This past year, I have had numerous reporters ask me to explain why women around the age of 29 are going through what appears to be a mid-life crisis, or in this case, a quarter-life crisis. I was included in a televised discussion this week with a number of women facing or recently passing through this phase of life, giving me the chance to hear how they define their torment. I found both similarities and differences between quarter- and mid-life examinations. I believe the quarter-life crisis is coming to the forefront as leaders like Sheryl Sandberg and Marissa Mayer are pushing women to assess their values early in their careers.

Most women seriously reflect on the choices they have made and the career-life paths they are on when transitioning into a new decade of life (men do too but this post focuses on women). However, the angst they feel when experiencing each life passage is triggered by a different desire. I’ll explain these in a moment. 

First, let’s look at the word “crisis.” Questioning where you are going and even who you are generally isn’t catastrophic even though it feels uncomfortable. You may feel lost because your priorities are shifting, which changes the answer to the question, "Will my future give me happiness and fulfillment?" This questioning peaks as you enter each new decade of life.

The questioning is difficult because goals are hard to define. In my research, I found most strong, smart women aren’t driven to achieve titles, great fortunes and clear career paths to the top.¹ They may achieve these things along the way but their desires are based on having motion and meaning in their lives. They want frequent new challenges and they want to know that the work they do is significant, meaningful and emboldens their highest potential.

The problem is that no one has defined what “highest potential” looks like so the quest has no specific destination. This all adds up to a restless craving to realize your potential which peaks as you approach each decade of your life. Yet the questions shift as the stages progress. Here are three life shifts:

Age 30 – The questions focus on career choices. The yearning is to ensure long-term happiness. “Will the choices I make around my career and family make me happy in the long run?” You may have already made a career move or landed in an “accidental career.” You might struggle when differentiating societal, peer and family “shoulds” from your personal desires but deride yourself for not figuring it out already. This could lead to a big career or life change including starting your own business.

Age 40 – The questions focus on life purpose. The yearning is to ensure the significance and value of your efforts. You might be coping with the ongoing inequality in the workplace, continually feeling misunderstood and mismanaged, and a “niggling” voice that says you have a bigger dream and purpose to achieve. You could re-create yourself at work or drop off the corporate ladder unless the organization is big enough to give you a lateral move to explore what else is possible. If you decide to move on, you might have some hits and misses before you successfully land on a new path.

Age 50+ – The questions focus on legacy. The yearning is to ensure age-defying relevance. You face age discrimination more than men so you seek to discover how you will be seen as valuable as well as what you will do to share the wisdom you gained over the years. You might seek richer ways to apply your talent and skills. Or you might look for ways to give back to the communities that supported your growth up to now. For some, this pursuit feels less driven than in previous years. For others, the yearning is just as strong but feels more universal than personal.

You might define your quarter- and mid-life assessments differently as we are all unique. Some women pass through the stages with ease. What I share are just tendencies. I welcome your comments and experiences.

Regardless of what questions you are grappling with right now, here are some questions that could help you embrace your restlessness as an opportunity for self-exploration and growth instead of letting it feel disruptive, confusing and scary.

  • What have I accomplished that I am proud of? Does this work still fulfill me or is the joy disappearing? Is there something I need to leave behind in order to move forward?
  • Is there something more important and fulfilling that I can focus on now? What conversations am I having that bring me alive? What do I dare doing?
  • What do I want more of in my life? What yearning is emerging? What have I imprisoned that is crying to be free?
  • What have I been afraid to do? What step can I take now to find out what is on the other side?

Questioning your journey as you pass into new phases of your life is good practice even if it is uncomfortable. Your life is progressing, your needs are shifting, and the world around you is quickly changing. This may make you feel like a stranger to yourself. Find other women who are as restless as you and are willing to challenge the status quo of their existence. A good coach who specializes in life transitions can help as well. Hopefully, it won’t be long before you come to love the new person you see.

¹ The research that defined these phases can be found in Wander Woman: How High-Achieving Women Find Contentment and Direction. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler, 2010.

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