Here is the full transcript of coach and entrepreneur Allison Osborn’s TEDx Talk: Why Are Millennials So Stressed? Is It Quarter Life Crisis? at TEDxOxbridge conference. This event occurred on May 21, 2017.
Allison Osborn – Coach, Speaker, and Entrepreneur
Imagine this. Recently I was on a coaching call with a client who I called Shannon. Shannon jumps on the line and says to me, “Allis, the strangest thing just happened.” I was grocery shopping and all of a sudden, I found myself totally frozen in the middle of the cereal aisle.
So I’m on the other end of the line wondering if this is perhaps going to be the first time in history that a coach has worked with a client through a cereal crisis.
But what I realized in that moment, she continued, “Is that the feeling I was having in the middle of that aisle is the same feeling I’m having about my career.” I so know this feeling that Shannon was talking about. Maybe you do, too.
Most of us in the millennial generation do. For those of us who have been raised in the internet and digital technology era, we have more choices available to us than any generation prior, especially when it comes to how we choose to do our work, for the age of information is starting to give way to the age of choices.
Now on one hand this is great. We have a lot of choices but on the other hand, we have so many choices. Do I want to get a nine-to-five and work in a startup? Do I want to start my own business? Do I want to freelance? Do I want to work remotely or in an office? Do I prioritize money or fulfillment, security or flexibility, my lifestyle or my career path?
And these questions are incredibly important to us, because the quest for meaningful work is a hallmark of who we are as a generation. Many of us are going through the same thing. And it’s what I’m calling a quarter-life-crisis.
Now if you’ve had one I know you already know what I’m talking about. But for the rest of you, my definition of a quarter-life-crisis is this: it’s personal identity crisis typically experienced in one’s 20s or 30s, involving profound angst and anxiety about the direction of one’s life and what next steps to take, particularly as it relates to finding meaningful work.
This often occurs during the transition from the academic world to the real world, when the one’s clear-cut path suddenly drops off, but can also happen a bit further down the line, when one realizes that they’ve checked all the boxes of what it means to be a responsible adult, but they’re still largely unfulfilled.
In some ways, the quarter-life crisis is similar to another life crisis you might be more familiar with: the mid-life crisis. We all know those stories right, where the guy who’s been working at the same company for 40 years just up and quits one day and blows his life savings on a bright red Maserati.
The difference is that where the mid-life crisis is typically in response to an oppressive feeling of predictability, the quarter-life crisis stems from a deeply disorienting sense of unpredictability. And now much of an entire generation is stuck and emotionally shutting down in the face of overwhelming analysis paralysis.
Now this is a huge problem, not just for the person suffering but for the world at large. Today 71% of Millennials are described as being disengaged at work. That’s almost 3 out of 4, and it makes us the least engaged generation in the workforce today despite the fact that this is something we care so much about.
And the big problems of today’s world are simply not going to be solved by a disengaged apathetic workforce. And this trend isn’t going away if anything it could get worse. By 2025, 75% of all employees are going to be made up of Millennials, and this epidemic which has been largely isolated to the developed world is going to spread globally as the internet and digital technologies continue to do so as well.
Now I’m guessing that at this point some of you might be thinking something along the lines of… Please, Millennials are just lazy entitled self-indulgent phone addicts. They want the world handed to them on a silver platter without doing anything to earn it. I’m not going to argue that that story isn’t true for some; it is. But that doesn’t change the fact that the landscape of the working world has changed dramatically but that the tools and resources we give young people to navigate that world have not.
I know this to be true, and I know it, because I lived it. When I was graduating from high school, I was a young girl with as your grandmother might say a pride future in front of me. You know, the type I would captain my sports teams, got straight A’s in school, was enrolled at a prestigious university and so on.
I had a clear path and I knew exactly what I wanted to do with my life, which by the way was to become a clinical psychologist like both my parents. But I’ll save the talk and what it’s like to grow up with two therapists for another time.
But when I was midway through university, everything changed. A series of knee injuries ended my athletic career and prompted a major identity and existential crisis. Much of what I thought I knew about who I was and what I wanted was gone. That path vanished.
For if I wasn’t an athlete showing up to training every day, who was I? This was the beginning of my quarter-life crisis which honestly lasted for the better part of the next decade. And I spent a lot of that time working in jobs that weren’t right for me, living with my parents, and feeling downright tortured at having either no idea or millions of ideas of what I wanted to do with my life.
But now 13 years later, things are different. I’m coaching entrepreneurs and other 20 and 30-somethings going through their own quarter-life crisis which I find deeply fulfilling. I’m engaged to the love of my life and I have the ability to travel the world and work from wherever and whenever I want to.
So what’s the secret sauce? In retrospect, I can see that there are three key lessons I learned that once I started applying them to my daily life, things really started to change. The first is that I got really clear on what matters to me most in my life and in my work.
Now I mentioned earlier that usually the crux of a quarter-life crisis is about finding meaningful work. But what does meaningful work even mean? I believe meaningful work is entirely personal. What is meaningful to me is different than from you and from the person sitting next to you.
Meaningful work is about alignment and it’s about fit. And it changes over time as your life and priorities do. This concept in itself is not new. I imagine you’ve already heard about the importance of knowing and living by your values. But there’s a problem in the way this concept is currently taught which is that it does not account for the fact that your most valuable and only non-renewable resources which are your time and your energy, are limited.
