Wednesday, June 5, 2013

quarterlife crisis

My dad and I were driving to the train station yesterday, when I mentioned that I was reading through (at a glacial pace, ahem, but still) a Real Analysis textbook that would be used in math camp before grad school.  My dad, who does know a thing or two about math, suggested that was totally absurd, and that I should be solving math problems instead.  What could I possibly learn from reading a textbook?  It would be like learning to program by reading a book -- obviously the best way to learn to code, is to write code, and employ a textbook (or google) as a reference.  Many very smart friends of mine would agree with that.  And I do agree, kind of.  But you know what?  When I sucked at SQL at the beginning of my consulting job, I did buy a book, and read it.  

Gathering a lot of information and learning about syntax and what could be done with a relational database, comforted me and gave me the sense that I knew enough basics to evolve and tackle harder problems.  Whenever I was going to a new restaurant or museum in DC, I’d use googlemaps to find the location, study the nearby metro stations, and make sure I knew when the next metro would be, and how long the trip might take.  I still looked at the metro maps and possibly pulled out my phone’s GPS while walking, but I wanted to know where I was going and how to get there, before I set out.

I overachieved on my quarter-life crisis and had one at 23.  I realized that while I had genuinely enjoyed working to learn, get good grades, and ‘succeed’ in high school and then college and then getting a well-paid job, my life felt passive and reactionary, rather than guided by a purpose or internal goal.  Mostly, I realized that creative, wonderful, interesting, successful people are people who don’t just follow what others say without thinking, following the exact same trajectory as everyone around them.  When work wasn’t going well, I understood just how painful it is to build your self-worth or identity on validation and evaluation from others (your parents, your work superiors, your facebook friends, etc).  

So the worst part was really that I didn’t feel impressed with myself (even as my apartment, vacations, instagram dinner pics, and dance skills fo real impressed everyone around me).  I was thinking about grad school and research, but was overwhelmed by the numerous ‘don’t go to grad school’ advice posts you find when googling whether to go to grad school.  Not to mention, I was terrified of the horribly draining and expensive prospect of applications, and most of all didn’t want to fuck up my life and make a wrong, stupid, and expensive decision.

So, in crisis, I did what I always do: I read lots of books.  I got mocked for my book choices by my parents, my boyfriend, and probably would have been mocked by more people, if I wasn’t such a ninja-speed reader.  That’s ok -- I find almost all books interesting and useful, and it’s ok if others disagree.  I have read marriage advice books from super-Christian pastors, misogynistic books on how to nab a man using arbitrary rules, books on how to talk to teenagers, how to co-parent after a divorce, how to be a landlord, and a lot in between.  I often feel overwhelmed by the contradiction of unlimited choices and options vs. the absolute conviction that I don’t know enough to actually make proper decisions.  I’m told I’m not the only 20-something that feels this way. ;)  Reading is my way to know more than the pathetically small amount I know now (relative to how much there is out there to learn) -- a bit like talking to lots of interesting friends, except I get to learn from people I haven’t had the chance to significantly interact with in daily life.

My crisis never really involved my finances, which were never a disaster (thanks to my parents’ example) but they have benefited tremendously from my change in perspective and general interest in a happier, simpler, freer life.  But I think that for many people, finance + crisis really go together.  We’re not taught how to have healthy finances: we don’t recognize how big of a difference having no debt and low expenses vs. debt and high fixed expenses can make in our happiness level, we’re not even sure how to know if we’re doing things wrong or missing the mark financially, or how to get started if we do want to be responsible.  Student loans, buying a house, investing, saving for retirement, and enjoying life all seem like they’re supposed to be priorities … all at once?

Every single personal finance book (most written by people 30+ years old) is like ‘SAVE YOUR MONEY NOW, 20-SOMETHING. DOO IT!  IF NOT, YOU’LL TOTES WISH YOU HAD.’  In those exact words.  And yet, it seems a lot of people don’t give too much thought to their finances (including me before -- making a lot of money made me feel like I didn’t need to think about money too carefully, since everything would just work out).  Is now really the time to think about retirement, whether you’ll want to buy a house later, whether you want to marry, and what matters and what you want in life?  Yes -- snap out of the apathy!  Why should you wait until you’re married or partnered to start making smart financial decision that future you will thank you for?  What if you never meet that person, or you do and they’re a financial train-wreck?  What if you do meet them and they’re lovely and your life together is lovely -- don’t you want to bring the most you can to your relationship?  Don’t you want to be the kind of thoughtful, smart, has-their-shit-together person you would consider sharing your life with?

