How a Quarter-Life Crisis Transformed My Life for the Better

When I turned 25, I started to feel an itch, like something needed to change. But I wasn’t sure just what that “something” was. At the time, I was working in a cubicle at an advertising agency, and although I loved all the people I worked with, cube life was not for me. So I switched jobs, started working at a new ad agency in a new cube, but still, the feeling that I needed to be doing something different was there.

I was bored, feeling discontent, and just had a nagging inner notion that something wasn’t right. I’d finish my tasks for the day, and find myself wondering what impact I was making on the world—and if it was even a positive one. As I sat in my cubicle, I started to think about what I really wanted to be doing with my life. Looking around, I saw people who were 10 years ahead of me in their careers working long hours and sacrificing so much time with their families. They seemed massively stressed. I knew that wasn’t the direction I wanted to head in.

It turns out the nagging feeling inside was pulling me in a different direction toward serving others. I felt like what I was contributing to the world (helping to create ads for mac & cheese) wasn’t having the most positive impact. I wanted to do work that was truly helping others.

I began to plan what the next chapter in my life was going to look like—and it was radically different than what I’d been told I “should” be doing by family, friends, and basically, society, which was saving money, buying property, and building the foundation to my career. I like to refer to this time in my life as my very own “quarter life crisis.” I spent all my free time trying to figure out what I truly wanted next.

As I was exploring all my options, I came home from work one day and wrote in my journal: I think I want to go to Peru and work in an orphanage. Am I crazy? This didn’t totally come out of nowhere. I’d always wanted to go to Peru, and I’d visited an orphanage in India, where I felt a strong pull to volunteer. Even though this idea sounded outlandish to my friends and family, it filled me with excitement. I spent the next year saving every penny I could, strategizing and planning, and figuring out all the ways I could make this idea a reality.

At 28 years old, I quit my job, donated most of my belongings, stored the rest in my mom’s basement, and used my savings to fly to Peru and work for free in an orphanage in Arequipa. I also spent time in a home for teen moms in Cusco and a youth development program in Costa Rica, all over a period of about six months.

The author in Peru.

Making this decision wasn’t easy. I often found myself second-guessing my choices, especially when other people offered their opinions, and I knew I would be sacrificing many of the comforts and the security I had back home. I also knew that I was incredibly fortunate to have the privilege and the resources to be able to travel like this. 

Letting go and fully delving into my quarter life crisis was totally transformative. I spent more than 40 hours a week working with people who were so different from me — volunteers from all over the world and children and teens living in impoverished conditions in South and Central America. I saw firsthand what it’s like to grow up in poverty with no parents, or as a single mom with no resources or support from your family. I spent hours and hours on my hands and knees, cleaning a three-room orphanage. I would watch eight babies at once, by myself. I comforted newborn twins that were left outside a church. I held a little girl’s hand when she took her first step. The experience was humbling, sometimes heart-breaking, and deeply meaningful. Serving others in such a different environment changed me. It made me a more compassionate human being.

My volunteer experience also totally shifted my career. When I came home, there was no way I was returning to cube life, and I ended up working in nonprofits for the next few years, applying all the lessons I learned in the other Americas to impoverished communities in my own hometown. I ran a social services program at a food pantry, helping a wide variety of Chicago’s low-income population, from the chronically homeless to veterans to immigrants to the elderly. I also was the sole employee for an organization working to support mothers in Chicago’s most underserved South Side neighborhoods.

Looking back, what many people were telling me was an irrational decision was actually the best choice I could have made. My quarter life crisis was the best thing to happen to me because it helped me to get out of my comfort zone and step outside my bubble. Instead of feeling bored and discontent, I found a new sense of purpose. It changed the way I look at the world and my priorities in this life. I realized how incredibly privileged I am and knew I’d always use my privilege moving forward as a vehicle to help others.

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Caitlin Elizabeth is a writer and creative consultant. She is passionate about equality, creative living, and wellness and has spent time in 11 countries around the world. She owns her own creative consulting business and lives with her adopted pup Tula. Connect with her at caitlinelizabeth.me.