Quarter-life Crisis

12 February 2022

I turned 25 this week. That means I have completed a quarter of my life, assuming I live for 100 years. Perhaps a more realistic measure of quarter-life is at 20 years old. Regardless, this is a checkpoint in life. And it feels like a good idea to document my thoughts on my life plan right now. 100 is a better number than 80 in the metric system, and 25 is 100 divided by four.

When I was in school, I believed there were only two actual obstacles to achieving anything - time and will. I still believe that, but my materialisation of those words is quite different.

At a younger age, I associated time with age and maturity. “I am simply not old and mature enough to understand this. I will be fine once I grow up.”, I would think. As I grew up and learned new concepts about our world, I discovered many more that I had no grasp of. And the harder I tried to get a grip on as much knowledge as I could, I would find even more areas that were previously unknown unknowns to me. Nature was not done with me. The foundations of what I knew or thought I knew also showed cracks. Perhaps, I could solve this given enough time. But I will never have enough time. Simply put, the finiteness of my time on Earth has only slowly dawned on me. Younger me was foolish in assessing time as an obstacle. You can jump over an obstacle. You can conquer it. Time, on the other hand, does not yield itself. A child might wonder if pulling at a plant would make it grow faster.1

But after a quarter of life, I understand that innovation, and knowledge, is incremental, and there is a natural timescale for everything. Time is a partner in our journey and not a hurdle. In this garden that is the world, there are trees I would not see bear fruits. Regardless, it is my duty to water them and see them grow at their pace. Indeed, I am still as confused about the world as 10 years ago, perhaps even more so. But I relish that I am confused on a higher plane.2

Will or willpower is the second ingredient to success, or so I think. “You must never give up. Keep going, keep cracking on, and you will get what you want”, I would tell myself. This was too simplistic. After a quarter of life, I am careful to split will into synonyms such as tenacity, stubbornness, doggedness and resolve. Stubbornness is almost always bad. Resolve is almost always good. Tenacity and doggedness are helpful when applied carefully with assistance from other character traits. Once, in my early teenage years, I got bent on demonstrating that traffic noise can be utilised to generate electricity. Against my mother’s wishes, I would not eat until I would solve the engineering problems. From my perspective then, the science was absolutely sound, and it was only a matter of time and keeping my will strong before I cracked the code. I can tell you now that the theory is indeed sound if you work out the numbers. Still, such a device’s practical feasibility is ridiculous. I would be praised for my tenacity in several situations like this, but that is just for the books. In practice, I have learned to take assistance from economic concepts of cost-benefit trade-offs, opportunity costs and risk-reward payoffs.

What lies ahead then? As confused about the world as I may be, it is now my job (literally) to find solutions to problems that are understood by a decreasing set of people. Nothing is happening to the people, but the problems are on a, umm, higher plane. This is delightful in a way, as to be in this situation is a luxury. I am part of a relatively elite class of people. This is where the imposter syndrome kicks in hard. I don’t understand everything about the problems that are considered solved. Those should be the easy problems. How can I be trusted to make progress on the hard ones? What is the reason behind my slow progress? It could be that these problems are inherently complex. As we have learnt, innovation is incremental and requires tenacity. But there is no way to rule out the possibility that perhaps I fundamentally lack the capacity and skills to breakthrough. This doubt is my quarter-life crisis.

I do not know the answer, but I am determined to keep myself happily entertained. I have devised a plan to deal with this situation. I have two options. Either I accept my inability and give up, or I demonstrate resolve. If I put it like that, this sounds like a dichotomy, but it may not be one. I can accept my inability to crack the universe’s secrets alone and start embracing what I can achieve with help and cooperation. The scientific minds are, after all, an interdependent ecosystem. Essential keywords that would drive the efficacy of the cooperation are communication and empathy. I am not saying that I have just discovered the importance of these ideas. I’ve known that for as long as I remember. But I have recently concluded that these ideas might be the central aspect of my journey in the next quarter. We’ll find out how that goes.