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Innovation Insights by Stephen Shapiro

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?”

  1. I don’t have much to add other than I know exactly what Jeremy is talking about. It seems that earlier in life things seem to be “simple”, go to high school, college, get a job, work up the corporate ladder, etc. Point A to B to C and so on.

    At a certain point you realize that “The Path” isn’t an optimal method for finding your own meaning in life.

    Thanks for your book and your website, Mr. Shapiro. It’s helped quite a few of us navigate the One-Third Life Crisis.

  2. I am 27 and I feel as if I am in a similiar place….Did the whole athletic super star all american volleyball player, two time state track scholarship, olympic training center. I just kept doing the a,b,c. In the last couple of years as well I can relate to Jeremy. There was this nagging feeling.. That there has got to be something more. I feel like it is the point of “awakening”. waking up to the present moment, that there is no where to get, there is no “IT”! That if we work hard to get somewhere else we are are in essence missing the beautiful essence and bliss in this moment NOW! I just wrote in my blog today about being inspired just for the sake of being inspired and that can lead you down a path that you never ever expected to go down and then it may take you down another path, there is an ebb and flow when one is present and happy living in the moment of their inspiration. That to me is true wealth, success and it radiates from within.
    To Jeremy thanks for sharing your experience! :)Be with the experience,we are all in this world trying to find our own unique way…the more that I let go the more possiblities I see for right now 🙂 So, my long winded thoughts are do what makes you HAPPY NOW! :))))

  3. Exactly. Goal after goal and then nothing, the rail tracks run out and you have to decide whether to build more ( which the majority of people do) or get off the track. I am right in the middle of mine right now and I oscillate between sublime happiness in my lost state to blind panic – where will the money come from? Will my brain waste away?

    I guess I have to work on through it. Great to know I am not alone though….

  4. I think it is a very normal thing to look for depth and meaning in your life when mere material success becomes stale and is recognized to be as meaningless as it is. I also think that it is normal to be dissatisfied and disoriented when you start discovering there’s more but you don’t know yet where to turn to.
    And I think that it is completely superfluous if not ethically questionable to pathologize this normal part of life – whenever it happens – and give it a name like “one-third-life crisis” unless you want to sell a self-help book about it and the towel and the placemat and the action figures that come with it.

  5. The thing I like most here is Jeremy asking Steve for support as an older male peer, and the least is that Jeremy should have had that support earlier in his one-fourth life crisis, meaning the threshold from adolescence to adulthood. Our society lacks initiatory rites of puberty that help to see oneself as more than a CV or chain of “doings”. I’ve participated once in a collective experience where I witnessed older men initiating younger ones and, as a woman it felt one of the most powerful moments of my life. It was about character and truthfulness, and standing with one’s feelings. But I sincerely doubt that expertise in analysing things or labeling phenomena, or even older age can prepare a man to guide a younger one. It’s not about research but about how men welcome and integrate their emotional selves, and what spaces they create to cry together, show vulnerability with courage and droping the need to pretend that they don’t need love. Perhaps this has something to do with Rebecca’s sense of disenchantment with wanting to understand life processes with the head (labels or how marketing tries to capitalise on everything), instead of the heart. How many sacrifices did Jeremny’s heart make during all those years? Was he opened to love, did he reject love, did he miss love and felt lonely but buried those feelings in a continuous search for things to do? These are the things I care most about people. I hope Jeremy find older men who are courageous in embracing their hearts. We need them in our society.

  6. I’m glad someone finally has the courage to fess up to this fact – the formula our society sold us for a successful and meaningful life AINT workin’. And how many years did we spend chasing it? It’s sad. But I’m glad I’m enlightened now.

    When I read Shapiro’s article in Oprah’s magazine promoting the book “Goalfree Living”, it confirmed what I knew while working at one of the top management consulting firms in the world. Life is not linear or to be treated like a commodity. Companies promote these practices in order to produce widgets and make money. I recognize this after 15 years in the work world.

