“I have an existential map. It has ‘You are here’ written all over it.” ― Steven Wright
This topic is near and dear to my heart. For me, this is when everything started. This is when I feel like I finally woke up and started living an intentional life.
An existential crisis can be a dark time. But the light on the other side is so worth going through it. This post tackles why an existential crisis is actually a good thing, the challenge with finding good info about them online, and how an existential crisis is defined. The end of the post has my own story and some thoughts for how you can navigate yours.
If you’re having (or have had) an Existential Crisis…
You are not alone. In fact, you are in good company. Don’t view it as something that’s wrong with you. Instead, look at it as just the opposite—something that sets you apart from those who don’t (or refuse to) think deeply about life.
This quote was one of my favorite things I came across to help me realize this:
Why should such existential concerns occur disproportionately among gifted persons? Partially, it is because substantial thought and reflection must occur to even consider such notions, rather than simply focusing on superficial day-to-day aspects of life. — DavidsonGifted.org¹
Congrats, I guess we’re in the gifted club! You are a deep thinker who doesn’t just focus on the superficial aspects of life. I also found this next excerpt from a blogger incredibly helpful:
Existential crisis is the breakdown of the self/ego. It’s the beginning of the realization that you might not be who you thought you were all along. This will bring into question EVERYTHING of the old self. All your motivations, desires, goals, personality, values etc… will be on the chopping block. Once you realize this, most, if not everything you valued will fall to the wayside. An existential crisis means that you are starting to find yourself, your true self. And if you follow that path to its conclusion, you’ll find that life is much simpler than what it was before, that your self is an illusion and much of what we give value to in life, has little to no meaning; certainly not in the way we thought of as before. — Ramblings of My Mind²
Even Elon Musk isn’t immune to an existential crisis (although he had his much earlier in life than most as a teenager—which probably shouldn’t be surprising):
When you search for “Existential Crisis” online…
You don’t get much from the first page of Google search results (at the time of this writing):
- a BuzzFeed listicle,
- a pretty good video from Alain de Botton’s “The School of Life” which I’ve embedded further down the post below,
- a WikiHow article sharing 3 different ways to deal with a crisis—this is the #1 result for “how to existential crisis,”
- a definition from UrbanDictionary. Yeah…
- recent news stories referencing “existential crisis” as it relates to the financial market, tech companies, and politics,
- a slightly helpful article from Psychology Today, although the comments may be better than the article,
- and maybe my favorite result (kidding)—“Can a cat have an existential crisis?” Yep, that’s on the first page of search results at the time of writing this.
Wikipedia is usually a great place to get an initial understanding of a topic. It’s like the modern day For Dummies book series. A safe place where you can dive in deep for hours or days at a time on any topic imaginable—only to discover new topics and then go deep on those.
Surprisingly, Wikipedia isn’t filled with a wealth of information for “existential crisis.” Instead, it almost reads like WebMD in this case—a quick intro followed by possible causes of how you got to be in this crisis. Common triggers are things like a tragic experience, major loss in your life, and turning a significant age (usually ages that end in “9” or “0”).
They say an existential crisis should not be confused with an identity crisis (usually related to adolescence) or a midlife crisis (usually triggered by someone’s increasing age).
Although they aren’t listed on the first couple pages of search results, Reddit and Quora have some good info and a mostly helpful community atmosphere:
- Quora posts on “existential crisis”
- Reddit: r/Existential_crisis
- Reddit: r/ExistentialSupport
- Reddit: r/Existentialism
So, it’s no wonder I had to Google a million different things to find any helpful information when I was going through my own existential crisis.
It seems a lot of the articles and advice give tips on how to get over or go around your existential crisis. Instead, I went straight into and through it. And, I’m glad I did. So…
What is an Existential Crisis (or Existential Anxiety / Existential Angst)?
