Why ‘Odyssey Years’ Could Be The Key To Avoiding An Existential Crisis In Your 20s

I can't really remember a time when I haven't panicked about what I'm doing with my life. The first huge moment came after I finished high school. I enrolled myself into a social work degree, only to drop out a semester later. It just wasn't something I could see myself doing for the rest of my life. I went and tried a nursing degree, only to find the same problem. It felt impossible to make such a huge decision about what career I would choose for the rest of my life, especially when I was only 19.
Most recently, I had a sobering realisation at a birthday dinner that I was a thirteenth wheel — a great feat, even by my standards. I was 29, dateless, and living at home, all while my friends were getting married and buying houses. When you're surrounded by those kinds of life events, it's hard not to feel like you've gone wrong somewhere... aaand cue existential crisis #7939.
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It's not a new concept by any means. Women especially feel a disproportionate amount of stress especially when ageing is involved. Meet the love of your life at 25, marry them at 30, children at 32 before your eggs shrivel up (but all before you've managed to buy a home). And if you're not coupled up, you should have, at the very least, some sick travel or dating stories.
I have none.
Adulthood is hard. And the gap between adolescence and adulthood is even harder. In the last six months, I've tried to embrace the chaos and almost-failure of my late 20s. But turns out, there's a real, sociological name for this feeling so many of us are having — Odyssey Years.

What Are 'Odyssey Years'?

I first stumbled across the concept of Odyssey Years on, yep, you guessed it, TikTok. And whilst it may have been popularised by TikTok, the concept of Odyssey Years isn't new by any means. When you hear the word 'life phases', you probably automatically go to something like this — childhood, adolescence, adulthood, and old age. But in recent years, this has been updated. Sociologists now argue that there are six distinct life phases — childhood, adolescence, odyssey, adulthood, active retirement and old age. Of these, the odyssey years may be the least understood.
Historically speaking, the term was coined in David Brooks' 2011 book, The Social Animal. According to Brooks, "Odyssey is the decade of wandering that occurs between adolescence and adulthood", usually between the ages of 20 and 35. It centres on the idea that exploring is just as important as settling down. That people should use these key years to adventure, try things out, and fail (time and time again). It's about engaging with the world for the first time, learning about other cultures, discovering what skills and interests you have, and experimenting with potential job prospects. In short, it's about discovering yourself.
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@cecexie

there’s a free course on edX, called “odyssey planning,” on how to design these odyssey years

♬ original sound - cece

What Is 'Odyssey Planning'?

In her TikTok, @cecexie discusses this. A quick scroll through the comment section reveals hundreds of other people who are feeling 'stuck', going through career changes, or feeling burnt out. She also spruces the concept of 'Odyssey Planning'.
Odyssey Planning is the concept of brainstorming what your life might look like five or ten years down the track. Stanford Life Design Lab says that it's all about coming up with ideas of how to make your life rich and fulfilling. It's not a set five-year plan, rather it's the act of coming up with multiple ideas to help embrace that transition period of your life. They argue that you can use Odyssey Planning to help you figure out what might be next, especially if you're feeling stuck. Bill Burnett, Director of the Stanford University program argues that "If you plan for nothing, you're going to get nothing."

The Problem With Life Design

If Odyssey Years made me feel validated in all those weird, yucky feelings I was having, then Odyssey Planning made me feel like I had to immediately go into problem-solving mode to fix them. There are suggested scenarios for when you should use an Odyssey Plan — when you're facing a lot of change, graduating from university, or wanting to change your job or career.
But there's little discussion around actually embracing these problems and feelings that we're having. If we're immediately jumping into problem-solving mode, are we really getting to the root cause of our problem? Can a new career really fix that unfulfilling feeling of emptiness inside?
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It shouldn't be about optimising your Odyssey Years. It should be about normalising the messiness and grittiness that comes with your 20s.

Alexandra Koster
When I was 19, sitting on three unfinished university degrees, I decided to do something radical. I went and studied a Bachelor of Arts, not because I was hoping for some wild career change, but because I just liked it. Let me be clear — the idea of studying something just because you like it isn't a wild concept, but it's also something we're not told to do enough. I accepted that I probably wouldn't get a job and decided that it was worth it, even if I would just learn about anthropomorphism, diasporic cinema, or ancient Greek history (which I failed, by the way).
And whilst I did go home after that birthday dinner and cried myself to sleep, I woke up the next day knowing that there's nothing wrong with me — that it's nice to be alone and it's just another adventure I'm having.
After years of worrying if I was doing life wrong, whether that was my relationships, career, or the fact that I still live with my Mum, some of the most empowering stuff hasn't been in how to life plan and get out of my situations. It's been recognising that there's an entire generation of people who are going through the exact same crisis as I am. Maybe it's time we embrace that.

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