At Work

Defining the Quarter-Life Crisis: An Analogy

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We’ve begun a conversation about the so-called “quarter-life crisis” that impacts so many young adults. So far we’ve discussed why this conversation is important, and we’ve compared it to the more commonly understood “mid-life crisis.”

We are building up to an actual definition, but first, I want to share an analogy that I often use when talking about the quarter-life crisis with college students. Unfortunately, this is a true story of my life when I was twenty-two years old.

The Dream Car

For the previous eighteen months, I was using public transportation in and around Washington, DC. The job I had just accepted, however, was too far from my apartment to use public transportation. When I went to the office for my last in-person interview, I had to get there via two Metro trains and a bus which took almost two hours one-way—and it wasn’t even during rush hour! Driving was going to be the only way that I could make this commute to my new job.

Buying a car was even more exciting than landing this job because I knew exactly what I wanted. The search began immediately. I was visiting my then-boyfriend (now husband) in Chattanooga, Tennessee, and I scoured the internet with larger and larger search radii until I found what I was looking for in Buford, Georgia. For those of you who don’t have a map of the South in your head, that’s about two and a half hours away.

Talk about testing a nascent relationship: I called my boyfriend who was at work and asked him to drive me to Atlanta when he got off so I could buy a car. To his credit, he didn’t hesitate. We arrived with less than an hour left before the dealership closed for the night, and she was there. We had called ahead, and the dealership had brought her around to the front, cleaned her up, and parked her right under a spot light. I emptied out my savings account to make her mine that night.

“She” was an alabaster white 2007 Chrysler Crossfire coupe with black leather interior. This two-door speedster was only produced from 2004 to 2008, and it had the engine of a Mercedes-Benz SLK. They came out when I was in high school, which (of course) made them the height of cool, and I loved them from the first time I saw one. I named her Vrrrronika (emphasis on the vrrrrrr… vroom vroom!). She was my dream car, and I was over the moon that I could purchase her when I was only twenty-two years old.

I loved that car, and she was totaled three months later.

The Reality Check

I had actually left work that fateful day and was driving on I66 in Northern Virginia which is notorious for congestion. If you left more than a car’s length between your vehicle and the car in front of you, then another car would move to fill it. So we were all driving bumper-to-bumper going approximately 45 miles an hour, when a car cut wildly across traffic and nearly ran into a minivan. The minivan’s driver slammed on his breaks, narrowly avoiding a forward collision, but causing a four-car pile-up behind him.

Me and my dream car were number three. Damaged in the front and the rear. Barely able to move off to the shoulder. I was in emotional shock, and went through the next few hours feeling numb. We all exchanged contact information and insurance, and then waited on tow trucks. I was the last of the four vehicles to receive a lift. I sat on the side of the interstate for hours, being passed by thousands of commuters and even a few of my co-workers who texted me asking if that was really me on the side of the road.

My tow truck driver dropped me off at a Subway restaurant next to the collision center where Vrrrronika was laid to rest. Two of my great friends and neighbors came and rescued me although it was nearly eleven o’clock at night by the time my heavy head hit my pillow.

The whole ordeal dragged out for longer than I actually owned the car, with three different insurance companies representing four drivers trying to find fault and make pay-outs. I had whiplash in my neck. I had an empty savings account, and now with no dream car to show for it. Perhaps most painfully, I had a bruised ego from having to tell the story time and time again. I was not prepared for this outcome physically, emotionally, or financially, and I was in crisis.

I also didn’t learn my lesson because I took the insurance payout and bought another Crossfire, this time with a red leather interior which really wasn’t me, but I couldn’t let go of the dream. It wasn’t a wise move, and eventually I traded it in for a far more practical, if boring, Honda Accord which I never named.

The Analogy

The purchase and passing of my dream car symbolized the achievement and disillusionment of my childish ambitions. Buying the Honda symbolized my life’s pace changing from speeding youthfulness to modest maturity.

This experience of loving and losing my joy ride and ending up with a practical Honda has much in common with the abrupt transition each of us experiences passing into our twenties. To be twenty is to be at the end of the beginning (adolescence) and the beginning of the long middle (adulthood). It is a time of transition and change that is fundamentally marked by friction.

That friction is caused by a twentysomething being behind the wheel of a dream car for the first time, in this case, being in charge of their life for the first time. Something they’ve imagined for so long. Now they are off, speeding down the highway of life, but in their twenties they can smack into the “real world” like a four-car pile-up.

How they respond will determine whether or not they end up in crisis. In my next article, we’ll unpack what the possible options and outcomes are.

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