Thrisis' management: How to survive a thirtysomething crisis
She had the dream job and the perfect relationship but, at 33, Kasey Edwards felt 'over it'. And she's not alone.
Sunday 05 April 2009
A thrisis – isn't that just a common- or-garden midlife crisis rebranded for a younger generation? Apparently not, according to Edwards, who has written a book, 30 Something and Over It, about the aftermath of her age-specific revelation and how she got over being "over it".
"A midlife crisis," Edwards explains, "is about looking back at your life with a sense of regret; feeling that the best years are over, you've wasted them and it's too late. That's when you buy your sports car or have your boob job – because you want to feel young again." A thrisis, on the other hand, isn't about regret but about "looking forward and thinking, 'I don't want the next 30 years to look like this.'" The syndrome is also different from the "quarter-life crisis", the status-fuelled scourge apparently suffered by privileged twentysomethings expounded in a flurry of books a few years back.
So what was so awful about Edwards' thirtysomething life that she felt unable to tolerate another three decades of the same? Ironically, what was wrong was that her life was so right. As a senior management consultant for a prestigious multinational firm, Edwards was flying high professionally and doing the job she'd always dreamt of. She was earning a fat wage, living a luxury-filled life and in the "perfect" relationship to boot. As she puts it: "I had everything I'd always wanted – [but suddenly realised] I was over it – completely and utterly over it... my whole lifestyle had lost zing."
It was at this point that Edwards embarked on a journey to try to find her way. On it she sought out self-help gurus, encountered depressed millionaires, volunteered for a gruelling silent meditation retreat and, in the process, stumbled across a whole host of other thirtysomethings who'd either escaped or conquered their own thrises.
Closest to home was Edwards' best friend, Emma, another high-flyer with an equally bulging salary. While Edwards was spending evenings on the sofa feeling down about what suddenly felt like a meaningless job, Emma's thrisis took her off the rails. Out went her long-term, stable relationship, in came heavy drinking and a string of meaningless sexual encounters. "Everyone's symptoms are different," says Edwards, "but the core causes tend to be the same. I think, by definition, part of having a thrisis is feeling guilty about feeling bad because there are more important things going on in the world, which only compounds the problem."
Also significant is a feeling of having got "lost". Says Edwards: "In your twenties you're still ticking all the boxes that were predetermined for you as a child. I just followed the path; got the marks, which determined what I did at university, which then determined the jobs I'd apply for. Then I got the job and began climbing the corporate ladder." It wasn't until she hit her thirties – having attained her goals – that the path came to an end and she realised that she didn't know which way to turn. "Work was so much of my identity that when I realised I didn't like it any more I almost didn't like me any more. Part of my journey was to unstitch my identity from the title on my business card."
It's something that – in the current economic climate – is likely to be forced upon a great many more of us than might otherwise have reached a thrisis. When there is no work, what are we? How do we function? Feel valuable? Get through the day?
Meaning quickly becomes a recurring theme in Edwards' quest. She looked for it in a call centre – where the days were punctuated by timed loo breaks, dubious morals and a culture of enforced jollity – full of happy and fulfilled staff. "It knocks me off balance," writes Edwards in her book, "the place looks like something Aldous Huxley conjured into existence... [yet] these people were loving it." A line in the in-house publication Wellbeing News provided a clue: "Scientists have proved that smiling makes you feel happier even when you're feeling down," it read.
What of the other thirtysomethings who aren't experiencing thrises: what is their secret? Lowering expectations of what their jobs can give them, Edwards discovered. There was the colleague who deliberately put as much emphasis on his personal relationships, leisure activities and charity work as he did on his (equally high-flying) job; a friend who accepted that her brilliant career wasn't ever going to give her enough meaning, and so spent the weekends as a football coach for disaffected youths: "When I see the difference I make in their lives," the friend tells Edwards, "I feel like I'm really doing something worthwhile." Even Emma, her thrisis buddy, finds peace when she realises that setting up her own business is the way to give her life meaning. While she saves money, she's still doing the same job and superficially her life remains the same – but her mindset is different.
Edwards' biggest turning point, she says, was the 10-day meditation retreat she attended. "I was doing a lot of reading on happiness," she says, " and religion came up again and again as something that gave people's lives meaning." The only problem was that she wasn't religious – and didn't want to be. Spirituality, however, seemed worth a shot – and she found Vipassana, a Buddhist-inspired retreat that didn't require one to be a Buddhist. It turned out to be the most challenging thing she'd ever done – each day started at 5am and was spent sitting on a hard floor meditating for 16 hours; food was forbidden after midday. "The pain is excruciating," she says. "I nearly left after the first day but I'm glad I didn't: the idea is that you experience physical pain and learn to rise above it. It was emotional but liberating. You see things really clearly when you come out."
If extreme physical discomfort and 10 days of weeping sounds a little too much, you could take Edwards' ultimate thrisis-busting tip: have a baby. Not a real, live one, but "a metaphorical baby". A project is what Edwards' happily childless colleague Godfrey tells her is the secret of his contentment. "You need to find something to grow and invest in for the next 20 years – something to spend your money and time on, to give you meaning."
Finally Edwards had cracked it – which is how she wound up expecting less from her day job and negotiating a three-day week. The rest of the week, she spends writing. The first tangible product of her post- thrisis life is published this week, and she hopes that reading about her journey might inspire other thirtysomethings to see being "over it" not as the end, but as the beginning of an exciting new chapter.
'30 Something and Over It' by Kasey Edwards (Mainstream , £6.99) is out now
Thrisis-busters: Edwards' top five tips
1. Putting all of your happiness eggs into the career basket is asking for trouble. The people who are happiest with their jobs are either those who are not thinking about what they are doing and why, or have the lowest expectations about what work will bring to their lives.
2. It's not too late to change your path. The people who genuinely believe that life is full of opportunities are happier about their jobs than those who don't.
3. Make changes. Don't put off making tough decisions while you wait for the best option to come along. Sometimes any sort of action is better than nothing.
4. You'll know that you've found what you're looking for when you feel energised and optimistic. Don't expect to find it straight away and, once you find it, don't expect it to last forever. As I learnt from meditating, everything in life is impermanent, so enjoy things while they last and then move on.
5. While being thirtysomething and over it feels terrible, it can be a really positive milestone in your life. A thrisis forces us to pause, take a breath and ask what's really important to us. Think of your thirtysomething crisis as acting like a safety valve to stop you from getting to old age and wondering what the hell you did that for.
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