Move over mid-life crisis, you’re not the only game in town. Many people experience what’s dubbed the “quarter-life crisis,” the transition between your early and late 20s, in which you set your foundations in the real world and really begin your career.
It’s not an easy time. Often, it’s a stark realization that the universe doesn’t automatically honor the vision you had for your career path, relationships, health, and work-life balance. And sometimes this happens all at once: Your relationship ends, your job isn’t what you expected (or you can’t find one), your social circle changes weekly, and bills prevent you from saving as much as you’d like.
So when your quarter-life crisis hits, you may think: time to quit my job and backpack around Asia. That’s one option, but you can also use it as a calling to re-align your career ambitions exactly where you are. Here are three things that you may be thinking, and how to make sense of them without (potentially) ruining your career.
1. You Want Your Work to Matter
The uncertainty hits close to work because it becomes “home” for many of us. In your young professional life, your job may be the most consistent part of your day-to-day: You spend 40—or more—hours there each week (not including the commute back and forth), see the team more often than family or friends, and pour your eager efforts into it.
Feeling restless or dissatisfied in your first few jobs isn’t always cause for alarm: It indicates that you want this part of your life to be reflected in a more impactful or meaningful way—and that’s totally normal. Adam Smiley Poswolsky, Millennial expert and author of The Quarter-Life Breakthrough, writes in an article for Fast Company that “more than 50% of Millennials say they would take a pay cut to find work that matches their values, while 90% want to use their skills for good.”
Perhaps, since graduation, you judged career prospects on things such as pay (hello, student loans) and title. However, to find fulfillment at work, you’ll need to consider other factors such as stress level, continuous learning, organizational culture—and yes, impact.
So, if you’re not feeling inspired, your current situation could be to blame. However, that doesn’t mean you have to quit. Can you find fulfilling opportunities within your organization by taking on new responsibilities? If not, maybe becoming more engaged outside of work, through activities such as volunteering or starting up a side gig, will help you feel better about your job.
2. Your Strengths (and Weaknesses) Are Amplified
You had 18 years to practice getting good at schoolwork. But giving presentations, conducting sales calls, or writing corporate messaging may not be your strong suit. You’re not used to feeling like a rookie, and it’s hard to feel good about what you do each day if you don’t think you’re doing a great job.
In a quarter-life crisis, you may fixate on one part of your position that requires a skill set that’s not as well-developed, while forgetting that in another aspect you’re a clear leader. Or you may wonder why you haven’t been promoted. While reflecting on your areas for improvement will serve you well in the long run, many young professionals lack the mentorship and tools to process the information and utilize it to strengthen their work.
If you’re feeling overwhelmed by this influx of self-knowledge, you can connect with a mentor or a career coach. Share your observations, any feedback you’ve received, and how you’re feeling about your contributions at work. Gaining a third-party perspective from someone outside of your team will provide you with new tools and resources.
For example, your coach may guide you in asking your manager if you could specialize in an area of strength, while taking a class to improve another skill set. Or your coach may encourage you to join a group outside of work where you can express your strengths more creatively.
3. Your Five-Year Plan Doesn’t Feel Right
Based on your five-year plan, you are right on schedule. But, you feel stuck and unhappy. Does this sound familiar? Christine Hassler, life coach and author, writes in her book 20-Something, 20-Everything: “We think we must decide in our twenties who we want to be for the rest of our lives, but we don't—our goals can and do change.”
No matter how perfect your five-year plan is, there will be unexpected challenges, opportunities, and revelations. As you learn about the reality of a job, organization, industry, lifestyle, or location, your knowledge base grows. Twenty-somethings may feel confused if their original ideas begin to look misaligned or unrealistic. While it may be your first instinct to run far away and never goal-set again, consider this: It’s okay to rewrite your plans and leave room for updated knowledge.
Try this: Connect with a few colleagues or connections who are five to 10 years ahead of you in the industry or job you’re interested in. Ask them for 20 minutes of their time—in person, over the phone, or email (whatever works best for them). Prepare five questions regarding their day-to-day, challenges, growth opportunities, sacrifices made, and most important skill sets. How do their experiences match with the values, work, and strengths you have determined to be important factors going forward? Getting into the habit of investigating your potential future before crafting a career plan can help you define clear goals and motivations, so you save yourself from feeling locked in.
The quarter-life crisis can be scary, but you will get through it! If you’re experiencing any of the feelings above, know that your future is still unwritten and full of opportunity (and that backpacking trips will most likely always be on your list of things to do). With the right tools and attention, your crisis will likely lead to a more wholesome, fulfilling, and expansive career.