Here are some of the better definitions that I came across:
- “An existential crisis is a moment at which an individual questions if their life has meaning, purpose, or value.” — Wikipedia³
- “Psychologists define existential crisis as a turning point. It’s a moment when you feel the need to find meaning or purpose in your life.” — BetterHelp4
- “Existential anxiety is an all-encompassing form of anxiety and stress that is present in a nagging way when we try to make meaning in life simply because, as humans, we exist. That’s a fun concept, isn’t it? We experience anxiety, stress, strife, worry, and even panic simply because we are alive.” — Healthy Place5
- “Existentialism posits that a person can and does define the meaning and purpose of his or her life, and therefore must choose to resolve the crisis of existence.” — Wikipedia³
- “In existentialist philosophy, the term ‘existential crisis’ specifically relates to the crisis of the individual when they realize that they must always define their own lives through the choices they make.” — Wikipedia³
- “Making choices among the possibilities is indeed arbitrary; there is no ‘ultimately right’ choice. Even choosing a vocation can be difficult if one is trying to make a career decision between essentially equal passion, talents and potential in violin, neurology, theoretical mathematics and international relations.” — SENG6
- “Søren Kierkegaard is generally considered to have been the first existentialist philosopher, though he did not use the term existentialism. He proposed that each individual—not society or religion—is solely responsible for giving meaning to life and living it passionately and sincerely, or ‘authentically.’” — Wikipedia7
- “While the predominant value of existentialist thought is commonly acknowledged to be freedom, its primary virtue is authenticity.” — Wikipedia7
- “Many noted existentialist writers consider the theme of authentic existence important. Authentic existence involves the idea that one has to ‘create oneself’ and then live in accordance with this self.” — Wikipedia7
If you’re looking for a book on existentialist philosophy that goes deep on authenticity, check out my book summary of The Existentialist’s Survival Guide: How to Live Authentically in an Inauthentic Age.
The Story of my Existential Crisis
My existential crisis began in November 2015. I was 30 years 8 months old.
Side Note: Coincidentally, my wife also had an existential crisis a couple years after mine — when she was also 30 years 8 months old! While the age was weirdly the same, the crisis was different for each of us (with a little bit of overlap):
- My existential crisis was mostly intrinsic — Who am I? Why am I here? And on and on…
- My wife’s existential crisis was mostly extrinsic — How did we all get here? How do we define “here?” Why are we doing what we’re doing when we live on one tiny rock in a gigantic universe? What is out in space? Does space even exist? Do we even exist?
I was working insane hours at my job — and had been for the better part of the entire year. This meant consistently working 60/70/80-hour weeks. There were a couple moments I distinctly remember when it hit its worst.
In June 2015, I had a warning sign. I completely blanked in a huge presentation. This was after getting 2-3 hours of sleep the night before. The lack of sleep had already been compounding for weeks, if not months. I think I had a mini anxiety/panic attack, was short of breath, couldn’t catch my breath, rapid heartbeat, and blanked. Completely. I probably spoke for less than a minute before just passing it on to the next presenter. It was bad.
But, of course the warning sign wasn’t enough for me to change my ways. Fast forward a few months to November 2015.
I had no free time. I wasn’t sleeping. I distinctly remember trying to go to bed at night and staring at the ceiling of our bedroom. It was late (as usual), but I couldn’t fall asleep. My heart was racing. Anxiety at an all-time high. I could not calm myself down enough to fall asleep. No amount of deep breaths were working. I stared at the ceiling for what seemed like hours. I was physically killing myself to work.
- Why am I doing this to myself?
- How did I get to this point?
- What am I doing with my life?
- Is this really what I’m here to do?
- Why are we even here? Why do we exist? Why does anything exist??
This lasted for six weeks. I had to give myself a self-imposed deadline (New Year’s Day 2016), or it would have kept going indefinitely.
I self-diagnosed myself as being in the midst of an existential crisis (or at least high existential angst). All my free time outside of work was dedicated to this search and discovery. If only I could go back and see my Google search history.
I read. And searched. And read. And searched. I watched documentaries and shows about the universe, and planet, and nature. I took 26 pages of notes on topics like: purpose and meaning, gratitude, happiness, time, hierarchy of needs, creativity, death, future trends, thought experiments, the universe, Earth, humanity, and more. I learned a ton of amazing things like there are an estimated 4,200 religions on Earth and the average lifespan of someone in the U.S. today is only 1% of recorded human history. Many of those notes have ended up on this site as posts.
