The Missing Years: Dealing with a quarter-life creativity crisis

I recently watched Adam Westbrook’s video about the missing years on a recommendation from a friend. It changed my life. Sound dramatic? If you’ve been struggling as a twenty-something who feels you’re destined for something greater, or as a creative trying to jump to the successful period in your life, or as a graduate set adrift who feels lost, this will help you.

I’ve read a host of books about the dream life, the creative life, the twenty-something life, the productive life, the gritty life, the minimalist life, and any other book that might potentially give me the ultimate secret to finding my way. Almost every book I’ve read has given me some valuable nugget of wisdom. Slow down, everyone’s in the same boat, purpose is a by-product of pursuit, and many more. I could write a thousand blog posts about each grain of truth I’ve found.

But somehow I still feel like I’m wasting time. I’m twenty-five now. My twenties, the formative years, are half over. And I look at my dream of being an author and it still feels a decade off. I’VE WASTED TIME, I think in a panic. Only I haven’t. When I look back over my accomplishments in the last five years, they’re substantial (taught in Taiwan for a year, graduated university, moved to Korea fulfilling a dream, wrote and finished my first novel, started exercising, found amazing friends). Those are all good things that could not have happened any faster.

Now, on to the missing years. If you haven’t watched the video, here’s a brief summary. Culture, in the last few decades, has shifted to idolizing youth. Everything must happen when you’re young, including success and finding your life purpose. But that’s not how it is for the majority of people, and that’s not how it should be. Da Vinci, Van Gogh, and most other famous people had a period in their lives when they were just…working. Not famous, not making money, not necessarily even doing okay, just working. Da Vinci, hailed as the true renaissance man, had a period of time when he didn’t have a steady job and couldn’t really draw what he wanted. He worked a lot of bad jobs (sound familiar?) and kept sketching because he could. He just kept working on his craft even when it wasn’t paying the bills or wasn’t what he wanted to create.

Van Gogh, as we’re aware, lived a destitute life without fame. His work didn’t become well-regarded until much later.

Now ask yourself, if you knew that you would never be famous for what you love doing, whether that’s art, writing, or another creative pursuit, would you stop? If you were to become an Emily Dickinson, a recluse whose poems were only discovered after her death, would you still do it? Could you stop, really?

I asked myself that and realized I couldn’t. Even if I never make a dime off my writing, I’m still going to write.

So now, we come back to the missing years. I hate the idea of waiting. I hate the idea that I could publish ten books in the next ten years and maybe only the last one will get read widely. Maybe my writing career won’t take off until then, when I’m thirty-five or even forty-five. Would I stop writing now? The obvious answer is no. Of course not. If that were really the case, I’d bend down and start learning and practicing more.

But if we buy into the idea that we need to have instant success because we see others having it, we might throw everything away and relegate ourselves to a safe, secure, and ill-fitting career.

During the missing years, you have to keep working. Stop thinking about fame. It’s like the old adage of “love will kind you when you stop looking.” Fame will find you when you stop seeking it. Work hard, write or draw or whatever it is you do. Promote and market and hustle but let the result go. Don’t beat yourself up over low numbers. Build the habit of working hard. But never, ever stop.

Let those missing years guide you to your dream life, no matter how long it takes. I’m right there with you.


Video Series: Part 1 Part 2 Part 3