The Lie Behind The Quarter-Life Crisis

SELF | Ricardo Calles | 15 mins

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We live in a culture obsessed with “what’s next,” and it is stealing our joy. I’m nearing the end of my 20s and I’m noticing something I want to shout from the rooftops to all my fellow millennials.

As kids, we’re told over and over again that what comes next is supposed to be bigger, better, and more exciting. Working in K-12 education, I see this all the time: Elementary students can’t wait to get to middle school, middle schoolers can’t wait to get to high school, high schoolers can’t wait to get out.

When I graduated from college and started my “adult” life in my early 20s, I still found myself, time and time again, thinking like a little kid: What comes next? But when we center our lives around what’s just around the next corner, we can unintentionally waste the life we’re living right now.

No one wants their life to go to waste. Part of the reason that we worked hard (or, at least, were supposed to) in high school was to prepare for a bigger, fuller, freer life in college. And when you get to college, sometimes it’s very clear who has put in that work and who hasn’t.

There were definitely moments I wasn’t fully prepared for—the failed relationship I bungled or some late nights finishing projects that (somehow) got put off. The thing our culture tells us should always drive us forward is this continuing hunger for the next big thing, so I pushed all that aside.

But here’s the thing: That’s bullshit. I’m not old or wise enough to tell you that just from my own experience. I know that because I follow Jesus, and the more I get to know him, the more I see a way better way to live. If you haven’t been around church much, you might find that God is a lot more for you than most people realize. He’s not judging you or expecting perfection. At all. He cares about you and wants you to have a full, free life now.

Think about it this way: A god that only cares about you once you’re a finished product, this magical final version of yourself that has the job, the friends, the spouse, the house, and the schedule that you’ve dreamed of, is not a god that cares about you.

God is not waiting in the wings for your perfect resume. God cares about your imperfect, unqualified self. He’s invested in the process, not just grading the result. Your process. Right now, even and especially if you’re a 20-something mess like me.

Your 20s are not some meaningless transition period. Is it time you’ll make mistakes? Yes, absolutely. But these years are not just throw away in the least. They are setting patterns for the rest of your life.

Which leads me to the natural question, one you’ve probably heard a dozen times (with a slight twist): What did Jesus do? Was Jesus sitting around His crummy apartment re-heating yet another batch of Tyson chicken wings, too? If we believe that God is invested in our here and now, what example do we have set out for us?

Unfortunately, we only have a little to go on. The Bible only speaks about a few stories of His childhood. Jesus was born, then we hear of him once again when he was 12, and then we don’t hear any more stories until He is 30 and begins His public ministry. Just about any story that you know of Him probably happened when Jesus was between 30 and 33.

So why? If we assume Jesus is perfect and that God had a plan for Him, it had to be the perfect plan. Why is there in a whole bunch of nothing for us to follow? Was Jesus just doing his own spiritual version of the Mr. Miyagi “wax on, wax off” routine for a decade and change? Does the fact that nothing in Jesus’ 20’s made it into the Bible confirm what our world has told us again and again, that it’s all just a big transition we montage through to get to the good stuff?

Not a chance. Think about it for a second: Jesus is a perfect planner. Take whatever criminal mastermind in whatever heist movie you choose and multiply that by ten (after all, Jesus was planning to have an impact on millennia). If Jesus waited until 30 to begin His public ministry, that means that every single moment before the stories in the Bible needed to happen first. If Jesus need to use all of His 20s to prepare for three years in his 30s to change the world, that means we’ve got to put in the work. Not the work that just feels meaningful later, but the hard work happening now. Even in your gross apartment in your sometimes gross 20s.

1) Cut the future crap.
Now, hear me clearly. I am not saying to tear up your ten-year plan or lose a vision of your future. Jesus was intentional about His route; we’re not looking to burn it all down. But while there are plenty of places where Ferris Bueller and the Son of God would have strong disagreements, there’s at least one place they are in total alignment: “Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.” Whether it’s John Hughes or Jesus Christ, we know that it’s all too easy to let a focus on the future erase the importance of the present.

The work in front of you right now deserves your time and your energy. We may not focus on Jesus’ first 20 years, but the fact that His public ministry begins at 30 speaks volumes. Unless He was just bumming around, his life was focused on where he wanted to reach. And, luckily for you and I, it seems like He didn’t slack off. I spent the first two years out of college drawing a plan for where I wanted to be by year three. And, to be entirely honest, I’ve seen about zero of them come true so far. And they’re good dreams, not wild fantasies.

I want marriage, a house, and a family (though that one can wait until I’m in my 30s!) So I was left with a choice when I checked in on my two-year plan: Be devastated I didn’t have what I wanted immediately or take stock of the meaningful work I was doing in the here and now. I chose to look back on loving my college friends, creating communities at my university that made others feel welcome, budgeting early in life, and investing in professional opportunities that mattered to me. These were ways that I took advantage of the things right in front of me, in the moment. After all, no one ever looks back and wishes that they had done more daydreaming about the future.

So don’t grade yourself on whether or not you’ve made your future into your present immediately; if you graded Jesus Himself on saving the world before 30, even he’d have failed. Because that wasn’t God’s plan for Him. Having a house and the full American dream in my mid-20s wasn’t His plan for me. But loving on the people around me was.