I then shared all my notes with my family and titled it, “How to Have an Existential Crisis.” However, there was no “how” included in the notes. Just notes. Notes that helped set perspective.
Most life-changing for me, this was the time that all my searching led me to simple and slow living. I discovered things like the slow movement, essentialism, ikigai (the Japanese “reason for being”) and the Blue Zones.
And then what happened?
My dad told me I’d come out better on the other side. I believe he was right. While not much fun during the process, you certainly come out the other side with a complete perspective reset. Reflecting back on it, it’s an amazing time of self-discovery, opening your mind and worldview, educating yourself on humanity, the planet, universe, and everything in it. I’ve rewired the default setting of my mind. There is a certain lightness to life that comes with the newfound perspective.
What I didn’t do was spend the next two years in bliss on a park bench like spiritual teacher Eckhart Tolle after his aha moment:
I dwelt in states of such indescribable bliss and sacredness that even the original experience I just described pales in comparison. A time came when, for a while, I was left with nothing on the physical plane. I had no relationships, no job, no home, no socially defined identity. I spent almost two years sitting on park benches in a state of the most intense joy. — Eckhart Tolle
Instead, I went back to work. And I continued learning and finding/creating my purpose on the side.
I struggled every single day with what I had learned vs. what I was doing and how I was living. During my existential crisis, I went deep on personal purpose and the current epidemics of busyness and unconscious consumption.
Previously, I had no idea there was another way (or a way out) of how I had been living. I had followed the typical path in Western society: go to school, get a job, and then get another (better) job, and then get another better job (that pays more), etc. I followed this path without questioning a thing for over a decade. Sports car and suburb McMansion included. Totally guilty of lifestyle inflation.
Being-in-the-world is examined closely in an existential crisis and, often, there are no answers to one’s questions. It typically is an experience of feeling completely untethered, existentially alone and lost – even despite one having a wealth of loving friends and family, a successful career and professional reputation, material acquisitions, and religious/spiritual faith. — Jason Winkler, Toronto-based psychotherapist
More and more things and experiences offered no long-term fulfillment. I was more miserable than ever. Many people already know money can’t buy happiness, but knowing and doing are two different things. I thought I knew too, but it took me doing and living it to really learn. So, what was missing? There’s one quote that I keep coming back to that I believe summed everything up for me:
I’ve learned that there is nothing more consistent with unhappiness than spending your time in a way that doesn’t serve who you are. — Scott Dinsmore
And, two and a half years later, I became a corporate dropout and quit my six-figure, 9-to-5 job to dedicate my time and energy to sharing the life-changing benefits of simple and slow living with as many people as possible.
This site exists to share everything I’ve learned and everything I’m still exploring with you. I truly believe I’ve discovered a secret of living a purposeful, balanced, peaceful life. But really, ancient wisdom and modern research have known this “secret” for a long time.
To live voluntarily…is to live conscientiously and deliberately, and to live more simply is to unencumber oneself in all aspects of life in order to ‘(meet) life face to face.’ In short, voluntary simplicity is ‘outwardly more simple and inwardly more rich.’ — Duane Elgin
I want to meet life face to face.
7 Ways to Navigate your own Existential Crisis
1) Open your mind and start searching: Ask “why” about everything. Read and watch as much as possible about humanity, the planet, and the universe. The more you learn, the more you’ll start to realize the oneness and interconnectedness of everything. You’ll likely also begin to understand the difference between doing vs being. Remember that the definition of an existential crisis is a “moment” or “turning point.” Use this as an aha moment to create awareness and set perspective.
The mind once stretched by a new idea, never returns to its original dimension. — Oliver Wendell Holmes
2) Take a ton of notes: Research shows we retain very little of what we read. Taking notes will help you remember information and also connect dots and create insights. I still find it incredibly helpful to revisit my notes from three years ago. And, you may be able to share them with others in the future to help them out too.
