There are many reasons why more and more young adults are experiencing the quarter-life crisis, however there is one thing that seems to bring on the crisis more than anything else: career comparison. Teddy Roosevelt said that ‘comparison is the thief of joy’ and the more I coach young adults about their careers, the more I know this to be true.
Although I am going to be talking about careers in this article, our tendency when experiencing the quarter-life crisis to compare is certainly not isolated to work. We seem to be comparing ourselves in pretty much every aspect of our lives: holidays, relationships, pay, living situation, friendship group, how we look etc.
Comparison between human beings began when we developed the ability to compare ourselves to potential competitors for our desired mate, and was also an important cognition that allowed us to keep up with the herd, and therefore increase our chances of survival. Through comparison, we could keep tabs on everyone around us to make sure we were doing the right things which allowed us to stay part of the group.
However, this extraordinary function of our minds seems to have gotten a bit out of control, and now our ability to compare seems to be a huge factor into why we feel so much anxiety and stress in our day to day lives.
Since starting Quarter-Life (career-coaching for those experiencing the quarter-life crisis) I have noticed so many themes in what we worry about as young adults, and a lot of it is around pressure to ‘keep up’.
Here are some of the things I hear a lot:
- ‘I should really know what I want to do by now’
- ‘I thought I would have it all together by 30’
- ‘Everyone else has it figured out’
- ‘This is not where I thought I would be’
- ‘My parents were married with a home by my age’
- ‘I can’t believe I am single at this age’
In this article I will outline 4 ways we can start to overcome comparison in the hope that in doing this, we can help relieve some of the symptoms and causes of the quarter-life crisis.
1) Know That The World Has Changed
We often compare ourselves against the same expectations which were true of our parents (and grandparents) generation. There seems to be this unspoken expectation that we should be settled in a high paying job by our late 20’s, own property and married by 30, have kids in our early 30’s before hunkering down on the highway to retirement.
The most important thing to remember, is that the world has changed, which means that the above narrative is outdated. There are many reasons for this change like increasing property prices, prolonged adolescence (studying and living a home for longer), greater equality in the workplace, women are able to have children later and the shape of careers has fundamentally changed (we now change jobs on average between 7-12 times in our career).
30 doesn’t mean what it used to mean, the timeline is redundant. It is time we reinvent what success looks like for ourselves as individuals, rather than trying to live up to a timeline which is no longer relevant!
Question: What would life be like if you didn’t worry about where you ‘should’ be? What is your own definition of success?
2) The Grass Is Always Greener
I often get people who know I run my own business saying how lucky I am that to have so much freedom over my time. It is true, aspects of being in control of my schedule are fantastic but there are also some not-so fantastic parts to it! For example, motivating yourself can be really hard, running your own business also can mean a lack of security and and if you are a soul founder (like myself), working alone is incredibly challenging!
The irony is, I spend some conversations longingly listening to my friends talking about their office antics and lunches with colleagues. Christmas parties for one aren’t the most exciting!
Another common example: we all have at least friend who seems to travel all over the world for work, this is a classic case where we come up with all kinds of assumptions and pre-conceptions as to what this would be like. If you speak to anyone who spends a lot of their time travelling with work they might also tell you how exhausting, lonely it is and how much of strain it can be on relationships.
There are always two sides to everything, so beware of the green grass effect and try to get a full picture before making assumptions around what different careers are like.
3) Watch Your Use of Social Media
Social media is a platform for comparison. It is not inherently evil, but we are social creatures who crave validation from others, so it was always going to be a great temptation to us. It is worth mentioning that there is a part of our brain that hasn’t actually evolved that much since the first humans; the limbic system, otherwise known as the chimp brain. This is the part of the brain that craves food, social acceptance, sex, status and power. It is often in direct opposition to the pre-frontal cortex (the grown up ‘human’ part of the brain) which wants us to live a meaningful, purposeful and effective life. This is why we can simultaneously want to get up in the mornings and have a productive day whilst also wanting to hit the snooze button.
Social media is like a social acceptance honey pot. When we give it to human beings, the chimp brain is in heaven because it means that every day it can get easy likes and comments which reassure it that it is accepted as part of a group. In a similar way we get addicted to sugar, alcohol or drugs, we get addicted to the feeling of validation we get through social media.
However as we all know, using social media is not all sunshine and rainbows and we don’t always get the happy validation feelings we crave. It enables us to easily see the lives of everyone around us and our instinct to compare I spoke about earlier kicks in.
Social media essentially compounds and intensifies our natural tendency to compare and find validation from others, so if comparison is something you struggle with personally, being aware of your use of social media is crucial.
Tip: App limits, unfollow people who make you feel negative or down, follow positive influences.
4) Reflect On Your Values
This is probably the most important point. Often we can hear about something someone else is doing and completely disregard our values because what they do sounds shiny and exciting. Whenever anyone speaks to me about their super trendy role at an advertising agency in Soho where they work with interesting brands and have fancy titles with the word ‘executive’ in it, suddenly there is a little part of my brain which forgets every reason I started Quarter-Life and decides I want to do exactly what they do.
I seem to entirely forget what I am motivated by and the fundamental philosophy behind my coaching business; how important it is to know what you are motivated by. From hundreds of hours of self-reflection and from being coached myself, I know that freedom, working with inspiring people, having a positive impact and productivity are the values I need in my career on order to be fulfilled. This is why I have chosen the route I have because it satisfies all the above values. So when you are finding yourself envying sparkly titles or flashy perks, try to remind yourself of what is genuinely important to you, and you might find it puts things back into perspective.
Tip: If you are unsure of what your values are, check out this post I made on how to know your values: https://www.instagram.com/p/B3_yahUBUtK/
Ultimately, the way to stop constantly comparing ourselves to others is to develop our sense of self-worth. When we learn to be comfortable in our own skin and live according to our values, our need to live up to the expectations of those around us naturally diminishes. My favourite quote from my favourite book Tuesdays With Morrie is:
‘If a culture doesn’t work for you, don’t buy into it’
We can so easily lose our own identities when we try to over-conform to the culture and constantly compare ourselves to those around us. Even if it feels uncomfortable to go against the grain of the culture we live in, we always have a choice about what we buy into. The more we start to trust our own instincts and live in alignment with who we are, the more self-worth we will have and the less we will feel the need to compare ourselves to others.
Would love to hear your thoughts on what you think helps stop career comparison and how it has impacted your quarter-life crisis
Founder of Quarter-Life