Why Having a Quarter Life Crisis was the Best Thing That’s Happened to Me
Turn Aimlessness Into Your Competitive Advantage
I graduated with my bachelor’s degree in June 2016, but haven’t seriously looked for a full-time position until now.
How did that happen?
To put it simply: In the interest of gaining skills and positioning myself better for a career I’d enjoy, I decided to forego taking a job right after graduation from my bachelor’s. Instead, I went to tutor English in Asia. But that’s not what this story is about. Mine is just one example of the growing phenomenon of the quarter-life crisis: a period of extreme self-doubt and uncertainty one experiences right out of college or shortly thereafter, causing them to pivot their career to a completely different direction than they or their family could have expected.
A shift in priorities
Although mine might have been an uncommon choice, the decision to pursue an unexpected course after graduation is, in fact, becoming more and more common as the needs of the job market shift, and with it, the priorities of young people. Employers no longer see college grads as the ideal new recruits, but instead, those who have some proven track record outside the academic structure. Why? Because college is now such a low baseline that’s it’s hard for companies to distinguish who’s just going through the motions to get a degree, and who really has passion and intrinsic talent in their chosen field.
Just graduating isn’t enough to show that. We need to do something outside of the normal process, in order to stand out.
The reason I decided to go to abroad, however, was far from being explicitly intended to prove myself to future employers. It was because after graduating, I personally did not feel I had the skills to embark on the career path that I wanted. College, for me, was a fully-compartmentalized experience in itself — a time wherein you grow as a person socially, gain the ability to prioritize time and resources, and a period in which to experiment and figure out what it is you actually want to do. I think this is common for many undergraduates these days. Primary education is only designed to prepare us for secondary education, not for real life. So it’s no wonder many people rush into college without a strong idea of what they want to do as a career. In my case, admittedly, I did much less research than I could have. I was just going through the motions. I thought — and was told many times — that getting a degree, no matter in what field, is the most important thing.
That might have been true in our parents’ day, when having a degree in any field — just because it was a degree — made you stand out (because having a degree was less common). Now it doesn’t.
A degree is no longer the main priority.
Now, the competitive advantage for a graduate is closer to something like: knowing what you want to do with your life to enough of a degree of certainty to be able to reasonably prove that you are committed to one, specific field.
And the best way to do this is to get some experience with it outside of the college structure.
So not only was I not ready to get a job out of college, but due to the unwritten rules of our current society, it was practically foolish of me to even expect that I would be ready, just by going through the motions and coming out the other end with a degree.
The very natural rise of the quarter-life crisis
The recent transformations going on in our economy has left us with a generation of confused young people with no tangible prospects, and a ton of debt. All of which has given rise to a new phenomenon called the quarter-life crisis — a period where, despite barely getting started in their career, a young person feels so disillusioned that they want to make a major pivot, start over, do something new, maybe even “crazy” (like that uncle who bought motorcycle when he hit middle age after living a stable family life for 15–20 years).
The quarter life crisis is, ironically, is the best thing that can happen to our generation. Because from crisis comes creativity. The pressure of paying back college loans in combination with the disillusionment of graduating with an arbitrary degree forced me to think through all my possible — and even impossible — options. It has forced me to think, seriously for the first time in my life, about what path I should take to start my career on stable footing, and take steps accordingly.
And it’s not just me. Most —if not all — of my friends and acquaintances from college have or are in the process of shifting their career paths away from the field they studied for undergrad:
A nurse who doesn’t like her job and decided to shadow the supervisor instead of the doctor, for an intended shift into management.
A chemical engineer who’s spending all his spare time investing in real estate, hoping to eventually make it a living.
A civil engineer who’s more mentally engaged with his participation in a local political organization than his career.
A biomedical engineer who did a master’s in computer science and now works with machine learning.
A film major turned freelancer who is about to start a master’s in food science.
And then there’s me. Graduated with a bachelor’s in chemical engineering. Then moved to Asia.
Only now, after about three and a half years, am I getting my footing on a stable career path.
In the time between my graduation from undergrad and now, I’ve:
- Done a variety of odd-jobs from tutor to delivery boy
- Hosted guests from all over the world through Airbnb and Couchsurfing
- Started and ended a long-distance relationship
- Studied martial arts, and meditation
- Gotten a master’s degree on full-scholarship
- Attempted (and failed) at a startup, and worked with two others
- Been a nomad, and a refugee
- Become fluent in a new language
- Lived in three countries and traveled many more
Some good, some bad, but all of it extremely valuable, and none of which probably would have happened if I had chosen to take a job right out of college.
And I’m sharing my experience here, publicly for the first time, as an example of the possibilities in store for all those people who feel lost early in life, after graduation. And to prove that we should not see it as a curse, but a blessing — a period of time where we can be free to experiment and explore — not just making up for time lost in the past, but paving the road for a successful, and happy future.
Now I’m freshly graduated from my master’s with a handsome resume and competence/confidence to do a job I think I will enjoy, in a field completely different from the one I studied for my bachelor’s. And all that coming from an extended period of near aimlessness — lots of self-doubt, a handful of extreme ups and downs, even some bouts of depression. But these were the experiences I needed in order to find out where and how I should dedicate the next several decades of my life. A forward struggle, if you will. 3 years of uncertainty has given me more confidence in my current career path than a 4-year degree ever could have, even if I had chosen a major more relevant to what I intend to do now. If I could go back in time, I’d do it all over again.
Embrace the quarter-life crisis, and use it to your advantage. Our generation is privileged to experience this new problem for the first time in history. Let’s make it work for us. Let’s squeeze the 3D rendered bull’s horns by the virtual reality controller handles. ✌️
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