I have a long history of existential crises.
When I was a kid, I couldn’t sleep at night. My mind raced. I read a lot before bed, just to try to keep my mind focused on something that might eventually lull me to sleep. My mom even took me to the doctor once to ask about my sleeping issues. I think I was 8 or 9 at the time. Those issues didn’t subside at all during my older years; I had problems falling sleep quickly all the way through my 20s. It wasn’t until I quit smoking and started working out a little in my late 20s that I suddenly found myself able to fall asleep within 20 minutes of my head hitting the pillow.
That struggle to relax into sleep at night seems symbolic of my default approach to life in the past:
Go hard, all the time.
On paper, that kind of energy and dedication sounds admirable.
But my inability to turn off my capacity for work caused all of the existential crises of my life.
My first crisis was after freshman year of college. I was on a full scholarship to an expensive local school. I had graduated with really high expectations from a local “honors” high school. My entire life had been spent overachieving in everything (except sports), and after a year of continuing to do the same in college, I was exhausted. And burned out. All I wanted to do was take naps and write poetry.
So I dropped out of college.
I withdrew from my first semester of sophomore year sometime around October. It was a sudden decision but one that was gradually building for months. My parents were worried. What if I didn’t go back? My mother had left college early, for similar reasons, and she didn’t go back. Would I do the same?
I did all kinds of adult things that year while everyone else I knew went to classes. I got my own apartment. I adopted a cat. I bought a real car. I worked full-time in an office, and I wrote all the poetry I wanted.
And when the next school year rolled around, I was ready to go back.
My second existential crisis happened from 2011 through 2014.
Yes, it lasted 3 years.
I had been teaching full-time since 2003, and by 2011, I was exhausted. And burned out. Again. All I wanted to do was lift weights, write nutrition articles, and eat peanut butter.
So I left teaching for a while.
While I was gone, I finished a Nutrition degree. I worked as a personal trainer full-time, eventually quitting that for a gig as a health coach with a local insurance company. I took on a few fitness side jobs. And I ate an awful lot — so much that I gained 34 pounds.
But when the end of my two-year absence from teaching rolled around, I was ready to go back.
After both existential crises, I couldn’t simply go back to the way I did things BEFORE the crisis. I had to change the problem — my inability to modulate my work capacity — so that I wouldn’t burn out again.
In college, this change came naturally. I had become financially independent at age 20. I had been paying my own rent, bills, and living expenses for long enough that I was going to have to work full-time if I wanted to go to college AND live on my own. There were no parents paying my tuition or board, no family members who had started a college fund for me. Whatever I spent I had to earn, and the time commitment needed to work full-time AND go to college kept me from the same “go hard, all the time” mentality I’d had before.
After college, I managed to work full-time while in grad school full-time, and then I did the same as I finished my teaching certificate and student teaching placements.
My first existential crisis wound up making me better. I had to learn to be something more than just a student.
I had to make similar adjustments for my return to teaching. I couldn’t go back and fall into the same trap. I was still personal training in the evenings, after all, and I wanted time to devote to writing when I could. So I made a few rules for my reincarnation as a teacher:
- No grading papers at home.
- No planning lessons at home.
- No extracurricular assignments.
- No staying after required hours.
That last one might sound harsh — what if a kid needed me to stay after required hours for extra help? — but the goal was not to shirk any responsibilities or student needs. Rather, my goal was to do everything within school hours, including addressing student needs and extras as required, by being better in the classroom.
This forced me to become so much more efficient, and I found myself getting more work done during my 40-minute free periods than I ever did in the hour or two I used to “work” on school things at home. I found better systems for doing tasks that used to take much longer, and I found faster grading systems than what I’d been using before.
My second existential crisis forced me to become a better teacher. And learning to control the binge eating problem that accompanied that existential crisis made me a better trainer.
Both crises, however, made me realize just what a misnomer the term “existential crisis” is.
There is no “crisis” in realizing you need something in your life to change.
The crisis comes from NOT acknowledging that need, from staying stuck where you know you don’t belong. Sure, it’s difficult to change your life, and yes, sometimes life is unhappy while that change is happening. Sometimes the change takes 3 years. Sometimes you gain 34 pounds from the stress of it. And sometimes you end up in a place you never thought you would’ve when you envisioned the trajectory of your future.
But I would rather face temporary discomfort head-on than settle for long-term dissatisfaction.
And I’d rather quit — and relearn the right way to do things — than continue to be mediocre.