2) Learn to say yes and learn to say no
Your decisions right now build future habits. Remember when I told you that one of the only stories that we have about Jesus as a kid was that he tried to run away? Well, want to know where Mary and Joseph found Him? Sitting in the temple, listening to religious debate, and, sometimes, correcting the religious scholars on Scripture as they were reading it. And if you look at the course of Jesus’ ministry from 30 on, this practice came in handy, because most of it involved correcting crusty interpretations of Scripture.

Even for Jesus, practice made perfect. So why not us? One of the most important habits to build (both spiritually and personally) is to learn when to say “yes” and when to say, “no.” The “no” part of the equation has been a lot more difficult for me to learn than the “yes,” to be honest. But it’s critical if you want to make time count.

  • Even though I still have visions of myself as a ripped Adonis, I got real and cut my membership to a cheaper option that gave me access to the equipment I was actually using anyway (because, let’s be honest, it was never leg day).
  • I say “no” to social media for at least 24 hours each week in order to better value the people around me.
  • I stopped letting my salary turn into one big slush fund for whatever I needed in the moment and turned it into a regular budget instead (which means a whole lot of saying “no” to eating out). And it wasn’t all just hard work; I got to say “yes” to important things like setting aside money for fun with friends, too.

Some of these things can suck at the moment, but they’re training me. Not just to be a better adult, but, one day, to be a better husband and father. Being a good man, a good person isn’t just about chasing after the “what’s next” as fast as possible; it’s also about moments where we put ourselves aside and work as a team player with the God that has plans for our lives. It’s not just my budget; it’s the quiet moments during breakfast where I make myself less, get on my knees, and talk to God.

3) Find good people. Then shut up and listen.
I work in education, which mainly means two things: I love to learn, and I probably like the sound of my own voice a little too much. But one of the most important things I’ve learned as an educator is that there is so much more to learn by shutting up than there is by spouting off. There’s a saying: “Only a fool learns from his own mistakes. [A] wise man learns from the mistakes of others.”

Given that most of my friends are older than me, I try to take that to heart when they pass on experiences to me. It’s easy in your 20s to constantly feel like you’ve either got absolutely nothing figured out, or fool yourself into thinking that you have everything figured out. Part of growing up has meant realizing I spend a lot of time in the latter camp, and that I actually have much more to learn by hearing about the experiences of other instead of trying to share my own “wisdom.”

It’s easy to believe that you can take on the world all on your own when you’re young; it’s much harder to accept that you are not the main character in a movie and there are people living lives other than you. It’s not your job to prove you’re better than the people who are older than you or in positions of a higher authority; it’s on you to put those people into your like to call you on your BS.

One of the most important things I’ve done in my 20s has been to build a group of friends that will call me on my bluffs. They tell me when I am out of line. When I tell them I’m going to work out, they hold me to it and keep me accountable. When I say I’m going to rest and I start working instead, they keep me honest. They push me to let my yes be yes and my no be no; to keep my word. When I’m sheepish and back down, they tell me to pick up the phone and call the girl. And I do it.

Not because I’m weak, but because there’s value in being challenged. When they give me advice based on an experience they’ve had, I shut up and listen. I don’t try to show that I knew that already; I take my own advice as a teacher. I accept that I don’t know everything. There is just something powerful about someone older than you having a say in what you are to do and/or calling your bluff. But we only get to access that power when we suck it up and accept that we’re not the protagonist of the universe.

4) Be generous
In the Bible, there is a story about a guy called the “Rich Young Ruler” (we’ll call him Richy for short). Richy reminds me a lot of myself. Well, except for the ruler part. And, well, the rich part (but, ladies, I’m working on it). Anyways, Richy comes to Jesus and tells Him about how “good” he had been his entire life. He had followed all the rules. He had lived a “good” life. No sex, no drugs, no rock n’ roll (we assume). And he asks Jesus a simple question, one we probably all wish we could ask face to face: What will it take to make sure that I get into heaven?

Folks, if you are looking to ask a question to make your life easier, then Jesus is probably not your guy. Jesus looks at this guy, all excited and ready for eternal life, and tells him that there is one thing that he’s missed: He needs to sell everything he owns, Bugatti-brand horses and all, and give all the money to the poor. Without doing that, Jesus says, “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.”

God doesn’t need your money, but He cares about the way you spend it. The way you manage your money, time, and finances shows your priorities in the present and where you place your priorities in the future. I know for me, a percentage of my income goes back to my church, Crossroads. Their work is a priority for me, so I want my finances to reflect that. Great portions of my eating-out budget go to people I want to invest in. Our time and our money go to things that matter and we believe are important. If you aren’t investing, then you aren’t invested.

Your life has value. Not potential value. Not value once you’ve “made it.” Now.

Your 20s aren’t a transition or a montage in a movie; they are preparing you for your mission, whatever that might be. If the literal Son of God believed that it would take hard work in his 20s to be ready for a ministry that would change the face of the Earth forever in his 30s, we don’t have time to waste.

Don’t daydream about the future; take daily steps to build towards it. Don’t become stuck in indecision; be a man of strong yes’s and strong no’s. Don’t allow yourself to be satisfied with your own voice and experience; seek those wiser than you and learn from them. Don’t communicate your values with words; invest in the people you are invested in.

Our 20s are not a montage. Our 20s are not about waiting for “what’s next.” Our 20s are hard, active, diligent, exciting, embarrassing, humbling, and learning moments where we prepare ourselves for a path where we can’t yet see to the end. They are about putting in the work to make you ready to change your world.


Written by

Ricardo Calles

World traveler. Spanish Teacher. Believer. Lover of learning and teaching kids.

Published on Sep 4, 2020