The Quarter-Life Crisis is a Sign of Maturity
Ask anyone who has gone through a Quarter-Life Crisis, and they’ll tell you that it can at first feel like a terrifying, alienating, depressing, and stormy passage of life.
It can feel as though the tectonic plates that our lives had been perched happily upon have suddenly shifted, causing an earthquake of questioning at the surface of our lives.
Is what I’m doing really meaningful? Is this really what my life is supposed to be about?
It can feel as though we have been suddenly cut off from the safe harbor of meaning and left adrift in an ocean of unknown.
Who am I? Who do I want to be?
Believe me. I’ve been there.
However, the greater reality is that the Quarter-Life Crisis actually represents a very positive opportunity in one’s life. It is a calling to achieve a deeper level of maturity by discovering more about the kind of person we aspire to be, and then making changes that align our lives with this vision of ourselves.
Both myself and many others who have navigated one will tell you that the Quarter-Life Crisis can be one of the best, most formative things that can happen to you. Those that go through a Quarter-Life Crisis are lucky. It is an opportunity to check in with ourselves with plenty of time in life left that doesn’t happen for everyone (or at least not until the third-life, mid-life, or end of life).
From age 0 to 25–35, we live according to our imprinted values/world view
From the moment we are born until our mid-20s, we are imprinted with values and world views. We take these in from our parents, our teachers, society, the media, our communities, school peers, and the many other forces that we interact with while growing up, especially in our early, formative years.
During our adolescent years as our bodies develop, we develop our sense of self, too, and this is typically where we first begin to experiment with rebelling against our given values and world view. Yet, teenagers simply rebel against what is for the sake of flexing or testing out their sense of self vs world boundaries, without being truly capable of forming an alternative values system or world view; at this point we have not had enough life experience.
It is not until we have left the guide rails of home and school to strike out on our own that we have the possibility to accumulate enough experience to be capable of truly evaluating whether the values and world view we were imprinted with are those which we wish to keep.
However, so long as things in life are going well, we have no reason to rebel against, question, or change our values/world view (aside from the angsty teenage years). For many of us who end up having a Quarter-Life Crisis, things are either going pretty well, or still hold plenty of promise through our mid-20s.
Enter ages 25–35. By this time, we begin to experience life disillusionment in the form of limitations, frustrations, scares, letdowns, stagnation, and losses, which serve to cast the efficacy of our core belief systems into doubt. Life disillusionment, combined with having real ownership over the course of our lives and material life experience are what create the conditions for an existential questioning to arise.
Hence, the Quarter-Life Crisis.
The Quarter-Life Crisis invites us to consciously select our values and world view
The Quarter-Life Crisis is a process we go through in order to take ownership over our values and core beliefs.
In this sense, it is like growing pains that mark a critical step in our mental growth or maturation process. We need to question our pre-adult values and world view (which is quite painful and scary, given how central these are to our sense of self), in order to allow our adult (mature) self to take ownership over our lives.
We mature by expressing our own desires and making decisions of our own agency, rather than outsourcing decisions to the forces which formed our initial values and world view.
If we do not take ownership over our values and world view, then we fail to mature, which sets us up for ongoing dissonance and unhappiness, because we will continue to live our lives according to belief systems we automatically follow, yet didn’t choose and may not agree with. We are inherently led to the feeling of being trapped into something we don’t want, with questions of “why am I doing this?” or “would doing else be better?” when life inevitably takes a negative turn.
As an example, my given values and world view prior to my Quarter-Life Crisis were heavily shaped by my dad (who immigrated from Ghana to the United States for college and worked his butt off the whole way through), society, the business world, and the media, and included primarily work-oriented elements like:
- Achievement, persistence, curiosity, intelligence, and impact
- Being my own biggest critic and never satisfied enough
- Feeling the gains won from workaholism were worth the sacrifices
- Seeing little value in the present moment; believing that what was valuable is what is to be achieved in the future
- Achieving work-life balance by working hard and playing hard (even as both caused physiological and mental damage)
- Seeing money as extremely important and believing that. the more you have, the better; there is never “enough”
It is worth noting that, growing up, I rejected many parts of myself and never felt a sense of self or worldly acceptance. I am also a mixed race, yet not fully black (I act “white”), and not fully white (I look “black”). Growing, up I had trouble finding belonging culturally. Then, in school and ultimately business, I found the glimmer of hope.
I internalized the narrative that I could find acceptance in the professional world if I could become “successful.” So, I eagerly leaned into the above values in pursuit of meaning and belonging.
This, along with other factors, precipitated a work burnout. My burnout led to my Quarter-Life Crisis, which led me to question my instilled values and world view. I am very grateful for my crisis, because it was an instrumental part of my ongoing maturation into a full human being.
Granted, when we take ownership over our values and world view, we are still influenced by forces outside of ourselves; but the difference is that we are now free to consciously choose our own belief systems, which can lead to us discovering different values or world views than those we grew up with.
For example, some of my chosen values and world view include:
- Creativity, freedom, curiosity, impact, and connection
- Self-kindness and self-acceptance
- Learning to balance self care and the present moment with hard work for personal and professional growth and development
- Focusing on the ongoing journey of life, and not only the end
- Prioritizing self care over playing hard
- Defining a reasonable level of income that I am satisfied with and adjusting my lifestyle to accommodate
Our Quarter-Life Crisis-developed belief systems can continue to grow as we do
Importantly, the Quarter-Life Crisis doesn’t have to lock us into a new set of beliefs which will we must stick to for the rest of our lives.
We don’t have to know what we like, who want to be, or what we want to do for the rest of our lives from this point.
The Quarter-Life Crisis for many is the first real opportunity to consciously decide to act for ourselves. Through the process of this first conscious rewriting, we grant ourselves the familiarity with and permission to revisit our core beliefs as-needed, as the experiences of our lives, our wisdom, and our desires continue to evolve. For instance, great artists such as Miles Davis or Madonna continue to evolve their belief systems and reinvent themselves throughout the course of their lives.
This doesn’t mean we need to have future crises to update our belief systems, either. With maturation comes wisdom and flexibility, which are key ingredients in enabling us to make adjustments along the way, as opposed to being caught by complete surprise, ignoring, suppressing, or rejecting our future existential evolutions.