The Quarter Life Crisis

Most of us have heard of the term “mid-life crisis” before, but I think the more appropriate term that most people at our stage in life can relate to is the term “quarter-life crisis.” Now how does one define this syndrome? Well, it’s simple. It’s a period in your life, I would say anywhere and anytime during your 20s although it could occur earlier or later, when you ponder about the most basic question, “what am I doing with my life?”

Then, you freak out.

Have you experienced it before? Are you experiencing it now? Will you experience it in the future? Chances are that you have or will be afflicted with this at some point. The severity will vary depending on the person. And that’s okay. You’re not alone.

I am reminded of this phenomenon after talking to a friend of mine, who probably introduced me to this term – jokingly of course – a few years ago. We’ve been friends since undergrad and every so often, like good friends do, we just talk about the future. Our goals. Our visions. Our aspirations. Of course, many of those ideas like starting my own film company or creating a reality show called “Idiotic or Genius” haven’t quite gone into fruition yet, although you never know what tomorrow brings. But others have.

For me, my freak out moment wasn’t just one isolated moment when everything clicked. It was a series of events starting with just my experiences working at a very small non-profit mental health center. I was doing community outreach workshops for ESL refugees for an entire year. And when I graduated, the program was terminated. Done. Over. Those ESL refugees? They didn’t get any of the programming that we provided them. While things like this happen in the real world, I was just more shocked at the price tag for my program. The only payment I received was a subway stipend, which amounted to about $150 a semester. We didn’t charge the refugees for the workshop. Someone deemed that paying $300 a year to help about 15 patients wasn’t going to be worth it anymore.

About two years later, while working at a very large non-profit mega organization, I began to experience back pains. While I joked about how I was getting old, the real reality is that no 20-something year old person should be experiencing back pains at work and that something was wrong. My department sent in an ergonomic consultant and after some examination, it was determined that my chair was always broken and was causing my back pains. They sent me to the chair department (I am not kidding), whose job is to order chairs for people. I tried a few out and ultimately I chose a chair that gave me the sense of power. And by power, I really meant the ability to swirl. The department lady said she’d take care of it and I asked how much it’d cost. $600.

That cost value always stuck with me, especially after I applied to public health schools in epidemiology. One chair at this company would equate to about two years of outreach programming at the other company. Pocket change to one company would mean a lot elsewhere. However, a larger issue is that even if that mental health center had the money, would they make the most out of it? To me, efficiency problems and the lack of skill set was going to sink the center regardless. For every dollar they had in the bank, they would only really get 10 cents out of it. But why not 30?

To me, it didn’t seem right. Another friend of mine always joked that when you leave Berkeley, every student has a “save the world” complex. Well, while fixing these inefficiencies wouldn’t necessarily save the world, it was a step in the right direction. It will make a difference. And this vision is what led me to leave my job, leave my interest in research/epidemiology behind, and pursue health management so I could learn the vocabulary of that world and hopefully go back to institutions like that mental health one and make a difference. It felt right to me.

Now, a little over two years after I made that decision, I find myself with a MPH degree, over a month into a new job at a hospital, and living in a city that I never fathomed being in since I hate their baseball team so much (still do). I have no idea whether this career path that I’m on now is the final career path of my life and my calling. I don’t even know if hospital administration is my thing, let alone carrying a Crackberry around (my gut says that this is not). But I think the key thing is you have to figure out your overall interest and then take chances to see if the environment, work, and lifestyle can help you develop that interest further. For me, I know health care is where I want to be. In what capacity remains to be seen, but going back to school was how I addressed my quarter-life crisis and made what I call a “life course correction” in order to get on the path that I wanted to be in… which was to do something that mattered to me.

I have thought a lot about my friend who introduced me to the “quarter life crisis” term as she is going through it now. She mentioned the frustration and pressure she feels given her perception that everyone she knows has it together and is focused in their lives while she feels that she is not. I have thought about the stories I’ve heard from friends I’ve made in the past two years at school. Some of these friends are going through similar issues and questioning whether the path they took in going to grad school was the right decision. One is looking at other options. Another is handling the disappointment that comes with realizing that the career and job they thought they would do isn’t right for them.

The point I mention these stories is this. It’s impossible for most of us to really answer that question, “what am I doing with my life?” What’s more important is putting yourself in a position to see whether you can answer the questions, “do I like what I’m doing and do I see a future in this?” And if you can’t, it’s time for a “life course correction.” This is one path towards getting out of that quarter life crisis funk. That or a lot of heart to hearts with friends over the phone, coffee, IM, e-mail, etc.

Either way, if you’re in a funk like this one, you’re not alone.

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