At Work

The Three Phases of a Quarter-life Crisis

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I recently told the story of how I purchased my dream car when I was twenty-two years old—and then promptly totaled it in a four-car pile-up. That’s certainly the analogy of a quarter-life crisis that feels most poignant to me (particularly in my neck), but there are many different analogies that could be applied to the decade of your twenties.

Perhaps the most common analogy is that of a race. It’s a classic one, going all the way back to the times of the original Olympics. “Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize?” the Apostle Paul rhetorically asks his Corinthian readers. “Run in such a way as to get the prize” (1 Cor. 9:24).

Track and cross country teams have some members who are sprinters that specialize in short distances, and some of them are endurance runners who specialize in long races. Teams need runners with each of these skills because different races require different training regimens, muscle strength, pacing, and mental focus. 

Bottom line: you can’t take a highly-trained sprinter and ask them to run a marathon. Even the best, most well-rounded athletes can’t easily switch back and forth between sprinting and long-distance races.

Seasonal Sprints

So here is the problem for twentysomethings: you’re a trained sprinter who has now been dropped at the starting line of a marathon. 

By the time you’re in your early twenties, you’re used to sprinting through life. For the vast majority of us who graduated from high school, that was our first four-year sprint. For the third of us who went to college, that was our second sprint and it took us about four years, although the fastest runners got it done in less time. A very few of us may have even gone on to graduate school for another seasonal sprint.

No matter which educational path you took, you know what it means to sprint. In school, you make quick progress. Every quarter or semester concludes with a report on your performance. Every year, you level up. You know exactly how you stack up against the other students, and you know exactly what the expectations are for you to achieve success. You rush from assignment to assignment, and keep yourself going by the growing anticipation of crossing the finish line. Then at the end of four years you have a big party to celebrate.

Life isn’t a Sprint. It’s a Marathon.

Real life, once we’re out of school for good, isn’t a sprint. It’s a marathon. You have to change from a four-year pace to a forty-plus-year pace. We don’t get the constant feedback of grades, we don’t level-up regularly or even know how we are stacking up against our peers, and we don’t get a big party every few years. 

We have a sense that we ought to be passing certain mile-markers of adulthood, but finding them isn’t straight-forward. We don’t even really know where the finish line is until sometime in our golden years when we look back and realize that we have already crossed it.

3 Phases of a Quarter-life Crisis

This is the essence of a quarter-life crisis. Many young adults come off of their high school and college sprints and charge into life at the same fast pace. However, the nature of a four-year pace is that you burn out after four years. These people find themselves at the end of their endurance, looking for signs of the finish line, only to find the first water station of the marathon. If they stop to catch their breath, they see other runners whizzing past them and wonder if they are falling behind.

First, there is the burnout, the result of sprinting when you should be pacing yourself for a marathon. It’s like speeding up behind a slower car and slamming on the brakes so hard your tires squeal. If that’s you, it’s okay to be experiencing burnout. It’s likely that no one told you to set a marathon pace, and you may not even know how to after all that time sprinting. This doesn’t mean you are actually behind, and even if you are, this doesn’t mean you can’t catch up. After all, a marathon is a long race.

The second phase of the quarter-life crisis is the slow down, adjusting to life at a slower pace. This is like driving behind a slower car, and we all know how annoying that can be! This period is marked by frustration and confusion, perhaps even feelings of failure and disillusionment. We think we are supposed to be going faster, having more success, and ticking more accomplishments off of our life checklist, and it’s just not happening. People in this phase often don’t realize that slower is how life is supposed to go, it was the sprinting that was misleading.

Remember the bright red British poster from World War II that encouraged the people to “Keep Calm and Carry On?” When you are in the midst of a disorienting slow down in your twenties, that motivational saying can be your way forward. The third phase of the quarter-life crisis is the carry on, when you realize that life isn’t going to speed back up so you reassess and readjust your life goals. How you readjust and how quickly you respond will make all the difference in how long your quarter-life crisis will last and how severe it’s impact will be.

Set Your Marathon Pace

If you’re just starting your twenties, you still have time to set that marathon pace and maybe even avoid the lull of a quarter-life crisis altogether. We’ll discuss how to set a marathon pace, and what to do if you are in a quarter-life crisis, later in this series. In my next few articles, we will closely examine what each of these phases looks like so that you can readily identify them.

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