If you’re asking big questions about the meaning of life and the purpose of your very existence, you are likely experiencing an existential crisis. What does that mean for your career? Will it be damaged or can you actually use this time of questioning and self-examination to better your career?
What exactly is an existential crisis?
Forget the philosophical movement of existentialism and the great thinkers, like Heidegger and Sartre, associated with it. For our purposes, let’s use the pop culture definition from dictionary.com, which says an existential crisis is “a psychological episode in which a person questions the meaning of their life and of existence itself.”
It’s a time when you’re feeling a little empty inside, questioning your place and purpose in life and what defines you as a human being. It can happen at any age—and it can happen more than once. Episodes can be triggered by significant life events, like meaningful birthdays or the death of a loved one. But there doesn’t have to be an identifiable reason at all for an existential crisis to occur.
Can an existential crisis affect your career?
Yes. Not only can it damage your career; an existential crisis can wreak havoc with your personal relationships and home life.
While it’s not anxiety or depression, an existential crisis can certainly cause depression and anxiety. So, people in the middle of an existential crisis might start withdrawing and disconnecting from people at work and at home, harming previously healthy relationships. They can become dissatisfied with their lives and bored with their jobs, leading to poor performance at work and even to quitting or early retirement.
If you’ve decided that your work has no meaning, going to the office every day pretty quickly turns into drudgery. Creativity may stagnate and you may experience a complete sense of hopelessness that things will ever improve.
Each existential crisis is unique
Just as an existential crisis can be triggered by a specific event (or none at all), it can be related to a person’s age and level of success in their career (or not).
Kieran Setiya, a professor of philosophy at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and author of the book Midlife: A Philosophical Guide, described his own existential crisis, which came about in the guise of a midlife crisis.
“I was doing what I loved, and yet the prospect of doing more of it, week after week, year after year, began to feel oppressive,” he wrote. “I would finish the paper I was writing; I would get it published; I would write another. I would teach this crop of students; they would graduate and move on; more would come along. My career stretched before me like a tunnel.”
A neurologist says she has experienced existential crises more than once. In her video, neurogal explains that her work triggers questions about the nature of reality and the purpose of life: “Where do we fit into the grand master plan? Do our lives serve some higher meaning or are we just here?”
She’s thought a lot about the nature of consciousness: Science says it’s our brains that allow us to be conscious; once we die, that consciousness ceases to exist. But there’s also the dualist theory that says the soul is separate from the physical body. After years of working with the brain, neurogal leans to the physicalist point of view. That’s because she says she’s seen what happens to people when parts of their brains die and they move into different states of consciousness.
If neurogal were in a different line of work, would she experience existential crises at all or so many? Probably, although they might not be so specific to the brain and consciousness. Research has shown that “persons of higher intellectual ability are more prone to experience existential depression spontaneously.”
How to overcome and use an existential crisis to better your career
Questioning one’s raison d'être is not all doom and gloom. In fact, it can be healthy and much more fulfilling than sleepwalking through life. Discovering what is meaningful to you can actually provide you with direction in your career.
Simple self-care may help you overcome a period of existential angst, although if you’ve spiralled into a clinical depression or are experiencing crippling anxiety or panic attacks, you should seek professional treatment.
Otherwise, talking about how you feel with a trusted friend or loved one can be helpful; you may be surprised that you’re not alone in your musings. If you’re questioning the big picture meaning of your life, do something of immediate value, like volunteering in your community. Similarly, reframe questions so answers become something you can act on. Instead of asking where you fit into existence, for example, ask how you can add value to your life.
Practice living mindfully whenever possible. Mindful living increases appreciation for what is good in your life now and enhances engagement in the moment. A gratitude journal can help you focus on the present. The more specific you are (what is an old relationship you’re grateful for?), the more you’ll get out of it, writes Kevin Evans at Intelligent Change.
The impact on your career by finding what is truly meaningful to you in life can be stunning. A survey of 1,200 American adults by professors Clay Routledge and Jon Bitzan conducted at the Chaley Institute for Global Innovation and Growth found that respondents who were “the most energized, confident, and goal-focused of them all also believe they have the ability to live meaningful lives.”