There was a moment — I can’t pinpoint the time — when I remember feeling pretty good about my place in the world and confident about my adulthood. I thought I had everything figured out. I thought everything would be smooth sailing ahead. But it hasn’t been. 

I love my job, but there are parts about it that, in diplomatic terms, present opportunities to practice patience. I love my wife far more, but we still have arguments. I love living with her in a cool place like Utah, but I miss my family and friends back home in Florida. In short, there’s always some missing part that can never be made whole. At first, I rebelled against that reality. I told myself it was just a matter of time until we move back to Florida and I get a new job that will have all the things I like about my current one with none of the strings attached. 

It’s worth noting that, for all these gripes about aging and adulthood, I’m not 50. Or 45. Or even 35. And as any actual middle-age or elderly person is surely screaming in their head, if not out loud, one among many pieces of wisdom I hadn’t learned until recently is that there will always be friction. No job is perfect. Every city or town has its charms and drawbacks. Every relationship faces difficult moments. And once I realized that, the question became whether my (relatively blind) ambitions were still worth pursuing — and whether I could really put them aside if I chose to. 

Surviving a midlife crisis in 50-mile increments
What experts say about happiness — and how to grow your own

This is my personal manifestation of a “quarter-life crisis.” This phenomenon is not a psychological diagnosis or syndrome; you will not find an entry for it in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. But psychologists (and 25-year-olds) have been thinking (and half-joking) about it, to different degrees and under different names, since the mid-20th century. Even longer, actually, if you understand it not as a condition, but as a near-universal experience. “The drives and desires of people are always the same,” says Tess Brigham, a San Francisco-based therapist whose work with young people inspired her to write a book about launching 20-somethings into adulthood. “We always just want to feel like we’re enough.” Whether in our relationships, in our careers, or just in general — in life. 

There’s a temptation, because of its associations with its more-familiar cousin (the midlife crisis), to define the quarter-life crisis in rigid terms; to make it about a realization that you haven’t found the right partner yet and need to work on settling down, or that you’re not progressing in your career as quickly or as easily as you’d hoped. But the modern understanding of the quarter-life crisis has more breadth. It’s the moment a person truly reaches adulthood. Not in the way that you’d expect — like a biological way or a social, moved-out-of-mom’s-house sort of way. But in a “no matter what I do or where I go, or how much money I make or how many friends I have, nothing will ever be perfect, adulthood will never be as simple as I thought it would be” way. Every human one day realizes, whether consciously or not, that the life ahead of them will be very different from the life behind them; where they must figure out, Brigham says, “what life really is.” 

“We always just want to feel like we’re enough.” Whether in our relationships, in our careers, or just in general — in life. 

Erik Erikson, a father of developmental psychology, first formalized something resembling the quarter-life crisis in 1950. His acclaimed book, “Childhood and Society,” hypothesized eight “stages of psychosocial development,” with each stage carrying the weight of a specific developmental “crisis.” Two of these stages — adolescence (11 to 19) and early adulthood (20 to 44) — result in questions (and crises) of “Who am I?” and “Can I love?” respectively. But the world has changed since 1950. The average American life expectancy has grown by about 10 years, leading psychologists to identify a new stage of development known as “emerging adulthood.” During this stage, “You’re not quite there yet,” explains Kent State child psychologist and researcher Angela Neal-Barnett, “but you should be working your way to adulthood.” Gestalt psychologists, who approach people as the sum of their parts rather than as a collection of individual pieces, label the resulting friction an “existential crisis” rather than a quarter-life crisis, but for us laypeople, the differences are negligible. The animating question in both cases is the same: “Who am I,” Neal-Barnett says, “and what does it mean to be an adult?”

Amid housing crises, a recession and a culture defined by the internet, what it means to be an adult means something different than it did in 1950 — but the definition still seems elusive and personal. Achievement? Maturity? Independence? Neal-Barnett makes the point that everyone must confront the question. She uses my wife, who is studying to become a psychologist, as an example. She described my wife’s attitude as follows: “When I get my Ph.D., then I’ll start my life.” I’ve certainly noticed that sentiment, at least sometimes.

Brigham had a similar realization in her 20s. Since she was a teenager, she’d hoped to one day work in Hollywood. She got her first job in Los Angeles by 24, and by 27, she was “primed” for exactly the life she’d once hoped for — except she realized she was miserable. So she quit and moved back to her hometown to reinvent herself and chart a new path into adulthood. She didn’t identify her experience as a quarter-life crisis until later, when she opened her therapy practice about 10 years ago. Her clientele included many 25- to 30-year-old millennials who were showing up in her office directionless. They felt like they’d followed the approved script — college, marriage, professional careers — but still felt relentlessly unfulfilled. They weren’t quite the same as her own experience, but she noticed an echo. Which is why she believes it’s somewhat futile to neatly define a quarter-life crisis, except to say that it’s a point where emerging adults begin to question their long-held beliefs and core truths. “What’s unique about the quarter-life crisis is that our brains don’t fully form until we’re 25, but we pick a major (or a career) at 18,” she says. “And you don’t know yet what it is to be an adult.” You don’t know about what David Foster Wallace described as “whole, large parts of adult American life that nobody talks about in commencement speeches,” including “boredom, routine and petty frustration.” 

View Comments

Brigham hypothesizes that our atomized existences are to blame. “There’s no time anymore,” she explains. “We don’t daydream. We never process our thoughts.” The minefield of distraction we face from our phones, from television and from social media makes asking big questions harder, so when they surface — as they inevitably will — we aren’t well-equipped to answer. We avoid them more than ever. But those questions, she says, define what it means to be 20-something in the 21st century more than any traditional barometers of success; more than getting married and buying a house and having kids. “The point (of your 20s) is to learn about yourself,” she says. “To try things. To explore. To really learn about yourself. And if you do that, I can’t tell you for sure you’ll never have a quarter-life crisis, but you won’t hit these walls.”

My wall arrived in the form of questioning success. I’m a lucky man indeed, living in an era that despite its many problems and injustices still ranks among the greatest periods of widespread flourishing in human history. And yet I still find myself falling back on a sort of mindless ambition as my default, even if that’s not what makes me the happiest version of myself. Maybe being “normal” really is what makes me happiest. There’s a freedom in acknowledging that. But there’s also a nagging sense that freedom is hindered by complacency. So I find myself again at the question which roots my personal quarter-life crisis: What does success mean to me, and should it perhaps mean something different? Luckily, some psychological experts have reminded me that a quarter-life crisis isn’t necessarily about answering that question and others like it; it’s about acknowledging their presence. About realizing that you may not know who you are and what you’re about just yet — you may never know! — but it’s best to discover who and what you are not. About asking yourself honestly, as you enter the adult world and confront all its paradoxes and complexities, how you want to exist.

Maybe it will be simpler in the years to come. Maybe not. All I know is that knowing isn’t as simple as my younger self thought it was.  

This story appears in the January/February issue of Deseret MagazineLearn more about how to subscribe.

Join the Conversation
Looking for comments?
Find comments in their new home! Click the buttons at the top or within the article to view them — or use the button below for quick access.