What You Can Learn From My Quarterlife Crisis

Right out of college, I took a job with a small tech start-up.   We were young, eager, and expecting to make millions.   We wrecked our health on long hours and a diet of junk food.   We spent our social time with our co-workers.  Our startup was a hybrid of college and the working world.

The business failed.

I was thrown into a personal crisis.  All that effort and nothing to show for it.  I was confronted with the questions:  what did I want my life to stand for?   What did I really want to do?   What was valuable and important to me?  I had this vague sense of calling to ministry, but I had other things to sort out:  What kind of ministry? Where should I study?  What did I really believe?  Should I get married?

Today, we call this the “Quarterlife Crisis

To buy a little breathing time in this crisis, I took a corporate job as a trainer and technical writer.  I wasn’t on the career path long term – I was there to learn, to reflect, and to buy time to sort things out.

Among the many things I did during this time of my life was a “Values Reflection” exercise.   I needed clarity.   Writing is an exercise in seeking clarity.   My goal was to digest the things I valued most into a simple one-page statement that would accurately express my inner compass.    Here’s how I did it, and how you can too.

1.  Book your date.

It seems obvious.   Neglect of the obvious dooms a thousand efforts.  Greatness is found in the details.   Book your reflection time the same way you would book any appointment.  I set apart a Saturday afternoon.  I also planned on a place, in my case the library.   It needs to be someplace where you are free from interruptions or the easy distractibility.

2.  Prepare your questions.

The Wednesday before my time of reflection, I wrote down a list of questions.   When we ask great questions, we get exponentially greater answers.   This pre-work is critical – it puts boundaries on your task, already moving you toward clarity.   It also inoculates against distraction.    Ask yourself what good questions will drive you to discovery.   Ask your friends for suggestions – go fishing on Facebook and see what answers come in the dragnet.   In anticipation of that day, I wrote several questions in my journal.

1)   Who do I admire?

2)   When am I happiest?

3)   What accomplishments am I the most proud of?

4)   How do I envision myself?

5)   What do I want written in my epitaph – how do I want to be remembered?

6)   What kinds of dreams have I been given?

7)   What are my strengths?

3.   Compose your answers.

The day of your reflection exercise, don’t just sit there and think.  Make the effort to write your answers.   Use your clear, sentences and paragraphs that have a coherent flow.   Mind-mapping or note jotting are great starts, but you must take the extra step of crafting sentences.  Keep asking “why”?   Keep pushing for clarity and coherence.

4.  Adjust your plan.

As I got into the first question, I discovered that clarity demanded additional questions.   Meanwhile, time and energy demanded a limitation on the questions. Progress was more important to me than slavish conformity to the plan.   So I adjusted.   These are the actual questions I answered in my notebook:

1)   Who do I admire?  (by that, I meant actual individuals who were involved in my life – I listed 8 people)

2)   What behaviors to I admire in each of these people? (I listed 4-8 behaviors – summarized in 1 sentence each)

3)   What common themes leap out from these people I admire?  (I listed 6 common themes)

4)   What are my fondest memories?   What characterizes these memories? ( I listed 4 big events – summarized the commonalities in 2 sentences)

5.  Distill the themes

At this point I had dozens of pages reflection about what most stirred my heart.  I looked for common themes, identifying 6 qualities that consistently emerged.   Back to writing again – I wrote a first draft of my “Values Statement” that day.   Hearty Huzzah!

Yet my work was not done.

6.  Query your counselors

I circulated that draft Values Statement to trusted people who were prominent in my life.   I asked them to review it with these questions in mind.

1) Does this sound like me?

2) Is there anything that doesn’t fit?

3) Is there anything missing?

Their feedback was valuable in shaping the language of the statement.  One person pointed out that I didn’t have anything that explicitly related to my faith.  This surprised them since I hold my faith dearly.   That led to the addition of a preamble grounded my values in my understanding of the foundations of faith.

So here’s the finished product, my Russell Smith Values Statement Created 1995.  This has been a document that has consistently helped me find “true North” when I’ve become lost in the thickets of the vicissitudes of life.

Whether you’re in a Quarterlife, Midlife, or Retirement crisis – this kind of exercise could be helpful in navigating the next steps.   Let me know how it goes for you.

Soli Deo Gloria


One thought on “What You Can Learn From My Quarterlife Crisis

  1. Wise words of advice sir Russell. Thank you for your humilty and willingness to share your story and your steps of how to move forward despite any setback. Dreams should never die, nor should our efforts in pursuing them, regardless of the possible failures along the way. I don’t know one person who has ever regretted trying to become more of who they are and should become. I know plenty of individuals full of regret who have stopped trying.

    Blessings to you.

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