At Work

The Slow Down: The Second Stage of a Quarter-Life Crisis

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In my last article, I shared about burnout, the first stage of a quarter-life crisis. Today we are going to take a look at the second stage: the slow down.

Not everyone who experiences a quarter-life crisis ends up in the emergency room with panic attacks (or living in tree houses for that matter). Paul Angone is a writer and self-described “humorist,” who writes on life in your twenties on his website His most viral blog post titled, “21 Secrets for your 20s,” has been read by nearly a million people. He expanded on the blog post with a book titled 101 Secrets for Your Twenties in 2013.

Climbing Staircases

Angone refers to the quarter-life crisis as a “collective Twentysomething-Struggle.” “We’re being propelled into the rest of our lives and nothing can bring us back,” he says. “How do we make sure we’re shot in the right direction, while not being splattered across any windshields in the process?”

Also to his credit, Angone is one of the only people that I have read to actually define a quarter-life crisis. I came across his book when I was writing this book, and was pleased to see that there were some major similarities with his definition of a quarter-life crisis and the one I have offered. Instead of a speeding car or a marathon race, Angone describes the season of one’s twenties as a staircase. He says,

Growing up, we lived life so linear. Middle school. High school. College. Grad school. Cubicle job. Climb that next step so you can climb to the next and the next and the next… We earn degrees, corner offices, 401 (k)s—but is plodding up a stairwell the way we want to live?

A Quarter-Life Crisis is simply when you finally stop climbing the stairs and start exploring the unknowns of the 15th floor…

No syllabus. No textbook. No professor with a flashlight to shed light on all the answers. No, just you and an endless amount of rooms. All you can do is start opening doors. And it’s a tad terrifying, if you’re honest. Because exploring the dark has always been that way…

I like how well this visual parallels my own examples. The idea of climbing a staircase is tiring. We can all relate to how exhausted you feel after climbing a flight of stairs and realizing there is another, and then another. What triggers the quarter-life crisis is the same: slowing down. We can’t keep climbing the staircase forever, and at some point, something will make us stop and look around.

The Slow Down

The result is the same too. Slowing down is frustrating and a little scary. We don’t really know what we are going to find, except that we know we aren’t going up anymore. It’s just like when you are approaching a slower car from behind and you realize you have to slow down; it’s frustrating that you aren’t going fast anymore. Or like when you are running a marathon too fast, and you stop to catch your breath, and watch the other runners go past you. You are exhausted and know that you can’t run as fast as before.

Signs of a Quarter-life Crisis

Among his one hundred and one “secrets,” Angone includes some signs that you are having a quarter-life crisis. Several of them describe the people who are still going too fast, such as:

  • You’ve moved six times in the last four years.
  • You’ve had six jobs in the last four years.
  • You’ve had six boyfriends in the last four years.
  • You’ve had six girlfriends in the last four years.

I particularly like that he uses four years as the measure here, because I often use the example of “four-year sprints” when describing the quarter-life crisis. Six jobs and six significant others in four years is definitely a sprint! Some of his signs describe those who have already slowed down but don’t really know why, such as:

  • You’ve had no boyfriends or girlfriends in the last six years and you’re scared your boyfriending or girlfriending is broken.
  • Your temporary job at Starbucks has lasted three and a half years.

Of course, my personal favorite from his list of signs was “You found this book because you Googled: Quarter-life crisis.” Same here! There is a good chance you found this article that very way.

A Slow Down Example

In the introduction of his own book, Angone shared a fictional story of a quarter-life crisis, which was based on his own life. His example sounds very much like the person who has already experienced the slow down, but doesn’t really know why or what to do about it. He tells it like this:

An A- student in college. The editor in chief of the university newspaper. Peter had big plans as he crossed the graduation stage—to be a journalist, maybe an editor, at the city newspaper. His dream was to write stories that matter. To highlight the good going on in the world instead of the bad.

Everyone knew Peter would make it.

Through a friend’s dad, he was able to land an internship. Worked hard. Started getting a few small assignments. Could see some light at the beginning of his dream. Landed his first big interview with the mayor.

Then, his whole department was laid off.

Cue scrambling to find a job anywhere. Cue selling advertising space. Cue vague memories of the last two years, each day blending together in a kaleidoscope of monotony. Peter can’t really complain about his job. Oh, he used to. Every day. But not now. He’s settled in. Good wage. Good hours. Good boss. Good corner-cubicle and if he leans backward far enough and to the left, he can just see the window and the top branches of an elm tree.

His dreams of being a journalist have slowly died. But his 401 (k) is alive and well…

But as he loops his tie this morning and cinches the knot, his hands move to a standstill. He stares into the mirror, his eyes locking like two spies trying to tell if the other is lying or telling the truth.

Then THE QUESTION hits him. One that he’s been avoiding. He wants to run from it even now, but it’s caught him like a shrimp in a net.

What am I doing with my life?

There. He’s said it.

He has a good wage at a good job. Monotonous, meaningless, mundane…

But my life was supposed to matter. To have an impact. To do something worth doing.

Our generation’s greatest question has gripped him tight this morning is not letting go…

In the semi-fictional story of “Peter,” his life had already slowed down due to no fault of his own. He was laid off from his job in his chosen career field and ended up landing one in a much more boring sales role. He undoubtedly thought it was temporary, telling himself that he would just do this until he could find another journalism gig. Pay the bills, pay off some student loans, start doing the “adult” thing, and putting money in a retirement savings account.

But this weird thing happened: life didn’t go back to the fast-paced way it was before. He stayed at that sales job year after year. He stopped looking for journalism jobs. He settled in and got comfortable. He went home for the holidays several years in a row and had no major life updates to share with his inquiring family. And it finally hit him that this felt wrong.

He was in the slow down of his quarter-life crisis. First comes burnout, then the slow down, and then it’s time to carry on. We’ll discuss that last stage in my next article.

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