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Making good use of your quarter-life crisis

Posted Mar 21 2012 12:31am

“At twenty-five, I was a television literary agent.. I had an office with a view, an assistant, an expense account, power lunches, clients, and business cards… From the outside, my life looked great… There was just one problem: I was absolutely miserable.” Christine Hassler

The big questions of vocation, identity, relationships, how we use our talents for ourselves and the world, how we define and nurture authentic happiness – we may never “solve” those questions permanently, but they can be particularly intense in our twenties.

Perhaps especially for people who are the most capable and talented.

That period of life can be the best time to passionately and honestly explore what you want to do, and what you want your life to mean.

The quote by Christine Hassler is from her book 20-Something, 20-Everything: A Quarter-life Woman’s Guide to Balance and Direction , for which she interviewed more than 300 women.

[Her more recent book is 20 Something Manifesto: Quarter-Lifers Speak Out About Who They Are, What They Want, and How to Get It .]

She also talks about undergoing her twenty-something crisis: “I’ve always been an overachiever who put a ton of pressure on myself.

“I graduated from a top-ten university after spending three and a half years stressing myself out to get A’s, a double major, and a few jobs under my belt.”

Being “absolutely miserable” with her life and job, she realized, “I had two choices: I could throw in the towel, move home, and try to forget about the life I had failed at; or I could dig in, look at my life, and try to figure out who I really was, what I really wanted, and how I was going to get it.”

She said in a newspaper interview that the most challenging of those three big questions was the identity one: Who am I?

“Because so much of that had been constructed on external things. I was a straight-A student. I was a good girl. I was cute. I was smart. I let other people define my identity for me, and if it was negative in any way, I was more likely to believe it than the compliments.”

Being exceptional

In my article Gifted Women: Identity and Expression , I note that a wide range of personal characteristics may accompany being exceptional – qualities that impact how gifted people see themselves, how others respond to them, and how fully they are able to realize and express their talents.

Qualities may include wanting to move fluidly from one pursuit or interest to the next; having impatience toward those who are less gifted; engaging in self-critical labeling as “scattered,” having unusual excitability, high energy level, emotional reactivity, relentless curiosity, and other characteristics.

A concern with using our intellectual capabilities “fully” and in a “respected” talent domain may stand in the way of finding an ultimately more satisfying life path.

Tama J. KievesTama J. Kieves, an honors graduate of Harvard Law School, left her increasingly successful practice with a large corporate law firm to honor her inner calling to make a more authentic life.

In her book This Time I Dance!: Trusting the Journey of Creating the Work You Love , she encourages honoring our intuitive wisdom, and releasing constraints based too much on reason alone: “Trust the process. A calling calls to remind you to enter the mystery of instinct and the metamorphosis of an inspired life. Honor your passion to emerge.”

She admits, “For years, I chased success and comfort and found only emptiness and ache. I was afraid of my true desires. They seemed dangerous, unrealistic, infantile, and ill-defined.”

But now, she coaches and leads workshops nationally on reaching meaningful self-expression.

Being multi-talented

Part of the dilemma for multi-talented people is the culturally promoted assumption that we need to choose a defined career path, train for it and follow it exclusively.

photoBut Barbara Sher writes in her book Refuse to Choose! about people who don’t want to – or really feel they can’t – come “down to earth” enough to settle into one path – people she identifies as Scanners.

[Photograph: Self Portrait Suspended 5, by Sam Taylor-Wood, from the page Photography .]

In her article What is a Scanner? , Sher notes that in school “no one objected to their many interests, because every hour of every student’s school day is devoted to a different subject.

“But at some point in high school or soon after, everyone was expected to make a choice, and that’s when Scanners ran into trouble. While some people happily narrowed down to one subject, Scanners simply couldn’t.

“The conventional wisdom was overwhelming and seemed indisputable: If you’re a jack-of-all-trades, you’ll always be a master of none. You’ll become a dilettante, a dabbler, a superficial person — and you’ll never have a decent career.”

