trees, giving them privacy from their neighbors. And they had a wonderful view, too, since the neighborhood was right on the Hudson River.
I was walking along, and I suddenly realized that this is what I’m supposed to want. This is the American Dream, right? A suburban house, a big lawn, a few cars and a few kids.
For years I’d been torturing myself with the idea that I would never achieve success. Now that I was looking at success, what did it make me feel? Not much. In fact, I didn’t envy the people in those houses. It’s not that I pitied them or despised them. I just couldn’t imagine that their houses and cars and their view of the river, wonderful as it all was, made them appreciably happier than people without those things.
So I asked myself, “Do I really want all these things? A house? A wife? Kids?” In that moment, the answer seemed to be “No, I don’t want any of that stuff. I want my freedom.”
Yet nearly everybody wants this stuff—eventually. And I have a natural inclination to give people some credit. I don’t think folks are mindless cultural automatons who simply aspire to things because that’s how they’ve been taught. I don’t think everybody who wants conventional success is a phony or a sell-out.
Overwhelmingly, people genuinely want these things when they reach a certain point in their lives. I’m pretty certain I will want them, too, and maybe soon. The thing that feels uncomfortable is that, in the mean time, since I expect to want these things, I feel an obligation to work towards them, even though they don’t interest me now. Isn’t that funny?
Equations of Happiness
One of the reasons that these questions can fill us with dread is that we absorb messages from society about the definition of happiness.
One of these messages is about our career. Ever since I was young, I’d been told “Follow your passion!” or “Follow your dreams!” The general idea is that, if you make your passion into your career, you will be supremely happy, since you’ll get paid for what you like doing. Indeed, the phrase “Get paid for what you like doing” sometimes seems like a pretty decent definition of happiness.
Careers aren’t the only thing we learn to identify with happiness. How many stories, novels, and movies end with the boy getting the girl, and the couple living happily ever after? In our culture, we have veritable a mythology of love. Finding “the one,” finding your “perfect match,” and in the process finding the solution to life—this is a story told over and over again, until we subconsciously believe that romantic love is the essential ingredient to life.
Work and Love are two of the biggest, but there are so many other things that we learn to identify with happiness. Having a perfect body, being beautiful and fit. Beating others in competitions, winning contests, achieving things. Being cool and popular, getting accepted into a group. Avoiding conflict, pleasing others. Having the right opinions, knowing the truth. This list only scratches the surface.
In so many big and little ways, in person and in our media, we equate these things with happiness and self-worth. And when we even suspect that we don’t have them—that we might not be successful, popular, right, loved, or whatever—then we feel a sickening sense of groundlessness, and we struggle to put that old familiar ground beneath our feet.
Think of all the ways that you measure yourself against certain, self-imposed standards. Think of all the times you chastise yourself for falling short, or judge yourself harshly for failing to fit this self-image you’ve built up, or fallen into a dark hole when something didn’t go right. Think about all the things you equate with happiness.
Now, think about how you judge your good friends. Do you look down on them if they aren’t successful? Do you think they’re worthless if they didn’t find “the one”? Do you spend much time judging them for their attractiveness, popularity, or coolness? Do you like them less if they lose or fail? If someone else rejects them, do you feel more prone to reject them too?
I’d wager the answer to all these questions is “No.” So why do we treat ourselves this way?
Is it the Money?
There’s no question that the quarter-life crisis is partly a product of privilege. It takes a certain amount of affluence to agonize over what will be my “calling” or who will be “the one.” Lots of people have to pay the rent; and their work and romantic options are shaped by that necessity. When you’re struggling to keep your head above water, your anxiety is more practical than existential. This thought makes me feel guilty for complaining.
But affluence is only part of the it. The other is expectation. Many of us graduated full of hope and optimism, and found ourselves in a limping economy, dragging behind us a big weight of college debt. Just when we were supposed to be hitting the ground running, we were struggling to find jobs and worrying how to pay for the degree we just earned. And since many of us had been encouraged—follow your dreams!—to study interesting but financially impractical things, our expensive degrees seemed to hurt us more than help us.
