I first encountered the term “quarterlife” in 2008 when it existed as a web series starring Scott Michael Foster. He played Cappie in Greek, a show I was watching at the time. Quarterlife was primarily about a generation coming of age on the cusp of the digital revolution, and it was launched in the form of webisodes and vlogs. It was very, very short-lived.
Now, in 2015, I can’t do a Google search without “quarterlife crisis” or “millennial” popping up in my search results. This makes me question my search queries, but I suppose that’s neither here nor there.
The quarterlife crisis is real. It’s always been real, encapsulated in the ennui of a generation that teeters at the inevitable edge of adulthood and responsibility. It just feels more pronounced now because it’s talked about everywhere. We are aware of it, because we won’t shut up about it. Perhaps it’s the post-teenage angst or the last hurrah before turning the corner into your thirties, but like the midlife crisis, existential questions come up a lot when you’re in the middle of a quarterlife crisis: “Who am I?” or “What have I been doing with my life?” or “Who have I become?” All are pretty valid questions, if a little bit premature.
But I get it. No one wants to turn 45 without even pausing to ask themselves these things. No one wants to wake up one day, 20 years later, realizing that they have lived a life they didn’t want. And so we ask. And we ask. And we ask. We ask a lot.
We are constantly bombarded with images to compare ourselves to, through social media we’ve elected to follow, and instead of encouragement or happiness for the other, we feel panic. The exposure to The Life You’re Not Living is a daily occurrence for the typical millennial, something older generations only had to deal with when school reunions rolled around, as they scrambled to find meaning in their lives.
I think that people forget, though, that things take time, and you can’t really know everything about yourself at 25. I know this, even after my Reality Bites moment has expired. “I was really going to be somebody by the time I was 23,” Winona Ryder’s Leilana says. At 26, I ask myself constantly, “Who have I become?” Sometimes I recoil at the thought, but we’ve all got to pull out the Troy Dyer in all of us (admit it; he’s there) and tell ourselves: “Honey, all you have to be by the time you’re (whatever age you are) is yourself.”
Millennials are often portrayed as lazy freeloaders who have no clue what they’re doing, but it’s not like these types of people didn’t exist before we did. An entire generation rarely ever turns out to be entitled little sh*ts. In pursuit of figuring things out and trying not to look like total a-holes, we somehow forgot to just be people who didn’t always have to have the next shiny accomplishment up their sleeves. We all have grand ideas and dreams for ourselves, and it feels like the sooner we get there, the sooner we’ll be self-actualized or validated. Or happy.
When I was 16, it seemed impossible to imagine the life I’d live at 26. I certainly didn’t think that it would be how it is now. At 26, I thought you had to have your sh*t together. Standing on the edge of my mid-20s, I feel like I failed my 16-year-old me in many ways, even if the life I imagined myself having back then is not something I really want for myself anymore.
Sometimes I think I want to be known for something worthwhile. Other times, I just want to be content with making something for myself. For a long time, I was hell-bent on chasing my big dream, then I got tired or things got to be impossible or I realized I didn’t want The Big Dream anymore. I’ve been rearranging my life ever since, like furniture, into a new, clean space, switching out my big dreams, trying not to misdirect myself. This space is turning out to be a Hobbit hole, maybe. Bilbo Baggins said, “It is no bad thing to celebrate a simple life,” and I get it now.
This is not a call to arms for a life of complacency. What I’m saying is that it’s okay if you’re not there yet. Life doesn’t end at 30. I attended a talk with my friend, Petra, late last year. Peter Mendelsund, a book cover designer whose work has been some of the most beautiful I’ve ever seen, divulged his long history as a classical pianist, a life and a future direction that started at the age of four. He didn’t even start thinking of designing book covers until he was married with two children, and decidedly done with being — or trying to be — a classical pianist. It was an epiphany for me, because it was one of those times when I felt like I had no clue who I was and, frankly, I didn’t know what to do with my life.
My point is: 10 years is a long time, and a lot can happen between 26 and 36. You can’t waste it, trying to figure out what life fits you most by imagining others’ as yours. You have to actually live your life. It’s okay to take detours or segues or go on a completely different path. I still don’t know what I want to do, really, but I have a picture of the kind of person I want to be and the kind of life I want to have. Lingering on the what-could-have-beens isn’t going to help you get to where you want to be, because whatever happens, time moves, and you have to move, too.
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