    As a result, I’ve stopped bringing a lot their theories into my personal life. I’m a project manager who is extremely analytical and methodical and made the mistake of integrating a lot of their principles into my life. Being more efficient, methodical, and effective in my personal life made me miserable even though I was effective. I was focusing on building “to-do lists” and checking stuff off instead of living in the moment to build real relationships and create memorable moments.

  7. Stephen,

    Hugely worthwhile and meaningful post. And, the phenom is actually predictable.

    While working with some clients who were experiencing similar struggles, I started looking for research and diagnostic tools that could be helpful. (Some people just need to see the data!)

    Lo and behold, I was introduced to a researcher on the west coast who had put together medical, psychological, and value-oriented information that gave a clear explanation of why this happens at certain times. So here’s the Readers’s Digest version:

    Up until about the age of 30 (it varies), we have unbridled energy that allows us to pretty much succeed at whatever we are doing. We can work long hours AND societal norms support the ok-ness of doing that to “get one’s career off the ground.”

    In our 30’s, our physical energy starts to wane. That prompts us to say “Hey, why am I doing ____?” And we start looking for congruency.

    The fact of the physiological matter is, we’re dying (sorry about the downer). And we start looking for meaning.

    This happens a couple of more times, too. What I have discovered is this: by the age of about 55 people–usually males–either become “bitter” or “better.” They either integrate and reconcile their existence or decide that life has dealt them a bad hand.

    Hats off to Jeremy for wanting to do the work and surrounding himself with advisors for help and accountability.

  8. Thanks for all of the great comments.

    Steve, I checked out your blog entry on the topic. Very thought provoking.

    Tracey, I am an engineer by background. It was this training that had me realize that we can engineer businesses and bridges, but you can’t engineer people. And you certainly can’t engineer your way to happiness.

    Rebecca, I do agree this is a normal progression. And by giving it a name and distinguishing the concept, you can be aware of it in advance. This may enable you avoid it altogether. If not, at least you can be comforted in knowing that it is natual and common – and not something to worry about.

    Thanks again everyone.

    Thanks again for

  9. I flew the high achiever route for many years, even as I pondered what else life might offer. I viewed the “one-third life crisis” in the context of the book The Drama of The Gifted Child. That was interesting, but much more helpful is the book I discovered recently, The Survivor Personality by Al Siebert. He offers an eye opening explanation and exercises to relieve yourself of the “Good Child” Handicap (Chapter 8). It is so ingrained in Western culture that many people have difficulty seeing it. I found this book to be life-changing and hope others will too. The less of this we pass on to our children the better.

  10. You’re not alone, Jeremy. I believe this is a right of passage that everyone goes through. You’re transitioning from an external map based on peer, parental and societal norms to an internal compass based on personal values and experiences. I recommend reviewing your wealth of experience and remember who you were rather than what you were doing. I’m in the middle of the process myself, 31 yo, and am transitioning careers, while leveraging and combining my favorite experiences and values. Good luck and send an update when you can!

  11. Congratulations my friend, you’ve finally figured it out. No amount of external approval or kudos or back patting or *money* can make you feel happy and satisfied if you can’t find it deep within you.

    My suggestions… Tell your left brain to shut up once a while (meditation is great for that) and don’t judge people because all that does is drag up all kinds of toxic memories and assumptions in your own mind – trapping you in a left brain loop.

    Oh, and remember: your money or your life!

  12. Same here …
    Two careers, honors and a pretty good job I can’t complain about.
    But now what?
    Should I get a third degree? what for!?
    Honestly, I mean … why am I even doing all this…
    What do I want to achieve in life? I have no idea!
    I know I’m pretty much stuck in this world so I wanna have a good time, but hedonistic motivation only goes so far…
    I think I’m even more lost than you are….

  13. Hassan Sattar says:

    Having gone through this experience & being fortunate enough to be made aware of this phenomenon by a wonderful professor from South Africa, during a management course at Templeton Oxford in Feb 2007, I have started living life (and it was not easy to unlearn & relearn) on my terms … I am just ‘being’ as I see it on the day … living life in the ‘moments’ and not in the future …. it has started working. May the force continue 🙂

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