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26 Year-Olds and the Tyranny of Four-Year Cycles

I watched this video the other day about James Murphy thrashing around in his early twenties, and finding himself doing nothing at the age of 26 which seemed especially bad to him, and eventually got him on the trajectory to making LCD Soundsystem.

The number 26 stuck out to me. I feel like I’ve heard about a lot of people making Major Life Decisions (marriage, career change), starting Big Things or generally doing something drastic at the age of 26. It’s an age when many get out of graduate, when many realize dead-end jobs are dead-end jobs, but most importantly, it’s the end of the post-college four-year phantom cycle.

Think about it, when you graduate college you’ve been thinking about life in terms of four-year cycles for the past eight years, that’s pretty much your entire adult life. It becomes the brains internal schedule for human development:

  1. The first year, you try out a bunch of new things and you suck at a lot of them but it doesn’t matter because you’re just trying to figure things out and everyone else that year sucks at a lot of stuff also
  2. Second year you start working harder, try to find what you’re best at and enjoy most and focus on that. You suck at stuff much less than year 1.
  3. You put some serious effort into whatever you chose to explore, you know the ins and outs of the school.
  4.  You accomplish something significant in your field, start thinking about the next Big Change, and significantly, you graduate.

Most people graduate college at age 22, and then get launched into the post-college four-year phantom cycle, in which you expect yourself and your life to develop along the contours of your past two four-year cycles, and to your great dismay, it doesn’t. You can spend your first year trying things out and its suddenly NOT OK that you suck. You can get fired for sucking.

It’s a lot harder to get better at things in the real world than academic institutions (especially with all the energy you spend just trying to live), and so you might get to the third or fourth year and discover you’re not that much farther along in deciding what you want to do or being the person who can do it.

And then it’s June, and you’re 26, and you’re ready to graduate. From what? To what? [Insert Big Life Decision Here]. I think this is actually what people mean when they talk about a quarter-life crisis.

The four-year cycle can be a useful way to think about things, but its also incredibly brutal when applied to the real world because there’s people out there who’ve been doing this shit for 15-20 years more than you, not just 3.

Life is so ridiculously long. You can wait until your 26 and make a big change, or you can do it now, or you can be like Dr. Seuss and write your first book at age 34 to the delight of millions, or you can just keep on living and keeping the things that make you happy and ditching the things that don’t. There’s pretty much no roadmap. You’re an adult. You make the rules.

I’m 24 and it’s the summer which officially makes me an incoming junior in the school of life and I’m still figuring my shit out and that’s just fine.


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