After giving a Goal-Free Living speech at an event last June, I met Jeremy Neuner, a funny, creative, and intelligent 33 year old guy. He recently wrote me, asking me to be on his personal “board of directors.” Why? Well, he’s going through a bit of an existential crisis – a situation that many of you may be able to relate to. Here’s what Jeremy has to say:
I’m interested in exploring a phenomenon that I’m experiencing and that I suspect many people like me are experiencing. For now, the working title of this phenomenon is “a one-third life crisis,” sort of like a mid-life crisis, only sooner.Here’s how it went for me (please forgive the self-horn-tooting): I graduated at the top of my class in high school and went on to a fancy private university where I graduated magna cum laude. From there, I joined the Navy, became an officer, and graduated number one in my flight school class. I spent the next nine years as an officer and helicopter pilot, doing stuff that most people get to experience only via a Discovery Channel documentary. Along the way I did other cool things: ran a few marathons, served on the board of a non-profit, and mentored a troubled teen. Then I resigned from the Navy and went to graduate school. Harvard, in fact. I did well at Harvard, met some amazing people, and even got a pretty good education. And then….
…the one-third life crisis hit. I graduated from Harvard with absolutely no idea what to do next. More scarily, I had no idea what the past 15 years of fancy education, exciting professional experience, and interesting extra-curricular opportunities had prepared me to do. Even more scarily, I began to wonder if it was all worth it.
Then I started asking myself that most soul-searchingly existential question of all: despite my achievements, what was I really put on this Earth to do?
I’ve been more or less consumed by this question for the past couple of years. And here’s what I’ve come up with.
In some ways, my achievements were easy. Too easy. Yes, there was hard work involved. But what made these achievements easy was the fact that there was a well defined, prescribed pathway for success. Do well at Step A and you can proceed to Step B. Do well at B, and proceed to C. As I look back at my life so far, I realize that I was playing by a very narrow set of rules. And if I played by those rules, worked hard, and caught a lucky break or two, I’d be rewarded with plenty of wealth and prestige.
And that worked okay…for a while…until I began to have nagging doubts. “The Path” began to feel just a bit too narrow. I felt that I was always trying to do well in life in order to move to the next step. As a result, I had completely lost the ability to live in the moment or to appreciate success for success’ sake. And failure? Well, that wasn’t even an option. Most insidiously, I began looking at the people in my life only as potential allies (or, gasp, even pawns) in my quest to keep plugging along down The Path.
And here’s the worst part. I had completely lost my sense of risk, creativity, and wonder. So I felt that even if I wanted to get off The Path, I was woefully and utterly ill-equipped to navigate on my own. That’s the essence of the one-third life crisis.
Jeremy describes this phenomenon well.
There is a well documented concept of the “quarter life crisis” – a period of anxiety, uncertainty, and inner turmoil that often accompanies the transition from school to adulthood.
Jeremy’s situation – and the “one-third life crisis” – is different. He, like so many “goalaholics,” operated on auto-pilot, chasing goal after goal. Although there was a sense of accomplishment, it tended to leave him with an empty feeling. After oscillating between hard work and success, the nagging feeling remains: “There must be more than this.”
I went through this back when I was 29. I know of many others who have gone through the same situation in their 30s and early 40s. And it seems to be getting more common as people put more emphasis on the quality of their lives.
For me, the Goal-Free Living approach was the solution. But it is certainly not the only solution. Everyone is different.
What are your thoughts on “the one-third life crisis?”