A few weeks ago, I decided to move to France and took a job in Paris. For many years, it’s been my goal to live in France, to immerse in its culture, and to learn its language, and now the timing feels right. When I told my friends, a couple of them approached me separately from each other and told me that they would be too scared to move out of their comfort zone and literally to a different country on their own, particularly if they didn’t have any significant command of the country’s language nor any savings, as it is in my situation.
And in my usual fashion, I gave them unsolicited advice and encouragement, which was something like this (of course, when family responsibilities are involved it is more complicated than this):
Taking a leap of faith — in any way or aspect of your life — is scary in theory and it can be tough and unromantic in reality. The job I took in Paris is not my dream job and most definitely doesn’t pay like one, finding an apartment in Paris is competitive and nerve-wracking, and the bureaucracy in France is frustrating, especially if you don’t speak the language. And all of this is just the beginning.
But when I think of the worst that could happen, I can’t think of anything that wouldn’t be worth the experience. It won’t be easy, but facing the challenges that happen out of my comfort zone is a success in itself because this is also where the magic happens.
And so far, I have survived the worst days of my life, which suggests that I will also do so in the future. And the same goes for everybody else. Go after the things you want, even when the path seems scary. You are more capable than you think. Have high expectations for yourself and you will rise to the occasion.
And then I like to remind my friends of the Mark Twain quote that “[T]wenty years from now, you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails.”
My life has been filled with questions, insecurity, and instability the last couple of months. I am going through a ‘quarter-life crisis’.
Some have said, “At least you’re going through this now when you’re still young and can try things out without having committed 20 years of your life.” But that might be one of the causes of the quarter-life crisis. Whereas the midlife crisis is elicited by regrets around too much security and routine, the feeling of anxiety and dissatisfaction that young adults feel around their situation in life in their mid-twenties is caused by the lack of security, the anxiety around not knowing what to do next and where they will be in a few years from now while feeling the pressure of time, the “age 30 deadline”, as Jeffrey Jensen Arnett, psychology professor at Clark University in Worcester, Mass., calls it.
While I recognize having many options is a privilege, sometimes it can feel overwhelming and paralyzing to want to find the best one for me but not knowing which one it is. I want to do work that is meaningful to me and others, that enables me to use and develop my skills and talents and that supports my quality of life. But I don’t have a specific plan for my future yet. I have like 100 because I wish I could pursue 100 different careers in 100 different countries. I don’t know which step to take next.
In order to deal with this phase in my life in a productive way, I need to remember the following few things.
Understanding the quarter-life crisis
The four phases
It helps me to understand the science of what I am experiencing so I know generally what to expect. And as it is often with these things in life, nobody is going through it in the same way or even in the same order. But according to a study conducted by Dr. Oliver Robinson of the University of Greenwich, the quarter-life crisis tends to have four phases that usually occur in this order.
Phase 1: You find yourself in a commitment –to a job, person, or social group — that you doubt you want in the long-term.
Phase 2: You end your commitment. This results in anxiety about future uncertainty. You try to figure out what you want, what your values and beliefs are.
Phase 3: During this time, it feels like shit is hitting the fan. You try different things, experiment with alternatives, explore your identity, make frequent changes and often feel emotionally unstable. You focus on figuring yourself out.
Phase 4: In this phase, you start to commit to new roles that feel more authentic to you. They are more aligned with your values and who you want to be.
Phase 3 and I
I’m currently in phase 3 and have been for the past six months. A big part of why I don’t know exactly what to do next is because I am lacking the necessary self-awareness. I don’t know exactly what I want. I know what I don’t want and this might be the best place to be when you don’t know what you want. So my approach to determining my next career step has been trial and error. When I think something might be a great fit, I give it a shot, and if it isn’t right, I’ll try the next thing that I think might be the right choice for me. So far, it has gradually brought me more self-awareness.
However, pretty regularly I get frustrated when it feels like I’m going in circles, stagnating. I’m frustrated that I’m not moving more quickly, especially when I try to actually get experience in a certain career but get stuck in the job application process.
But then I remind myself that it’s about taking one step at a time. And if one thing doesn’t work out, the other might. I remind myself that I need to have faith in myself and trust my instincts that I will find my purpose that aligns with my personality. And then I just need to keep going because a big part of success is perseverance.
Ignoring external pressures
Probably a lot of the pressure I impose on myself is motivated externally. When I compare myself to my peers who seem to have it figured out, I wonder why I am taking so much longer.
Again and again, people tell you that comparing yourself to others is unhealthy and pointless because everybody has their own path. We all know it. Sometimes, it’s just easier said than done.
What helps me to remember is listening to motivational speakers who have found happiness in their careers; like “Smiley” who gave a Ted Talk about his journey of quitting his secure job against many people’s advice in order to pursue his dream because he wasn’t happy with security without purpose and reminds his audience that without purpose many are left unfulfilled by their work regardless of what their social media feed is curated to convey, or people like media marketing guru, Gary V, who calls on everybody to explore their options until they have found their right path, regardless of what their peers do and how long it might take them.
I probably favor these types of advice, because it resonates with what I like to believe is true. But people like Smiley and Gary have found happiness while following that error-and-trial approach against other people’s judgment, so as all-time favorite Mindy Kaling (and I) would say: “Why not me?”
