The question is saturated in subtext. When others ask kids that question, this is what I really hear:
“What fantasy can you still indulge because you have no idea how much luck it really takes?”
“What are you going toss aside as a ‘hobby’ in ten years?”
“What will you think about while choosing a college major, then discard as being ‘unpractical?’”
And, quite honestly, the subtext has a point. How many of us actually become ballerinas or secret agents? Going even further, how many of us achieved our high school dreams? My class was full of people who were going to move to Washington D.C. and change political discourse, heal sick children in Sub-Saharan Africa, or become the next new talent in Hollywood. So far, none of these dreams have become a reality. Most of them never will.
This can be a crushing realization, one leading to a quarter-life crisis. Many reach this point and begin to meander from job to job, trying to find a purpose, but only generating more self-doubt. The external pressure to live up to what society defines as successful is minimal compared to the internal pressure to live up to your potential. At least, that’s the way it was with me. I was so caught up in what sixteen year old me would have thought of twenty-two year old me that I forgot to revise my standards. I eventually did, but it was far from an easy process.
Alright, so this may sound a little counter-intuitive. You might need to be depressed to get over your crisis. Yeah, I know. Read that sentence over again.
Depression is a constant block of ice against your chest, numbing you to every feeling. It is a treadmill against your feet, making all movement pointless. It is a knot at the back of your throat, preventing you from speaking out. Saying it is life-consuming is not enough. It is life-erasing.
But I am better for it. And I am not alone. Depression forces you to mull over a problem. It doesn’t allow for you to focus on anything else. I had so many thoughts while depressed that I would’ve never had otherwise. Not all of them were healthy, but I can look back now and think of all the problems I overcame. I dwelled on how meaningless it all was, that no matter what I did, it could never matter (I could never matter). But doing so made me analyze it from all angles, until I found one that I could accept and come to peace with. I grew more during this period of my life than any other.
You should absolutely seek treatment for depression. It is a serious, serious, serious problem. But know that it is a step, and that is something.
Whether your quarter-life crisis is hitting you after graduation or mid-way through a career, it’s important to explore. Try a bit of everything. Who cares if you’re jumping around from place to place? No one ever said finding yourself is easy. If it was, people wouldn’t write novels about it! It takes time. A lot of time. A lifetime. So the idea that we’re all supposed to have that down only a quarter of the way through is a little ridiculous.
Experience different things. This is purposefully vague, because there is no specific activity you should try. You should try different career paths, but remember that your job doesn’t define you. You’re no more an executive assistant than you are an amateur gardener, songwriter, LARPer, model builder, news analyst, sub-par cook, hat enthusiast, whatever. Your job is only part of you, and probably not the most interesting part. Find out what you like and what you don’t. This is a process, and you won’t feel any better during it. You will still question yourself and your purpose. But it will ground you and give you material to answer those questions in a productive way.
Something will click, eventually. It might be travel, it might be writing, it might be shoe-making. Mine was rugby. It didn’t click in the sense that I was particularly good at it- in fact, I was rather talentless- but that it shifted my perspective to something enjoyable and present and real.
I don’t think I’ve emphasized how much time this will take. It will feel like an eternity. It will feel like nothing is working. It will feel like this whole article is codswallop. Well, except this part. I can’t tell you anything else but to wait. On average, depression last eight months, but it varies widely from person to person. It’ll be a long couple of months, but you will come out of this whole ordeal as a better person.
I realize that this doesn’t seem helpful now (because nothing does). But you will eventually come to terms with the fact that you didn’t become a ballerina or heal children in Sub-Saharan Africa. You will be happy in spite of that. You will find a purpose, because you do matter.