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Figuring Out Life as a Woman in My 30s — And Taking the Quarter-Life Crisis As an Opportunity

"It took me a long time and much painful boomeranging of my expectations to achieve a realization everyone else appears to have been born with: That I am nobody but myself."

Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man

A thread on Twitter started by New Yorker writer Rachel Syme has gotten many women in my age bracket of 33-38 talking about the weight we feel at this age to make big decisions. It has felt particularly timely for me. There is so much I have to say in response. Here are a few of my reflections on this topic.

I found myself in the odd position recently of giving career advice, and in a way, life advice. Because I don’t consider myself an authority on either, I was surprised that it seemed to resonate with the person I was talking to. It brought me a certain clarity as well. So I’ll share it here.

I was playing tennis with a really nice young woman who just turned 30, and we started talking about what we do. She said she was in pharmacy school.

That’s great, I said.

Well, she said, I don’t know if I like it, I really want to be a pilot, but I don’t know what to do because I’ve spent 8 years in pharmacy school and I only have 2 years left.

My Quarter Life Crisis

As she said this, I flashed back to myself at age 30. That year on my birthday, I started to get a deeply unsettling feeling that I was living a life I had not architected.

I remember standing outside a bar in Park Slope, Brooklyn, where all of my friends and area family had gathered to celebrate my birthday. A friend of mine said something along the lines of, you have a nice apartment, a good job, all of these friends, you’re doing well.

Getting this kind of affirmation should have felt great. And yet, it only compounded my sense of feeling disorientation.

I felt guilty and ungrateful for my unhappiness. After all, I had many advantages: a stable family, great friends, a top education, no major illnesses or debt. I did not have my dream job, but I was at least doing something I liked, writing, in an area that I was interested in, public health. Unlike many Americans, my job gave me benefits, decent vacation time, and health insurance. And I was living in New York, a city I had dreamed of being in when I was younger.

Moreover, I did not know what I wanted instead. I liked the idea of being a successful novelist, or maybe a psychologist, but I did not feel I had a novel in me or the drive to do a PhD.

I had up until this point written my angst off. It seemed fit for a Zach Braff movie. It took me many years and, as Ellison puts it a “painful boomeranging of my expectations” to take it seriously, to realize I needed to take my feelings seriously.

I’ll save the story of how I got to the place I am now — 36, left NYC last year to live in France and teach English, freelance writer, planning to go back from France, still figuring things out but overall happier — for another blog post, but in short, it involved therapy, meditation, cultivating genuine friendships and meaningful relationships with family, and minimizing the importance of work to my life and identity — basically, the ingredients that many of us are starting to realize are missing from the classic American success story narrative.

It also involved genuinely understanding that life is a process, a journey, and not something that I can figure out and then execute.

What I had gone through was a quarter-life crisis. It feels such a cliché to call it that, and like everything related to Millennials, people love to make fun of it. But it’s real, and I’m fine at this point owning it because it’s not really a crisis but an opportunity.

The Weight of Societal Expectations

Our society does not take too kindly to people who are figuring it out. Take all of the recent negativity heaped on Beto O’Rourke because of a New York Times article about his aimless years in New York, that Zach Braff trope I mentioned earlier, the conceit of the entitled Millennial or the impractical liberal arts major. We are all about practicality in America. We respect artists, but only if they are successful.

Other societies have their own way of discouraging self-searching. To America’s credit, we have a tradition of promoting individualism and the pursuit of happiness. In other countries, the weight of expectations of community and family I think can make people feel guilty for having individualist considerations. (I’m reminded in Crazy Rich Asians of that line from Nick’s mom to Rachel about how Americans are just focused on themselves and not their families — if anyone can find the exact quote, please send it).

Having come from a background of stability, surrounded by successful people, I had internalized the idea that I needed to figure things out. But the more I tried, the more confused I was. I didn’t need to figure life out, I needed to figure myself out.

Many people who now seem on paper to be ridiculously successful have gone through the trials I describe. None other than Barack Obama spoke about this in 2006 when he gave the address at my university's commencement. (He was then U.S. senator, and we had the amazing fortune of having him as our speaker). After graduating from Columbia University, he recounted his decision to take a job as a community organizer in Chicago, even though everyone close to him thought he should do something more prestigious:

I could’ve taken my mother’s advice and I could’ve taken my grandparents advice.  I could’ve taken the path my friends traveled. And objectively speaking, that TV thing might have made some sense.

But I knew there was something in me that wanted to try for something bigger. 

So the second lesson is this: Challenge yourself. Take some risks in your life. 

This may be difficult for all of you because one of the great things about graduating from Northwestern is that you can now punch your own ticket. You can take your diploma, walk off this stage, and go chasing after the big house and the large salary and the nice suits and all the other things that our money culture says you should buy.

But I hope you don’t. Focusing your life solely on making a buck shows a poverty of ambition. It asks too little of yourself.  And it will leave you unfulfilled.

It’s Never Too Late — Especially Not in Your 30s

It is easy to confuse the false stability of following someone else’s path with the real stability that comes from understanding yourself and your desires. Part of why it is confusing is that we can’t follow anyone’s truth but our own, but we need other people to help us to better understand ourselves. I am only beginning to understand this myself.

Back to my conversation with my tennis partner:

“You’re only 30. I’m 36, and I can say —“

“You’re only 36! You’re young!” my tennis partner protested.

“And you’re even younger. When I was your age (I laughed at my use of this phrase), I felt like I was lost and confused while everyone else knew what they wanted. I felt like I’d moved from job to job and relationship to relationship and had nothing to show for it. I talked to my therapist about it, and she said, at least you’re realizing this when you’re your age. There are people who realize the same thing as you in their 40s and 50s.”

My tennis partner was very interested. Having her interest made me feel moved as well.

“So you can’t live your life for anyone else. It may seem easier now to continue on the path you are on, but you will keep on thinking about the thing you want to do but aren’t doing. That won’t go away.”

My tennis partner thanked me. She seemed to be genuinely moved by this.

And I genuinely believed what I had said.