Remember, Shannon? In one exercise in our work together, I asked Shannon to tell me about what matters most to her in her life. Like many of us, she cited the importance of spending time with friends and family, finding a life partner, tending to her health and wellness, having fun and exciting experiences, her own personal growth and of course doing work she loves — which all sounds great.
But here’s the problem with that. When I asked Shannon, how much time she thought she would need in an average week to do all that and sleep, she came up with around 245 hours. So for those of you who like me don’t do calculations in your head that easily, let me help.
There are only 168 hours in a week. Obviously this was not going to work. So what I learned is that this process needs to account for the fact that there are only 24 hours in a day no matter how you slice and dice it. And the process I came up with to capture this is what I call your personal priority pie.
Here’s how it works. Imagine you have a pie. Big pie, small pie doesn’t matter. This pie represents your limited amount of time and energy. Your job is to decide how big of a slice of that pie do you want to give to the key areas of your life that Shannon mentioned? This is not intending to reflect that these areas of your life happen in a vacuum. They obviously don’t.
Rather it’s intended to be a tool to clarify for you how much weight you’re giving to each category and consequently what trade-offs you are and are not willing to make, because in making choices there are always trade-offs.
The same process then applies to finding work. So once you know the size slice of the work piece of your pie, what matters most to you in how you do your work? I believe that fundamentally there are four key things we all look for in a fulfilling career: money and power, happiness and fulfillment, learning and growth, and making a difference or leaving a legacy.
So if you have an entire pie just for work, how big of a slice do you want to give to each of those four categories? This is what I call your professional priority pie.
Again this is not intending to reflect that you can’t have all four elements in your career. I believe you can but you need to be aware that in prioritizing something you may need to sacrifice something else. So for example, let’s say making money is what matters to you most in your career. Great! But maybe you’re not going to be able to have the flexibility or the time off you might want.
Maybe what matters most to you is making a difference. Awesome! But maybe you’re not going to be able to make as much money. Knowing your personal and professional priority pies is the first step to finding meaningful work for you. Because again meaningful work is all about being aware of your priorities and the extent to which they are congruent with your present and future actions.
But there’s one other thing I want to add in here about my definition of meaningful work. Meaningful work needs to be able to pay the bills. So how much money do you need to run your life and why does it matter that you know? It matters because it’s basically impossible to hit a target you can’t see. And the truth is for the vast majority of us it does take money to run your life.
Most of us tend to be grossly off the mark with the answer to this question in one of two ways. Either you think you need to make a lot more money than you actually do which can enslave you to a life of chasing more and more and more and more money. Usually at the expense of what you actually value most.
Or you underestimate how much money you need to earn as I did in the name of I just need enough to get by which has you compromising on things you really want because you can’t afford it. Oddly enough, this is something that most of us in the millennial generation haven’t really been taught and don’t really think that much about.
I don’t know about you but I graduated from University never having done a budget and as trends towards self-employment and project-based work continue to grow it’s going to be more important than ever that you have this information available to yourself in the form of a specific exact concrete number.
Your first step then, if you haven’t already, is to hit that number. Once you have you have another choice. Do you want to pursue making more money or do you want to start freeing up your time? So that’s lesson two.
And lesson three is simple. Though perhaps not easy. It’s just to get started. I had no idea when I left my job in 2013 to start my own business that my next step would be coaching attorneys. But that only happened because I was in motion. And when I was, I met my mentor Alexis Neely who taught me much of what I know today about the craft of coaching, how to run and build an online business, and gave me an example of living an unconventional life that I had sensed might be possible but had never really seen before.
In retrospect, I regret some of the choices I made in my 20s. I regret those years where I wasn’t investing in myself and pursuing professional opportunities with a sense of purpose. You don’t need to know what your life’s calling is. In fact, many of the most successful people in the world today had no idea what they wanted to do when they were younger.
For example, when she was 23, Oprah was fired from her first reporting job. Vango didn’t pick up a paintbrush until he was 27. Even Louise Hay who launched the massively successful publishing company, Hay House didn’t do so until she was 62. You don’t need to know the answers. What you do need to do is to start pursuing them with clear intention.
So take action, explore, do something that adds value to who you are and what you have to offer. We all know that a basic economic principle is that capital begets more capital. The same is true for your own personal capital. So don’t just kill time waiting. That’s procrastination, not exploration, and be patient. Finding your life’s work is a life’s work in itself and we are a generation that has been trained to expect instant gratification. But the truth is job satisfaction doesn’t work like that. It’s a slow, often meandering process.
So in closing, I would like to leave you with this thought. The Chinese character for crisis consists of two parts: danger and opportunity. I’ve already spoken some to the dangers and to that end I strongly believe we need to start bringing this conversation out into the light of day to be giving young people and the organizations that hire them, the tools they need to fully leverage our human resources to solve the big problems of today’s world.
But there’s also a huge opportunity in this crisis. Transitions are inherently a time to ask yourself the big important questions about what makes you come alive, because what the world needs most is people who have come alive.
Finding meaningful work often requires asking many personal questions before it rewards any answers. It’s not always fun and it’s not always easy. But I promise the juice is worth the squeeze.