In mid-2013, I began a descent into the dark cave of a quarterlife crisis. July, 2013, will always live on in my mind as the month that I learned I am entirely unemployable, doomed to wallow in the haunting self-doubt of unanswered inquiry emails and what I can only assume is the worst resume anyone has ever seen. Otherwise, why would no one have hired me, right? But had it not been for these hard won lessons, I never would have figured out the secret that ultimately showed me the way out of said dark cave and has resulted in my life totally changing. My anti-quarterlife crisis mantra is this: Being happy is meaningful enough.
If you’re someone who doesn’t take the now ubiquitous millennial existential crisis seriously, I am more than willing to vouch for the veracity of its existence. I know my generation tends to come across as dramatic -- we did, after all, make “I can’t even” part of the general public’s lexicon. But when it comes to the quarter life crisis, we’re talking about the source of a great deal of generational shame and regret. Basically, this isn’t one of those things we embellish just for the sake of hyperbole. This shit right here is real.
My own quarter life crisis was brought on by -- what else -- a job hunt. I was writing my Masters thesis and hunting for jobs in foreign policy. I sent out dozens of resumes every single day, but to no avail. When I did eventually land an unpaid part-time gig, it wound up being a horror story. My department lost funding and the majority of tasks found to round out the internship were those left behind by once-paid employees. Not being paid for your time is enough of a bummer, let alone spending that unpaid time completing tasks people used to be paid good money to do.
As the semester wore on and the still numerous resumes I sent out on a daily basis went ignored, I felt myself slipping deeper and deeper into a rut. How can you not question your value when absolutely nothing you throw at the wall sticks? Here I was, about to get an MA from a great school and unable to catch the eye of anyone in my chosen field. Sure, I knew in the back of my head that I was far from the only person in this sad boat of mine, but that wasn’t enough to keep me from tossing and turning at night with fears that I was the single least employable person in the entire world.
I immediately started recognizing emotional ticks and quirks that had first shown their nasty little heads when I was a college freshman. That time I wasn’t proactive about my mental health, and as a result stopped going to my classes, stopped showering, and started watching Moulin Rouge three times a day. 2013 Bridey knew full well how easily sadness and guilt can become cyclical, so rather than wallow I decided to take action while I still felt good enough to do so.
Rather than focusing on what I was possibly doing wrong, I decided to think critically about what it was that I wanted out of my career. I started studying Political Science and International Affairs as a way to make a difference. I wanted to help change the world in a meaningful way, and I saw foreign policy as the best way to do so. On top of that, I wanted a job that would allow me to travel and would hopefully pay the bills. Ultimately, these were the components I thought would add up to a happy, fulfilling life.
It was easy to immediately see that a job in foreign policy wasn’t the only way to travel and pay the bills. But it was harder to untangle the knot I had wrapped my brain in when it came to what makes a meaningful career. By the time I was asking myself these questions, my first piece had been run by xoJane and other sites were picking up my writing semi-regularly. I had always enjoyed writing, but I had started submitting to websites on a whim and to pursue writing seriously felt like I was giving up on what had been my dream. I had already been watching my visions of hanging with Hillary and negotiating with the Iranians evaporate for months, but was I ready to fully give up on my efforts to land a foreign policy job?
I didn’t have a lightning strike moment of realization. The heavens didn’t open and the angels didn’t sing down to me with the answer to my worrying. Instead, I hunkered down. I started substitute teaching and writing every day, telling myself I could always check the job boards for entry level gigs in international affairs. But as time wore on, I found myself feeling legitimately happy. Subbing is low stress and I have plenty of free time to write, volunteer, and marathon Netflix. I set my own schedule, and my career has been on an upwards trajectory since Day One. Plus, I’m in a healthy relationship with a great guy and live in an amazing city. It all adds up to a not too shabby existence.
Then, a few weeks ago, someone asked me if I find what I do meaningful. It was the first time I’ve had to ask myself that question since grappling with what it meant to turn my back on what I thought was a meaningful career path. I surprised myself by laughing out loud. Is substitute teaching and freelance writing meaningful? I don’t give a shit, because I’m happy. In that moment, I gave myself permission to be happy doing exactly what I’m doing, rather than beat myself up for responding to a dead end by looking in another direction. This little life I’m carving out for myself might not be exactly what I saw myself doing as I toiled away for countless hours in academia, but that doesn’t mean it’s not enough.
And with that admission made, I knew I had finally made it to the other side of my quarterlife crisis.
Bridey is a freelance writer living in Washington, D.C.
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