I remember it clear as day. I was 22 years old, it was my first semester at App State. I had just finished my Associates of Arts at Asheville-Buncombe Technical-Community College and transferred to start junior year on my Bachelor of Arts in Religious Studies. I was taking a developmental psychology class and my professor introduced the idea of a “quarter life crisis.” She had mentioned this was a fairly new conversation in psychology and media, but that millennials tend to experience this a lot after graduating college. There were debates among classmates as to rather it was actually “a thing” or if the concept was perhaps exaggerated. Yet most of the people having this conversation, hadn’t actually experienced what it’s like to finish a Bachelors yet and struggling to form a solid career identity.
Fast forward to one of my first classes in Grad School in my current scholastic adventure. I was taking a career counseling class. My professor introduces the idea that one’s career is just as much a part of one’s identity as anything else. In fact part of our counseling theories teach us to do graphs and write narratives that show career identity development as an extension of relationships, vocation, passions, and so on. Now that I have roughly finished my first year in this program and only have one left, my consolidating pre-professional identity as a future Mental Health Therapist is starting take a stronger form. Because I am starting to think of myself as a young professional with a career that will give me a certain level of financial stability (albeit humble, its still more then I’ve made in past jobs). I am seeing myself look at the world different and my confidence in what I can do and achieve. It seems as though I am finally exiting that “quarter life crisis” that my Development Psych professor said was common for millennials after graduating college.
For years after graduating App State, it felt like I was floating. I was waiting on something to shift, some opportunity to find a sense of purpose and fulfillment in my work. I remember growing up, my mother use to say there is a difference between a job and a career. I think that holds a lot of truth for me. For the purposes of this blog, I am defining a career as more of a professional identity one settles into. Where a job is just something you do to pay the bills, even when you don’t really consider it to be a defining identity of who you are. Careers also ideally provide more stability in one’s living, which can be subjective to everyone’s standards and needs/wants…but until one’s standards matches what one is living something feels off balance. Working retail, standardized test administration, and restaurants was not in alignment with what I wanted out of life. Sure, each job had something I could appreciate. I hated customer service, but I liked working in retail environments that drew certain personalities I could work with (such as in a natural health grocery store). Or working with people with academic interests (in the standardized testing center). But the job itself barely met my financial needs and didn’t give me the sense of fulfillment I was looking for.
I think of this time as a “quarter life crisis” because I was still trying to figure out what I was going to do professionally to live the kind of life I wanted to live and how to do that. I felt on the fence about going back to school to get a higher-level degree because I was insecure about how competitive grad school was. I also was burnt out from academic exhaustion from finishing 5 years of working towards my BA. The idea of more education felt both intimidating and I had not yet found the motivation needed to really “do it.” So I figured that I would just have to hope my BA would get me something, ANYTHING that I did not yet see coming. Of course one thing that makes millennials different to earlier generations, Bachelor degrees are sub-standard now. Everyone has one and its about as useful as a high school diploma. Unless of course it’s a highly specialized Bachelors or you sell your soul to become a corporate drone. Neither of which I could fit into. So I just found a standard job for my hometown’s industry (tourism and retail) and stuck with it. Hoping maybe I would climb the latter and find something I’d not considered or that some opportunity would come my way and open up new doors. My parents both got very general humanities oriented Bachelors when they were my age, and both quickly climbed corporate latters to success. I thought that might as well just be my story too, because I didn’t see any other options. Unfortunately, stories like that rarely happen for millennials, corporations do not have the same upwardly mobile and abundant opportunities they use to.
I ended up losing a job, going into my first serious relationship with a military man who helped me find the motivation to go back to school for a Masters, find another job in standardized testing, only for that relationship to fall apart right before grad school began. It was still a “floating moment.” I was just trying to follow where the winds took me (which is usually a really hard thing for me to do, because I like to feel like I have a secure plan in place). In retrospect, I am glad I choose to trust the winds and follow where they lead. I was aimless and needed life to shake things up some in order to find a new direction. I had big dreams and grand passions, but no clue how to make it work. I had been disenfranchised with my post-BA-graduation work experience to such a degree I was beginning to feel as though my dreams and passions for gay community and LGBT advocacy where not going to happen. At most that would just be something to do in my free time (if I ever managed to have any free time) and I would have to resign myself to a life of drudgery in a soul crushing job with no passion and live a boring uninspired life. The things I was passionate about (homobrotherhood, LGBT culture and advocacy, etc) would be a deep identity that never could express itself in my labors.
This was something I had resigned myself to until I finally lost my job and found the first serious loving relationship I had with a man. I was challenged to trust my heart and take some risks, or stay in “retail hell” as I called it. Some people are fine to take risks…sometimes so much so that they never have any stability and always get into trouble. This was not my case, I almost never took major risks with my life. I avoided serious relationships because I didn’t want to get swept away in something that could be fake or that I wasn’t ready for. I didn’t want to do grad school because I was afraid of more debt or the possibility that I wouldn’t have competitive enough GRE test scores to get in. I was scared shitless to leave the comfort of my charming little hippie small town of Asheville NC. I had grand passions and dreams to live a life where I could engage work that was inspiring and meaningful…but taking risks was not something I was willing to do. After a lot of soul searching and consulting friends and mentors…I finally went out a limb and trusted my heart. I planned to take this fine handsome man in uniform up on his offer to live with him while he supported me through grad school. He promised never to use his money as a way to manipulate me, it was a gift and not a business exchange. He hoped some day we could travel the world together and do great things as a couple. So I cautiously threw myself into it. Choosing to take a risk rather then stay stuck in semi-comfortable drudgery.
As I said however, the relationship fell apart and I no longer had the financial support I thought I was going to have to work my way through grad school. Heart broken all I had was my new direction: an acceptance into a fairly competitive Clinical Mental Health Counseling M.S. program. I took out more loans then I had planned and got a TA position and pushed forward anyway. As I settled into where the risks I had made took me to. I began to develop a new sense of hope and direction for my future that I never had before. I began to realize the kind of career I was going into could very easily be combined with my passions AND…it could financially support me in better ways then anything I had considered previously. In fact I began to realize with the new income I could expect to have with this degree I could make enough to finally leave home. I could go to a bigger city with more culture and career opportunities to combine my career and passions. And I never would have all these endless possibilities in front of me if I had not taken the risks I did.
I have a sense of hope and direction in life that I’ve not had in a LOOOONNNGGGG time. I didn’t even realize how much I needed this feeling of confidence and direction until I discovered it after taking the right risks to find it. That was my “quarter life crisis.” Trying to navigate a modern life style in 21st century. You feel you need to find that sense of financial stability and direction that society grooms you to expect to have after college…and yet you don’t. You just wing it aimlessly hoping you find where you belong and will be happy. But if there is one thing I’ve learned from my “quarter life crisis” experience…you’ll never have a chance at realizing your dreams…if you don’t take charge of your own destiny and actively take some risks. Even if things don’t end up the way you expect, if you play the cards you’re dealt right…you might just find an inspired place you belong.
Dare to Dream, and take the Sacrifice of Risk to Live it!
To end this post let me share a Star Trek TNG episode clip that inspired me during this time in my life while I was considering the risks I could take: