When you are my age, chances are that you’ve experienced an existential crisis or are currently in one. This crisis, typically in midlife, is signalled by feelings of emptiness, pointlessness, and lack of fulfilment. Life on the surface might seem good, but underneath there’s discontentment brewing.
The seeds for this are laid in our childhood. At the early stages of life, we make sense of the world and our role in it, through the strong influences around us - society, family, religion, peer group. Our views on key questions like what’s success? what’s happiness? what’s morally right and wrong? are shaped by these forces. Over time, these get re-enforced by appreciation, and corrected by criticism. We go through life traversing within these boundaries defined for us.
When we hit mid life, even though we may be doing well - have the 5Cs (Cash, Card, Condo, Car, Club Membership) in the Singapore context, or happily married with kids - something seems off. We feel discontented and restless. We are intrigued by our unhappiness, as nothing can explain it to us. To get over this, we create excitement in our life by buying a convertible, going on a shopping spree, or taking a long vacation. This gives us temporary pleasure, but the sinking feeling re-emerges shortly after.
Now we are officially and visibly in an existential crisis. The unhappiness leads us inwards. We question everything in life. Do I really need the 6 figure salary? Am I spending enough time with my kids? Am I making an impact? We even challenge our own existence. With time, patience, curiosity and deep personal work, we start dissolving away some of the boundaries set for us. If we are lucky, we have a wise friend, therapist or coach support us during this phase. We open up to the possibility that some universally accepted truths like marriage, babies, or a 9-6 job may not be for us.
As these boundaries dissolve, we feel a sense of freedom. The suffocation is lifted and we feel empowered. With this new found lens of possibility, we test our limits by exploring alternative career paths, experimenting with passionate projects, or giving a shot to things we’ve been curious about, but afraid to try. In this unfamiliar territory, with our successes/failures, happiness/sadness, we start getting a deeper understanding of ourselves. We discover what drives us, and what’s important to us.
Floating unconstrained, after a while, however, makes us dizzy. Without an anchor, we get knocked around aimlessly. We feel the need for principles and guidelines to ground us. This is the time to turn to our values, beliefs and gifts. These are easier to access, given how deeply we are in touch with ourselves. Our values and strengths help re-erect new boundaries. These self imposed principles, coming from within, enable us to find our authenticity, unleash our potential, and start living a purpose driven life.
The above is a simplified version of the different phases in an existential crisis. Everyone, however, has a unique experience, rarely as structured and linear as described above. An existential crisis doesn’t always lead to a drastic change in life or even a visible one, but it helps us discover and define ourselves by our core values. Sometimes, after quitting our job, we may realise that having a strong career after all is really important to us, leading us back to that path. This time, however, with a stronger purpose and belief. In a nutshell, an existential crisis leads us inwards, enables deep personal work, and steers us from the universal to the individual authentic self.
Sharad Lal specialises in helping people access their inner brilliance and unlock their true potential. As a key note speaker, certified executive coach, and successful entrepreneur, and he has supported over 500 people to overcome hardships and accelerate their careers.
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