Maybe you’re not waiting for a serious relationship.  It could be a bigger paycheck, promotion at work, moving to a different city or country, or educational milestone that’s the start of your new, better life.  Why not now?  Why shouldn’t you start thinking (instead of reacting) now?

One of the things I love about blogging (besides getting to write about something I have endless nerd-love for), is friends starting conversations with me about their finances and decisions.  I wish there was a good way to start such conversations frequently -- and I hope that y’all realize I am always interested in discussing or thinking through a financial decision with you, learning about how you bought a car, pay for grad school, or how you manage finances with your partner.  There is still so much I want to learn!

Anyone else have a quarter-life crisis?  Were finances involved (or a trigger)?  Or do you think the whole notion of a quarter-life crisis is complete BS?


  1. i love this post.
    i totally go through a quarter life crisis on some days and on others, i feel like everything is fine and perfect and part of my path...

    i love that we share the need and urge to turn to books. I go through them so quick. These days, 1-3 a week depending on my schedule :) It's so 'rico' as we say in Spanish.



    1. Thanks for the comment, Alia! Totally agree about the on/off days --sometimes I feel life is good, other times I'm questioning my path. I love that we're on the same wavelength when it comes to books and reading. Having the time to read a ton is one of my favorite perks of this relaxed summer I'm having. =)

      Take care,


  2. Hello Dina,

    1) Real analysis is awful. I do not recommend Rudin. If I have to recommend something in that god-forsaken subject, I do recommend Reed & Simon.

    2) We should talk, about math, grad school, and other things. I take the completely opposite view. I make next to nothing, I'm (finally) very happy with what I'm doing and who I am, and I absolutely refuse to worry about money or to base decisions around money. Of course I put some away when I can, and I'm not incurring debt, but it's more out of spite for the institution of debt than for anything else. To me, of all the things I could concern myself with, money feels petty and banal.

    3) At some point -- and your father definitely knows this better than I -- there are no more exercises. However, while you're still learning the foundations, he's absolutely correct, especially for something like analysis; you have to know how to use it, or it is, quite literally, useless.

    4) On reading everything -- there is a massive amount of information out there, but most of it is not really deserving of the title "knowledge". We read because we wish to make sense of our own place in the universe, and because there are those before us who were more knowledgeable than us. I spent a good deal of time over the past year or two worrying about the precise definitions of terms such as "good" and "value", as in, defining the methodology by which we assign value to objects and relationships between them (morphisms). I've come up with a [working] definition, it's somewhat Eastern in flavor but it works for me, I can explain it to you next time we talk in person, it's somewhat too involved for a text box. One result of this is that, since arbitrary choices of interactions are unavoidable, (in particular, reading a book is an interaction between you and book), it becomes clear that choices which result in low value are not desirable (again, this statement can be made precise). Of course, it's possible to extract value from learning about evangelical marriage advice, but you might get more out of that if you first read what, say, Montaigne had to say on the subject. There's more that I could say, but I've already proven myself completely witless by my lack of brevity.


    1. Haha, glad to hear even a smartypants like yourself doesn't care for RA. I can assure you that I'm nowhere near the point of running out of exercises to do or things to think through in that area.

      I will say, though, that despite what this blog makes it look like, I don't spend a ton of time thinking about my finances, and hardly any at all worrying about them. I think a lot of what is interesting about money, personal finance, and investing boils down to people and psychology, which is what drew me to it initially. So while I write about money a lot, I agree that on its own it's quite uninteresting and unimportant. I care more about how it interacts with people, and my interests and pursuits in life. Soo if life was an equation, I care less about the money coefficient, but rather how the term interacts with all of the other variables. /nerd ;)

      Thanks for the comment. And we should totally discuss all this in person ... I guess if I'm ever in California? :)