Quarter Life Crisis As An Indicator of Differentiation (Guest Blog by Todd Shirley)


The following blog post is part of the Bennis Blogger Battle. Support Todd by “Liking” this post, leaving a comment and sharing it on your social media! The blog with the most hits, wins. (I should also mention that Wednesday March 7th is his birthday–so be sure to give him some extra love!)


Fight ClubWhile presenting a workshop and working late, a close friend from childhood sent me an email that hinted at the hidden influence his loved ones continue to have over his career decisions.  While reading it,  I felt confused at how such an independent soul could be stuck in an unsatisfying career.

As a self proclaimed “counselor nerd”, who loves both of his jobs, I felt the best way to understand his predicament was to think of it in terms of a continuum (counselor nerds love continuums). At one end of this continuum sits enmeshment– the process of moving close to an individual or group. At the other end sits differentiation– the process of recognizing you are separate from others and their expectations. People cycle through periods of enmeshment and differentiation throughout their lives.  It’s also possible to experience them simultaneously in a paradox that is always difficult. Career development is the stage for which this paradox plays out in two dramatic ways.

This paradox manifests in an ugly manner when people take a prescribed path while recognizing they resent doing so. Ever hear of a mid-life crisis? People who don’t untangle this manifestation of the paradox at their quarter life crisis end up with a mid life crisis.

The other manifestation of this paradox is much prettier.  I’ve seen it play out with loved ones when they moved across the country to take a new job despite a dramatic drop in salary and prestige. Their career shifts were expressions of being differentiated from outside influences. This prevents the mid life crisis.

My friend’s email outlined themes regarding going through the motions of work and his reservations about pursuing a line of work he wants. With the continuum above, his job struggle is clearly linked to a familiar identity struggle. There are some points I’ll quote in an effort to illustrate his concerns in the context of our friendship:

1. Money will always be of concern to me. The last thing I want is to burden my friends and family because I am broke and can’t make it.
Reading it took me back to a difficult two year chapter in my own life.  My wife and I were differentiating from each other. I was intensely afraid that our inevitable split would burden my family.  Through hours of conversation- where he was sincere and genuine- he helped show me I’d be OK and my family would too. If he’s broke, I could care less.  He and I have had great times in our adult lives without money.

2. What monumental thing have I accomplished while unemployed?

The time unemployed he references in this rhetorical question was a period of 5 weeks. He was looking for work because he had to move due to his wife’s career. His self consciousness overshadows his hard work.  He ran his first marathon in under three hours and thirty minutes. Built an amazing desk. AND found a job with improved pay and working conditions over his last one. If those three things aren’t monumental, I’m not sure what is…. I don’t think I’ve done anything like that in the last year while employed.

In times past, he’s proven himself to put time in at a job he hates to pursue new heights. This time for him is no different from any other identity struggle he’s pulled through in the past.  His loved ones are waiting for him to make his move…

Todd Shirley works a full time as a school counselor and carries a caseload of clients who are in the foster care system. When he is not working, he is reading, working out, cooking paleo and discussing all that is arbitrary about life. Oh-and his favorite animal is the manatee. Please support Todd by “Liking” this post or by leaving a comment below!