Don’t just say you have read books. Show that through them you have learned to think better, to be a more discriminating and reflective person. Books are the training weights of the mind. They are very helpful, but it would be a bad mistake to suppose that one has made progress simply by having internalized their contents. — Epictetus
The best thing a human being can do is to help another human being know more. — Charlie Munger
3) Get outside and move often: Research shows we spend the vast majority of our modern lives indoor. Your mind is highly active during an existential crisis, but what about your body? Don’t neglect physical movement during this time. Even something as simple as a short walk outside can be a restorative break and take your mind off things. Do some forest bathing, or try to do something that replicates the astronaut overview effect. Scientists and researchers are beginning to study the positive effects of awe on the brain. There’s nothing more awe-inspiring than the natural world.
Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out that going to the mountains is going home; that wildness is a necessity; and that mountain parks and reservations are useful not only as fountains of timber and irrigating rivers, but as fountains of life. Awakening from the stupefying effects of the vice of over-industry and the deadly apathy of luxury, they are trying as best they can to mix and enrich their own little ongoings with those of Nature, and to get rid of rust and disease. ― John Muir
We are not human beings having a spiritual experience. We are spiritual beings having a human experience. — Pierre Teilhard de Chardin
4) Be grateful for your crisis: This may be difficult when you’re in the midst of a crisis, but remember that we are lucky to have been born in the modern world:
In a way, your so-called life purpose crisis is a luxury, something you’re allowed to have as a result of the amazing freedoms the modern world has bestowed upon you. — Mark Manson
As tribal cultures developed into the ancient civilizations, certain functions began to be allotted to certain people: ruler, priest or priestess, warrior, farmer, merchant, craftsman, laborer, and so on. A class system developed. Your function, which in most cases you were born into, determined your identity, determined who you were in the eyes of others, as well as in your own eyes. Your function became a role, but it wasn’t recognized as a role: It was who you were, or thought you were. Only rare beings at the time, such as the Buddha or Jesus, saw the ultimate irrelevance of caste or social class, recognized it as identification with form and saw that such identification with the conditioned and the temporal obscured the light of the unconditioned and eternal that shines in each human being. In our contemporary world, the social structures are less rigid, less clearly defined than they used to be. Although most people are, of course, still conditioned by their environment, they are no longer automatically assigned a function and with it an identity. In fact, in the modern world, more and more people are confused as to where they fit in, what their purpose is, and even who they are. — Eckhart Tolle
5) Talk it out: In online communities or in the real world with a significant other, family member, or friend that you sincerely trust. Real friends will support and encourage you. My wife lived through my existential crisis with me. And, I was there for her when she was having hers.
6) It’s not a race: Start by slowing down. My crisis lasted 6 weeks. I’m sure others are shorter and some are longer. Take it at your own pace. Don’t rush the search.
We don’t mind spending 15 years on education, why not the same to become a better human being? — Matthieu Ricard
Most people overestimate what they can do in one year and underestimate what they can do in ten years. ― Bill Gates
7) You have a choice to live authentically: An existential crisis can help you “push off the bottom” with a blank canvas. Choosing to create purpose comes after this important turning point. You can turn your newfound awareness into action and have the rest of your life to create your masterpiece.
Once we know and are aware, we are responsible for our action and our inaction. We can do something about it or ignore it. Either way, we are still responsible. — Jean-Paul Sartre
We can all agree that the unexamined life is not worth living…but if all you’re doing is examining, you’re not living. — Adam Leipzig
Bonus (from my wife): “It’s certainly changed my perspective for the better. I’ve always looked at things from other angles, but I’m looking at life from angles that I didn’t know previously existed. Here’s my philosophy on life: Respectfully question everything; we know nothing.”
Update 12/23/18: I’m currently working on a life purpose eBook. It will be a super detailed guide outlining how I’ve found and created my own life purpose over the last couple years since my existential crisis. Please sign up for email or follow on social to be notified when it is available in mid-2019. Thank you!
Also published on Medium.