Learning to Be Authentic
Musings from experiencing a quarter-life crisis
As I get closer towards the end of my 20s, I feel as if I’m making progress towards the end of my quarter-life crisis. There is clarity. There is hope. There is direction.
Growing up, I often hear about adults in their 40s and 50s go through a thing called a mid-life crisis. I never really understood it as a child, only that adults around that age can go in one of two possible directions.
The first direction is that they slip into a state of acceptance that they’re old now and that they will be miserable forever.
The second direction is that they start doing things they’ve never done before like download an app or take up a new and completely random extra curricular activity like salsa dancing.
In Hollywood films, men that experience a mid-life crisis join some sort of motorcycle club or turn their seemingly repetitive life into a comedy by doing something out of character and different. There is not much in the realm of examples when it comes to how people in their 20s deal with a ‘crisis’.
The origins of a crisis comes from the Greek word ‘krisis’. It describes and marks the turning point of a disease — for better or for worse. It’s a decisive moment that changes the current state into something that is profoundly different.
When we experience a crisis, we are in a state where a decision has to be made in order to get us out of the situation we find ourselves in.
When we experience a life crisis, it means that the current reality we’ve created for ourselves no longer nourishes us in the way we need. Or maybe our reality is not nourishing at all but we’ve become addicted to it — sort of like potato chips and cigarettes.
I’ve experienced this crisis on and off since I was around sixteen.
For a long time, I ignored the feeling that something wasn’t quite right. While externally I appeared to be doing just fine — top of the class, numerous academic awards, a scholarship, 2 degrees and 4 majors on graduation from University and a promising career as a developer that quickly morphed in a project management and team lead role with a fabulous paycheck for someone my age — my life appeared rosy.
But internally I experienced a struggle that can only be described as going through the grinds of life. For someone in their 20s who seemed to have it all, this shouldn’t be the case. That stuff is for the older folks. Not me.
I organised social outings with friends because I thought it was what had to happen. I went on a selfie spree and took pictures of every plate of food in sight because it was the trend and that’s how you get likes on Facebook. I updated my LinkedIn, making it appear more noteworthy than how I actually felt.
While people applauded at my adventures and seemingly awesome life, I felt artificial and fake. It’s a modern ‘sickness’ that no one really talks about, well, back in my day.
Then I had a baby and lost my job shortly after returning to work. Those two things were the final pushes that kicked me off the edge. As I started to free fall and everything around me seemed pointless and meaningless, I tried to grab hold of anything and everything I could. I applied for jobs that made sense to the world but not to me. I arranged outings for the baby that made sense for her but not for me. I made grand plans that made sense for everything else other than me.
In an age where Millennials are being branded as lazy, ungrateful and just plain self absorbed, I felt like I needed to prove to the world that I am not one of them by being everything else other than myself.
The real Millennials are the ones that despite the overall image they’ve been given, strive to work for a future that is unlike their parent’s generation. The journey towards self sufficiency and adulthood is much different with a multitude of impacting factors such as student loans, socio-economic opportunities and sectors of work available. The traditional roles are already starting to be replaced by machines and Millennials instictly know that they have to do something different from their parents, even if they’re not aware of this on a conscious level yet.
Unlike their parents’ and grandparents’ generations where life was much more linear, a Millennial is tasked with navigating a world filled with boundless options and opportunities. Some Millennials thrive while others become emotionally paralazyed and overwhelmed by it all. As a coping mechanism, they default to the taught safety net of work until you retire mindset.
Except that mindset is one of the things that led the previous generations to have a mid-life crisis in the first place. Millennials get there at much faster as we are more exposed to the world that led our parents to their existential crisis in their mid 40s to 50s.
Gen Z have it even better as they go through the process of crisis at a much younger age than Gen Y Millennials and all because of the new socially connected world we now live in.
My quarter-life crisis started when I was about sixteen. It seems like such an impossible age to feel such feelings but it happened.
Perhaps my instincts clued on a lot faster than my brain. I knew that I had to be different in order to get to an unknown destination but did not know how to do it or where that destination is. I pushed myself down the traditional path because it was safe. I was always a cautious child, overly anxious and an over-thinker — a trait learnt from observing my mother.
But the emptiness I felt towards life was not because I wasn’t getting what I wanted, but because I was getting what I thought I wanted but not actually what I truly wanted.
In truth, I didn’t know what that want is. No kid ever knows truly what they’re going to become or do when they hit 20, 30 or even 40. Perhaps it’s a combination of age, life experiences and a general dissatisfaction with how my life is going finally revealed my true desires to me.
Those who traveled, made mistakes, stumbled, fell, scratched their knees and got rejected by the world probably discovered all this before me. We all come to our senses at different speeds.
The crisis of wanting change and finally deciding to do something about it allowed me to re-examine my situation. When I finally forced myself to stop and analyse what it is I want and not what I think everyone wants, I became self aware with what I need in life.
After feeling caged in a traditional work paradigm for so long, I yearn for freedom and mobility of space and time. Perhaps the older generation felt it too but stuck with it because there was no glimmer of an alternative.
With the connectedness of our world, going into an office to work or trading time for money is not the only method of surviving in today’s ultra-linked world. As a Gen Y Millennial who’s observed others who are much braver and more creative in their life journey to live an alternative life, I know that anything is possible. And perhaps the older generations have made these observations too and are feeling the crunch of a mid-life crisis because they’ve finally come to the same conclusions as I have.
I always do things in extremes, especially when it comes to work. When I work, I work hard — followed by an intense, all consuming period of burnout where nothing longer matters.
I’ve decided not to let myself burnout anymore. Not only is it a horrible habit and bad way to live life, it’s also a bad role model for a baby that’s absorbing my every action.
The company I worked for shutting down is most likely one of the best things to ever happen. I was getting to comfortable with my misery and the financial uncertainty forced me to pay attention to what I’m doing once again. Thoughts have been firing — at first as an automatic, panic mode kind of response, then followed by a calmness that has been missing in my life for a long time.
The calmness caused by the financial uncertainty allowed me to recalibrate and re-examine what I want in life. It did take me a bit of time to come to the conclusion that I want is a life that has purpose and meaning.
Seeking personal fulfillment is a very Millennial thing to do and perhaps it is that gets us branded as self entitled, unappreciative and the avocado on toast generation. Perhaps the previous generations before us are simply just jealous that we’re tired, overworked, broke, annoyed, angry and hollowed out enough to do something about it.
To live an authentic life means I have to be real with myself and my values. The values of work until retirement as valued by my parent’s generation doesn’t resonate with me. It never has and internally, I’ve always known this but ignored it. I want work that is fulfilling and something that I can continue to do until the end of my days. I don’t want everything to just disappear in a flash when I hit the legal retirement age.
Perhaps it’s just me. Perhaps its the realization that I might live to a hundred. Perhaps I just want something that makes me happy. Or perhaps it’s a combination of these things that’s lead me to this conclusion. Either way, I’ve made the jump into unknown territory now by not going back into the traditional workforce and learning to do my own thing.
As I emerge from this state of internal crisis, I feel like a kid again — completely fearless, completely optimistic, completely experimental — as how I should always be.