The myth of a single career path

But, Sher argues, that is really a myth: “With the exception of learning project management techniques, the only thing Scanners needed was to reject conventional wisdom that said they were doing something wrong and claim their true identity.”

Christine Hassler, for example, is doing that very well, noting she is “a survivor of a twenty-something crisis” and has re-defined herself to become a “Life Coach with a counseling emphasis specializing in relationships, career, and self-identity.. centered on the twenty something years of life.”

[From her site - also the source of her book excerpts.]


Emilie Wapnick notes, “My resume reads like it belongs to ten different people. Music, film, web design, law, business, personal development, writing, dance, sexuality, education– all of these are or have been interests of mine. They come and go (and sometimes come again).

“I remember being a little kid, not knowing what I would be when I grew up. I wondered the same thing in my teen years, and again in college. Sure, all of my interests would make for wonderful careers– just not on their own.

“Would I have to settle on a ‘practical job’ and pursue my various passions on the side or choose among my interests and just commit to one thing?”

She adds, “Both options made me my heart ache… I knew I could be doing more– that I had more to offer the world.”

She designed a program “Specifically for the Multi-Passionate Entrepreneur” – Renaissance Business .

The Productivity for Multipotentialites Course

“Ah, isn’t it lovely having so many different interests? Being a multipotentialite is wonderful, except when it comes to actually getting all of those great projects done.”

Productivity for Multipotentialites is a video course developed by Emilie Wapnick, with Michelle Nickolaisen: “a complete productivity system for multipotentialites. Throughout the classes, you will be introduced to a number of practices and rituals to help you integrate all of your passions into your life, without the stress.”

Learn more at their site: Productivity for Multipotentialites .

Also see info about my book Developing Multiple Talents .

Life on purpose

In his post Life on Purpose [on his "Personal Development for Smart People" site], Steve Pavlina praises the book Life on Purpose: Six Passages to an Inspired Life , by Brad Swift: “This is a truly excellent book on how to discover your life purpose. I highly recommend it to anyone looking to gain clarity with respect to their core reason for being here. What I liked most about this book is that it presents the concept of a life purpose as an unfolding path rather than some fixed idea like a mission statement.”

Also see Brad Swift’s site Life on Purpose .

Another source of writing and workshops on purpose is Guy Finley and his Life of Learning Foundation .

The free ebook “ A Life on Fire – Living Your Life with Passion, Balance & Abundance ” is a collection of interviews “with some of the most successful, brilliant authors and speakers, with knowledge and inspiration for living a life of balanced abundance.”

Also take the free Passion Test Profile by Janet and Chris Attwood.

Jack Canfield, co-creator of the Chicken Soup for the Soul series, says their related book – The Passion Test: The Effortless Path to Discovering Your Life Purpose – “has given me incredible insight into what was missing in my life, where I was not 100% spot on in pursuing my passions.”

Canfield is also author of the book The Success Principles .

Valerie YoungValerie Young abandoned her corporate cubicle to become the “Dreamer in Residence” and “off the beaten path career counselor” at her company Changing Course .

In her article Are You Settling? , she writes about finding herself at fifty feeling “happier, healthier, and in the ways that really count, more attractive than at any other time in my life.. with a profound sense of clarity about who I am and what I want. And I have every intention of getting it.”

But, she adds, “When you’re younger, I find, you’re more apt to settle. We settle in relationships (“It’s better than being alone”), we settle for high-stress, low-satisfaction jobs (“It could be worse”), we settle for all kinds of things that later in life would be simply unacceptable.

“Settling is not the same as compromise. Healthy relationships require a certain degree of compromise from both partners. And while I think you can get darned close, no job is perfect. There are times I’d rather curl up in the big chair in my living room and nap — or do just about anything else than hustle to meet some deadline. But life is all about trade-offs.

“Settling is different. When you settle, you unwittingly or wittingly check your true needs, desires, feelings, and gifts at the door.”


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