Dealing with existential cirsis

Most of us have a mid-life crisis at some point. If I was a millennial, I would also have a quarter life crisis. Once you finish school or an Ivy League university, there are simply too many things to master. I still have many years to prepare a speech for my kids, so I thought I could as well start now. For today’s reading you may take a look here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.

Changing through crisis

Why do we have an existential crisis?  I think it is our opportunity to change and still stay relevant. I had my fair share of crisis. Here are some:

When I came to Israel I had to learn a new language, a new country, and its culture, a new social status for my family, a new way to think about things. It was tough, and I was poor, but I became much stronger, independent and compassionate as a result.

When I finished my PhD I did not know what to do. All the doors were open. I could have stayed in the academy and go anywhere I want. Instead, I found a Mos girl, who later became my wife Anna, and started to work in a big company so I could have time for my family.

When my startup crashed in a very inglorious fashion, I was devastated. I lost all of my money and then some. I had issues finding a regular job and a fallout from neglect at home.  So I had some time on my hands to learn speedreading and develop my wife’s materials. Ten years later I am still doing this among other things…

I have lost some and recovered somewhat more, and I am as probably happy as I could be. There will be more crisis periods in the future, yet I know that I will probably come out of them different and stronger.

Losing a part of you

For me, an existential crisis is when a part of you dies. It can be your national attribute, your freedom to choose the path ahead, your ability not to worry about something or your professional status.

When you finally graduate, you stop being a young careless student and that part dies. When you get married, you cannot freely choose your partners and you cannot even choose your house decor.  After the children leave the house, which I hope will happen eventually, we lose our personas as parents and protectors.

At the same time, something new is being born. That new thing is clumsy, vulnerable and scared. I do not know what is more painful: the death of the old persona, or the birth of the new one.

“Is this it?”

Dealing with new challenges we are rarely prepared. We do not quite expect the difficulties we encounter, and our expectations prove to be inflated. Quite often we literally do not see how to handle certain situations or where to look for the answer. We completed the previous challenge honorably, and we fought hard before we get to the new situation.  So there is a strong feeling that life should be more than what we have.

I quote:

While traditional life crises often entail a role loss or identity threat, quarter-life crises seem to stem from deficient clarity of either. In consequence, whereas later life crises often result in taking life in a whole new direction, quarter-life crises often result in deciding on a direction.

Asking for help

In any crisis, we naturally look for help. This is a very good instinct. However, finding the right kind of help is tricky.

The first natural instinct is ask the friends.  This worked for me when my first child was born. I got 3 great advises from 3 different friends: “Whatever you do, they will be angry with your parenthood, so simply relax and enjoy”, “If you feel helpless  because your child is too small, maybe simply wait for it to grow a bit” and “Be with your wife when she needs you most, and she will handle the other things for you”.  Friends are great in some typical situations, but not in unique situations that we may have. They may give too much advise, or start talking about themselves.

The next thing we often do is ask for help from the family. This can be tricky and can backfire with guilt and blame. Family can be very accepting or very brutal, as they share the risks with you. If everything works fine, they will listen and offer emotional support. You will be told that you are loved no matter if you succeed or fail, get food and be offered to build strength from your core values. The family will also remind you what these core values are if you happened to forget.

Going to professional help is something we do very reluctantly. Professional help may bridge the gaps we have in understanding, provide the missing tools and alternatives, and reflect with us over possible solutions. It is best to leave the help with practical solutions for paid professionals, as they have more experience and are focused on the particular issue we need to solve.

Mentor to bridge the gap

One of the solutions that typically work is finding a mentor to bridge the gap, like an intern, usually finds a mentor to close the gap between the school and the work. The mentor is a role model. We can model our values and basic responses after the mentor, shamelessly copying his tools. Do not really expect the mentor to provide you with accurate and detailed guidance, but if you mirror the mentor unconsciously and listen carefully to occasional feedback you will learn many things,

Typically we take for a mentor someone who faced long ago the same crisis as we face now, and who came out of it successfully.  It is important to keep the gap relatively small: if the mentor is too advanced for the student, he can be a guide but cannot be a role model.

Having multiple mentors, we see several alternative solutions and we can see which solution works best. Different mentors will also criticise each other’s solutions allowing us better understanding of each particular choice.

Failing to achieve of define goals

If we fail to achieve our goals, set unreasonable goals, or are simply incapable of defining our goals, we can still rely on role models. A coach cannot work without well-defined goals, but we can borrow the goals of our role models and adapt them as our own. In this case, we do not even need the role models to be with us, we can use their books or video sessions instead.  We do not need to define the goals as SMART goals, or even verbalize them, we can simply feel them.

Here is one of the biggest risks when using role models. Something that they claim to work for them might be unrealistic or unsuitable for you. By the time you find out it might be too late.  My wife was looking for her mother’s model of an ideal marriage. However, we are very different from her parents. Trying to live her marital fantasy caused a lot of troubles and several years of professional counseling to reestablish the family roles suitable for our family.

Failing to achieve the wrong values may be a good thing, as we can focus on what is interesting for us and makes us happy.

Dealing with learning curves

Different people have different learning curves. Watching others, especially our role models, and expecting a similar rate of progress, is a sure recipe for frustration. We may start doubting our capabilities, talents, and desires.

Quite often we need to complement the role models with a very different learning network. Usually, this is a support group of people with similar needs. This network may also include social media, online research and organizations specifically built to help with the crisis that we face.

No matter how personal is our crisis, many other people had a somewhat similar crisis before. We may readjust our expectations not by watching a super-successful role model but checking the statistics of everybody else. For example, if we fail to lose weight using any particular diet, this is what commonly happens to anyone who tries.

Leveraging your passion

Rarely, our own solution will be different from what other people do. This typically happens when we follow our passion and this passion takes us in unexpected directions. Traveling the unknown turf we face many new opportunities, and also some unexpected dangers. Being different, we need to be more careful and persistent.  If for some reason we are in a very different place from everybody else, it takes a lot of travel to find the point where the paths converge.  However, if we look carefully we may find unexpected treasures. “The road less traveled” requires a very special character. It is almost like a mental health diagnosis. For those who are built for it, this can be the perfect path.  Others will face frustration on many levels. Do not force yourself to be something you are not, even if you understand all the benefits of that position.

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