Quarterlife Crisis, a Conflict of Choice

Earlier today my personal essay about what quarterlife crisis feels like went live on The Bold Italic. I actually have some additional thoughts on the topic that didn’t fit in story so I thought I would share them here.

When we were little, we had our families to tell us what to do. Parents taught us what is good and what is bad, what is right and what is wrong. In school, teachers instructed us what to do and provided grades as measurements of how well we were doing. We applied to schools using standardized tests and a pre-determined system. Then upon completion of our education, we are told by that the world is our oyster, go wild. The expectations from others remain, but no longer can someone else tell us exactly what to do when and how, step by step. “It’s your life,” they say—Indeed we have our three-fourths of our lives ahead of us. Married couples with children say they envy us for having no one to be responsible for except ourselves, “You are free to be whoever you want to be and do whatever you want to do.” However, these statements often terrify twentysomethings instead of making us feel powerful and liberated. Why? Because there are simply much more options to choose from than ever before.

This is termed the Paradox of Choice by a psychology professor named Barry Schwartz in 2004. He published a whole book on the subject and the main concepts are outlined in his TedxTalk. To sum it up, Schwartz points out that when presented with too many choices, one often feels paralyzed and unable to choose. And when we do finally make a choice, we can’t help but wonder about the other options we’re missing (FOMO, anyone?), thus feeling much less satisfied than if we had picked from a smaller quantity of choices. And when presented with a plethora of options, logically we reason that one of them should be the Perfect One, and when we realize or doubt that our chosen choice may not be the best, we start to blame ourselves for not having the foresight to choose better. It’s a vicious cycle, and Generation Y grew up in the midst of this culture of overchoice and information overload.

The examples Schwartz gave in the video were commodities—the insane number of salad dressings available at the supermarket and the dizzying different types of jeans to purchase. If deciding what to make for dinner and which pair of pants to buy are already stressful, imagine what it feels like to face that kind of anxiety every day about your own identity. That is quarterlife crisis in a nutshell, trying to navigate murky waters saturated with too many choices and conflicting information, and swim towards self-actualization. Twentysomethings worry about “choosing wrong” for which professional industry to pursue, which city to live in, which person to date seriously, whether or not to go to graduate school, etc. It feels like standing at a crossroads with thousands of paths that are obscured by thick fog— you know you can’t stand still forever but you are unable to see far down the routes, so you hesitate to take a step forward. It feels like having all the time in the world while simultaneously having so little time because there is so much that you could be doing.

Ten years after Barry Schwartz’s, Ruth Chang a philosophy professor from Rutgers University also spoke about choice on Ted Talk, although this time the focus is on how to making difficult choices. Her point is that certain decisions are only difficult to make when the options are different yet equal. Chang advises that instead of trying to compare the pros and cons of these options, it is better to think of each option as having different values and determine which values you can stand behind. 

For example, let’s say you recently have two new job offers. One is at a non-profit company supporting a cause you care deeply about, and one is a much higher-paying job at a huge corporation. Both paths have their various merits. Chang would suggest that you examine within and see if you care more about ideals and helping others vs. prestige and money (Obviously most situations aren’t as black and white as this hypothetical one).

She also reiterates this philosophy in a New York Times Op-Ed: “Instead of looking outward to find the value that determines what you should do, you can look inward to what you can stand behind, commit to, resolve to throw yourself behind.

No matter what kind of issues you’re going through—self-identity, location, career, relationships, family, etc— I think at its core, quarter life crisis can be boiled down to the conflict of making difficult decisions in the present world of overchoice culture

Hope all of this helps you as much as it helped me,