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Caroline Beaton

Quarter-Life Crises: 5 Steps to Stop Floundering

How to figure out what to do with your life, according to the science of lost.

Paul Friel/Flickr Creative Commons
Source: Paul Friel/Flickr Creative Commons

My quarter-life crisis struck the year after graduating college when I realized I’d chosen a path I didn’t actually want. Initially, I had no idea what to do about it.

Though I felt alone, I wasn’t. A recent study published in the International Journal of Behavioral Development found that 39 percent of men and 49 percent of women reported feeling in ‘crisis’ in their twenties. Common symptoms are a “nagging sense of falsity’ and feeling that one is ‘still a kid’. In consequence, says Emerging Adulthood author Jeffrey Arnett, we “go in a lot of directions, change jobs a lot, change love partners”—all in attempt to figure out who we are and how we fit in the world.

In short, we’re lost. And, though we technically know where we are, the solutions to getting found are the same for twenty-somethings as they are for those physically lost in the wilderness.

Drawing from psychologist Kenneth Hill’s The Psychology of Lost , below are five effective steps to figure out your life path and stop floundering:

1. Detach from your default direction.

In initial effort to convince themselves they’re not lost, some lost people adhere desperately to one vague path. Lost-in-the-wilderness speak calls this “route traveling” or “trail running”. When the hope of rescue via the chosen route is “quashed, as it often is, [people] rarely reverse their direction on the route to go the other way,” says Hill.

We do the same thing in our twenties. Instead admitting we’re stumped, we blindly follow the track set before us—whether it’s our parents’ path, the route we chose right out of college or what we feel we “should” be doing—even when our depression, anxiety or anger indicate it’s not working.

If you’re scared to do something different, remember that very few people instinctively know what they want to do with their lives—and it’s never too late to figure it out. Neuroscience reveals that our brains aren’t set in stone; instead, they continually adapt in response to what we learn and experience throughout our lives. Our brains literally make new neural pathways every day. If the most powerful tool in your body can get onboard with any new path you pick, it’s not too late to try again.

2) Stay put.

Once they realize they’re lost, most people freak out. But anxiety only exacerbates disorientation. Hill writes that when emotional arousal (e.g. distress, dread, fear) is high, “thoughts tend to scatter in irrelevant directions, making the person unable to concentrate on solving even simple problems.” They consequently engage in “random traveling”, where they move around haphazardly “following the path of least resistance with no apparent purpose”. In Millennials, this is the running-around-like-chickens-without-heads phase. The method is nearly always ineffective.

My first year out of college, I moved to Canada, picked up stone carving, decided to go to massage school, applied for my PhD in English and became a receptionist. But in trying so many things simultaneously, I lost my footing and forgot what was important to me.

Thus the best approach for reorientation, says Hill, is calmly staying put—at least until we get our bearings. One of the most useful quotes to me during my shiny things phase was “don’t run faster when you’ve lost your way”. Or, as author Jeff Goins writes, “Before I can tell my life what I want to do with it, I need to listen to my life to tell me who I am." This is how:

3) Find your landmarks.

Savvy hikers use a prominent landmark as their base; wherever they go, they keep it in view. Without landmarks—whether it’s a map, mountains or a well-defined trail—getting lost in the wilderness is inevitable. Similarly, if we don’t define what actually matters to us in our twenties, we’ll get lost in the chaos of what everyone else is doing and where we think we ‘should’ be going.

So once we’ve halted and detached from our default direction, we need to look up, step back and assess the milestones that will guide us toward a fulfilling life. Answer these questions, from The Art of Work :

1) What do I love?

2) What am I good at?

3) What does the world need?

These are your cairns to purpose. If you think your answers are in conflict, see Step 5. Write your answers on sticky notes or somewhere you’ll see them. Whenever you get carried away with all the shiny things, use your cairns to backtrack.

Sometimes we resist identifying any one thing for fear of missing out on others. But we can’t base our return map on projected future landmarks or 50 landmarks in all different directions—which is why we need to pick just a few items we love the most and are the best at. Odds are, those fundamental answers won’t change much. Fasten yourself to them and they’ll pull you home.

4) Create an action plan.

Of course, no search party is being organized on the metaphorically-lost twenty-something’s behalf. We’re on our own for the first time ever, and that’s the whole problem. So we have to be our own search squad. And rescue teams always have a plan before they dispatch.

After calmly staying put and using landmarks to decide your general desired direction, create a map out. My landmark identifier is my sketchbook, where I explore what I’m inspired by, who I am and what I love. My trail map is my planner, where I plot out everything I want to do and when in concrete terms and methodical steps. If we don’t keep track of time, we'll sink back into the course of least resistance. Find what works for you, and then prevent self-sabotage with daily systems to hold yourself accountable.

5) Stop making excuses.

We can only feel in control of our destination if we take responsibility for it. For lost hikers, taking responsibility for the outcome of their search is a matter of life and death. For twenty-somethings, it’s much easier to avoid the stakes of our non-action. Common twenty-something excuses include “I’m not smart enough”, “the time isn’t right”, “I have bad luck”, “It’s my employer’s fault” and “the economy is bad”.

Smith, an economics professor at the University of Waterloo, argues that your self-talk will determine the trajectory of your career. Smith says many use the excuse, “Yes, I would pursue a great career, but I value human relationships more than accomplishment”. But this is a false dichotomy. Instead, we can decide, “I want to be a great friend. I want to be a great spouse. I want to be a great parent, and I will not sacrifice them on the altar of great accomplishment."

Neuroscience reveals that what we tell ourselves directly contributes to the result. For example, our brains get a performance boost from believing effort trumps genetics. In one study , a group told that genetics play a minor role in intelligence showed higher levels of efficiency and attention after errors on a test than those told genes played a major role. The act of you making excuses, then, may be holding you back more than any one of your actual excuses.

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Determining our own path for the first time after departing the structured womb of adolescence and college can feel overwhelming and bewildering. Hill calls the wilderness version “woods shock”. But statistics are on your side: 91 percent of outdoor search efforts find the lost person alive, and 80 percent of people who reported having a quarter-life crisis in the International Journal ’s study said it resulted in “an overall positive outcome”. What’s more, those who had quarter-life crises were significantly less likely to have mid-life crises.

With planned, purposeful steps, you can choose a life you won’t regret.

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For more insights on the psychology of being twenty-something, visit my blog The Gen Y Mind .

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