Chelsea Krost’s #MillennialTalk (Tuesdays, 8pm Eastern; be there!) has become a weekly Twitter ritual for me. It’s always fascinating and fast-paced, but last week’s topic covered something that I, frankly, wasn’t even aware of – the so-called “Quarter-Life Crisis.” This is not a new phenomenon, it turns out, but it has become so prevalent that it has merited a re-brand.

For those of you who don’t know, this is basically the feeling that many members of Gen Y get, sometime around the age of 25, that they have spent too many years following the wrong goals. They get out into the world, and begin to experience extreme anxiety and a feeling that it is too late to start over. At 25. For those of us who are cough slightly older than that, this may seem a bit silly – we know that there is plenty of time to figure your shit out – but this a serious problem for Gen Y. So, I wanted to look at where this comes from, and hopefully suss out how we can help alleviate it.

Existential angst is nothing new; humans have been questioning their life’s meaning/direction for as long as there have been humans. I picture prehistoric man sitting on the ground, looking pensively at his fire, saying, “Sure, Og make wheel, but what Og do since? Am Og peaked?” But what makes the Quarter-Life phenomenon so fascinating is that, even as we are living longer, we are feeling this turmoil at younger ages, sometimes as early as high school, or even junior high school. So, what gives? Why are today’s youth (geez, how old am I?) feeling like they’ve blown it, before they have even had time to get going?

Epic Fail

For one thing, Gen Y is afraid of failure. Like, paralyzingly afraid. I have seen this time and again, in the people I have met in my adventures, and even in my own daughter. Failure, which should ideally be seen as the ultimate teacher, is instead viewed as the bogeyman under the bed, stalking their days and haunting their dreams. It’s so bad, in fact, that many in Gen Y have decided that it is better not to try than to try and fail. This can lead to aprolonged adolescence, mental illness, or even worse. Nobody likes the way it feels to fail, but what is it that makes this so throat-grippingly terrifying to Gen Y?

 Again, we have to start with the parents and the culture of overprotection that we (myself included) have helped create. In putting our children’s happiness ahead of their development, we have made it so that they have had almost no experience with genuine failure. So, while they may have tasted a few defeats here and there, the dread of FAILURE tends to take on mythic proportions. What’s worse, the high self-esteem associated with “everyone gets a trophy” can actually backfire, putting it in the child’s mind that the parent has unreasonably elevated expectations. This can compound the problem by tying it to parental disappointment, an emotional one-two combo that slips right past reason, and can linger well into adulthood.

Systems Failure

The good news is that, like so many other irrational fears, this one is really rooted in a lack of understanding. So, to eliminate the fear, we first need to normalize failure. I recently heard of a great nightly dinnertime conversation starter: instead of asking, “How was your day?,” or “What did you do at school?,” this family would ask, “What did you fail at today?” I love that because, not only does it give the parents the opportunity to turn a negative experience into a positive one (consolation, learning, etc.), but it also sends the message that failure is not something scary looming out there, but part of regular, everyday life. How fantastic is that?

Of course, for those already entering the Quarter-Life Crisis, it is probably too late to start these congenial family chats. But, that same idea can apply at any point in our lives. We all have our support networks – family, friends, co-workers, churchmates, gaming buddies, roller derby team – whomever it is that we go to in times of need. Whether you are the supporter or the supportee, the key is to be open and honest. Everyone has these moments of doubt, and everyone has experienced a fear of failure at one point or another. Talk about it, shine a light to drive the darkness away. Hell, sometimes all it takes to make us feel better is hearing how shitty somebody else’s day was.

But, most importantly, let’s make sure that Gen Y knows this: despite your best efforts, you will fail. You will fail again and again. But, don’t be afraid, because each time you fail, your best effort will be that much better the next time around. Failure is not in getting knocked down, but in refusing to get up again. Ask Henry Ford, Albert Einstein, Thomas Edison,Cool Hand Luke, or Chumbawamba.

Tomorrow caps off our look at the Quarter-Life Crisis, with another huge piece of the puzzle: the tendency to compare our lives with the carefully-constructed personas of others – what I call The Myth of Cool. Be there and be square.

This was previously posted at Solving For Y