You’re not alone. Surround yourself with like-minded people.
I’m not unique in this experience. Unlike how it may seem on social media, when I reach out to my friends and supportive peers, many of them are going through the same experience. Talking to people who empathize with you and have faith in your ability to find your right path your own way is encouraging. Surround yourself with believers. Connect with people who trust in their ability to find something that marries their purpose with their personality because in their belief in themselves, they will inspire you to believe in yourself too.
The other day, I drove my sister to her doctor’s appointment at 6:30 p.m. She only needed a general check-up and some vaccines, so it wouldn’t take that long, I initially thought.
I was wrong. We didn’t leave the practice until after 9 p.m. We had to wait for more than two hours before my sister could see the doctor. I was irritated. Was the practice just inconsiderate about their patients’ time or really bad at time management?
But then I reminded myself that my sister and I are lucky to have access to health care that allows us to see a doctor in the first place. This quickly turned my frustration into gratitude. And instead of feeling impatient and annoyed, I felt calm and content.
To be honest, I am saying nothing groundbreaking. When we adopt an attitude of gratitude, we are more likely to be happy (here’s a supporting study by Martin E.P. Seligman, a professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania). And many people know that. Most of the time, it’s just so easy to forget.
Some people are naturally more inclined to be grateful. But gratitude is a practice and anyone can learn how to do it. And the more often you do it, the easier it will come to you. Here are a few ways that will cultivate an attitude of gratitude.
Recognize your privilege
Sometimes we take the things we have for granted. However, it is not a given that each of us has access to the things we do or have. Recognizing your privilege is acknowledging that you are lucky to have certain resources that make your life easier in a way that others are not able to experience.
For example, not everybody in this world, not even in the U.S., has health insurance or even access to competent medical professionals. Or when I get annoyed about having to put gas into my car again, I remind myself that I am fortunate to have a car in the first place.
See the positive side
There are negatives and positives to everything. However, when we focus on the positive, we tend to be more grateful. For example, when I had to wait for my sister at the doctor’s, I was able to spend two hours reading my book in a quiet environment. Or for example, instead of dwelling on my disappointment that I didn’t get the job after an interview, I appreciate that I got to practice my interview skills, possibly made a new connection, and am able to pursue other opportunities that might be a better fit.
Acknowledge other people’s efforts and let them know
When people help me, regardless to what extent, I feel immensely grateful because they took time out of their day to do something for me without the promise to receive anything in return. So I always let them know how appreciative I am by writing at least a brief but genuine thank you note.
Notice the small things in life
We often celebrate big things but tend to forget or trivialize the small pleasures we get to experience. I am not only grateful for my car, health insurance, or my college education, but also for slow mornings when I can drink a cup of good coffee and read an engaging book or for days when I get to spend some quality time with my family or friends. I also feel pretty lucky when I find a nicely-fitting pair of jeans (although I am not sure if that counts as a big or small deal).
Ask yourself daily: “What am I grateful for today?”
Listing the things, people, or experiences you are grateful for can be a daily activity you do before going to bed. Doing so helps me to actively identify everything and everyone I am grateful for and lets me reflect on what I have experienced and learned on that day and end it with positivity.
That’s the question I’ve been asked most since I graduated from college. I have always found the question on my purpose of life to be quite paralyzing because it is so complex and important that I feel so much pressure to get the answer right. There are many factors to consider when deciding what to do with my life. What do I enjoy doing? What am I good at? What is important to me? How do I make the world a better place?
Purpose + passion = career
And for me these questions translate into finding a career that is meaningful to me. It’s about finding a career that combines my passion for the purpose and my passion for the process. That means that I must know that my work makes a positive difference in other people’s lives and that the majority of my daily work is enjoyable to me. The process constitutes 99 percent of the journey, and the purpose is what motivates me through the process. Only when I find both in my career, I can reach my fullest potential over the long haul.
Taking it step by step
Or rather over the longer haul. Because thinking about the purpose of my entire life seems too daunting. So maybe it is more productive to only plan for the next ten or five years, instead of thinking about what to do with the rest of my life. What do I enjoy doing now? What are my skills now? And what is important to me now? How can I help improve the world now? What are realistic goals to achieve within ten or five years from now?
And once I have worked towards and achieved those goals, I’ll be more skilled and knowledgeable to set new goals that are higher than the ones before. And it’s not to say that we shouldn’t be ambitious from the get-go; we should, but we also must be realistic. Because if our goals are too unrealistic, we might not be able to achieve them with our current skill set, which could discourage us to continue trying. It’s about taking small steps that amount to bigger steps. And next thing you know, you’ve walked a long-distance path.
Being okay with changes
And maybe some of my goals change before I achieve them, but that’s okay, too. Because the ultimate goal is to live a life I am proud of. That means to create a life in which I constantly use and develop my talents for the things that are important to me. And if priorities change, then so will the goals and the plans to achieve them. So maybe the question shouldn’t be “What do you want to do with your life?” but “What do you want to do?” And it shouldn’t only be asked in one’s twenties but maybe throughout one’s life. Because the answer is likely to be different every few years or even every time the question is asked. For it is really about the journey because that’s 99 percent of reaching the destination.