This led to a lot of bitterness. My generation had been told that we could be anything we wanted. Just do the thing you’re passionate about, and everything will follow. That was the advice. But when we graduated, it seemed that we’d been conned into paying thousands of dollars for a worthless piece of paper. This led to a lot of anger and disenchantment among twenty-somethings, which is why, I think, so many of us gravitated towards Bernie Sanders. Our parents had a car, a house, and raised a family, while we were living at home, working at Starbucks, and using our paychecks to pay for our anthropology degree.
For a long while I used my sense of injustice to justify my angst. I had the persistent feeling that it wasn’t fair, and that went back and forth between being angry at myself or the world.
Nevertheless, I think that, for most middle class people, financial factors don’t really explain the widespread phenomenon of the quarter-life crisis.
I realized this when I started my first decent-paying job. I wasn’t making a lot of money, you understand, but I was making more than enough for everything I wanted. The result? I felt even worse. When I took care of the money problem, the full weight of the existential crisis hit me. I kept asking myself, “Can I really imagine doing this forever?” I thought about my job, and felt empty. And this feeling of emptiness really distressed me, because I thought my job was supposed to be exciting and fulfilling.
This was a valuable lesson for me. I expected the money to calm me and make me happy, and yet I only felt worse and worse. Clearly, the problem was with my mindset and not my circumstances. How to fix it?
From Crisis to Contentment
Well, I’m not out of it yet. But I have made some progress.
First, I think it’s important to take it easy on ourselves. We are so prone to hold ourselves up to certain self-imposed standards, or some fixed idea of who we are. We also like to compare ourselves with others, feeling superior when we’re doing “better,” and worthless when we’re doing “worse.” Take it easy with all that. All of these standards are unreal. You tell yourself you’re “supposed” to be doing such and such, making this much money, and engaged at a whatever age. All this is baloney. You aren’t “supposed” to be or to do anything.
Bertrand Russell said: “At twenty men think that life will be over at thirty. I, at the age of fifty-eight, can no longer take that view.” He’s right: There is nothing magical about the age of thirty. There is no age you pass when you don’t have to worry about money, about your boss, about your partner, about your health. There will always be something to worry about. There will always be unexpected curveballs that upset your plans. Don’t struggle to escape the post-college chaos; try to accept it as normal.
Don’t equate your happiness or your self-worth with something external. You are not your job, your hobby, your paycheck, your body, your friend group, or your relationship. You aren’t a collection of accomplishments or a Facebook profile. You’re a person, and you have worth just because you’re a person, pure and simple. Everything else is incidental.
If you want to be rich, famous, loved, successful—that’s fine, but that won’t make you any better than other people. It might not even make you happier. Don’t worry so much about putting ground under your feet. Don’t fret about establishing your identity. You will always be changing. Life will always be throwing problems at you, and sometimes things will go wrong. Try to get comfortable with the impermanence of things.
Don’t look for the “meaning” of life. Don’t look for “the answer.” Look for meaningful experiences of being alive. Appreciate those moments when you feel totally connected with life, and try to seek those moments out. Realize that life is just a collection of moments, and not a novel with a beginning, middle, and end.
These moments are what bring you happiness, not the story you tell about yourself. So you don’t have to feel existential dread about these big Adult Questions of Love and Work. It’s important to find a good partner and a good job. These things are very nice, but they’re not what give your life value or define you or make life worth living. Treat them as practical problems, not existential ones. Like any practical problem, they might not have a perfect solution, and you might fail—which is frustrating. But failure won’t make you worthless, just like success won’t legitimize your life.
One last thing. Stop caring about what other people think. Who cares? What do they know? Be a friend to yourself, be loyal to yourself. Every time to judge yourself, you betray yourself. In a thousand little ways throughout the day, we reject our experiences and our world. Don’t reject. Accept. Stand steadfastly by yourself as you ride down the steady stream of thoughts, feelings, flavors, colors, sounds, mistakes, accidents, failures, successes, and petty frustrations that make up life as we know it.