As I See It: Change in Plan
February 25, 2008 Victor Rozek
At some point, we all come face to face with the specter of limitation as time begins to pare down our options, awakening a dormant sense of urgency. It is, in part, a whimsical reminder that we’ll never become the major leaguer, or the astronaut, or the ballerina we once wanted to be. More bluntly, it is the humbling confirmation that we are not yet independently wealthy, are unlikely to win national acclaim, or have our book plugged by Oprah. It is the time when idealists discover that not only have they failed to save the world, they haven’t even changed it a smidgen. In short, it is a belated awareness that the path to happiness lies in a different direction.
The realization may come with losing a job, or getting passed over for promotion, or it may simply be the result of accumulated weariness from the repetition and predictability of daily life. But at some juncture people realize their lives may never get any better than they are at that moment, and the insight is unendurable.
At that point people get antsy. They have a sense that time is running out and that they have not yet lived the life they were meant to live. They react in ways which friends and family often find uncharacteristic. Timid people buy sports cars and motorcycles. Otherwise stable folks suddenly quit their jobs, have affairs, jettison their spouse, go off to find God, or forsake the God they’ve found. Others start new businesses, make bizarre career changes, work out fanatically, banish the grey from their hair and take up tango dancing, or cash out their IRAs to pay for a guided climb up Mt. Everest.
Until 1965, such behaviors were dismissed as being eccentric if not crazy; but that was when Elliott Jaques, a Canadian psychoanalyst coined a term that explained it all: “Midlife Crisis.” It is a time of life marked by dissatisfaction with what has already been achieved, and the longing for a fundamental shift. Everything is opened to question, and nothing makes the same sense it once did. All of a sudden, as Lincoln said: “The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present.”
There is some debate over what constitutes the “midlife,” but Carlo Strenger and Arie Ruttenberg writing in Harvard Business Review peg it at an age between 43 and 62–a time when you’re too old for American Idol and too young for Medicare.
Regardless, as we all march toward retirement, more and more of us will play out the dramas of our midlife crises which will inevitably disrupt the workplace in a variety of ways. Not the least of which, say the authors, is that “given current life expectancy, everybody in the company will leave at some point and begin a second life.”
Since one person’s unwanted job is the answer to another’s crisis, creating midlife job openings may not altogether be a bad thing. But before we all wander off to open rare book stores, or give scuba diving lessons in the Caribbean, Strenger and Ruttenberg suggest we take care to match our existing skills to our future aspirations. “The key is that [people] stay open to the range of possibilities their experience has actually qualified them for,” say the authors. Too many people have unrealistic expectations and make wild midlife leaps that create more problems than they solve.
There are, say the authors, two opposing midlife myths: First, that it is “the onset of decline.” The fear of imminent decay drives many to make decisions designed to prolong or recapture their youth. But the underlying issue is not how to remain a perpetual puer or puella, but how to remain productive in ways that provide maximum fulfillment. The authors note that the first half of our careers are typically fueled by what Maslow called “deficiency motivations.” We work to acquire what we believe we lack: money, material goods, a home, status, power, acclaim. But once those lower order wants are secured–usually by midlife–people turn to realizing their full potential, or at least doing something that feeds their spirit as well as their wallet.
In the past, the guarantee of pensions and paid health care was a strong incentive to play it safe. But conditions have changed, argue the authors, and staying put for too long is “bad risk management.” No corporation guarantees lifetime employment. Put off your midlife crisis too long, and you may find yourself in a perfect storm of procrastination–laid off without pension or health care, too young to retire, but too old to start over. Better, say the authors, to begin anew while you still have two or three decades of productive work ahead of you, giving you ample time to succeed in your second life.
There is, the authors argue, nothing inevitable about age 65 as the line of demarcation between generative and geriatric. The 65 age limit “was introduced as the retirement age in Germany in 1916,” say the authors. It also became the age at which Germans were eligible to collect their pensions. But Germany was neither displaying exceptional foresight nor was it exercising compassion toward its workforce. The life expectancy at the time was 49. In this century, half the people born in the new millennium are predicted to live to be 100. Given our longevity, midlife is more accurately a second beginning, an opportunity to rediscover who you are and what you really want; “your best and last chance to become the real you.”
The second myth “is the notion of midlife as some sort of magical transformation,” say Strenger and Ruttenberg. Self-help books notwithstanding, no one at any age has limitless possibilities. It is only a lack of knowledge and experience which makes possibilities look greater than they are. Just because we want it, doesn’t mean we’ll get it, argue the authors. “The myth of magical transformation through vision and willpower fails the test of everyday experience.” Success is more likely if you build on the skills you already possess. If you’re a programmer but your love is theatre, you may not be qualified to act on stage, but you could write software to manage a theatre company’s ticket sales. Or, as a project manager, you could become the company’s business manager.
By midlife you’ve already discovered whether you prefer working alone or in groups; whether your talents are technical or people oriented. Applying your natural preferences and skills to new challenges bridges the chasm between illusion and reality. As Strenger and Ruttenberg note: “To be productive, dreams must be connected to our potential. Otherwise, they are idle fantasies.”
My own midlife crisis came early, before I turned 40. It was as if my life became a pair of pants that no longer fit comfortably, and I took them, turned them upside down, shook out everything that was valuable, then discarded them and never looked back. In a relatively short time, I moved to a new state (not easy to do without pants), started two completely new careers, got married for the first and only time, and bought my first home. My choice of careers–writing and personal and professional coaching–however, had little to do with the skills formerly required of a systems engineer. I didn’t, as the authors suggest, match my second life to my job skills, as much as I developed the skills I needed to match my passion.
Yes, there was plenty of fear and anxiety. It’s hard, as the authors suggest, to leave something that gives you “status, income, and security,” which working for IBM certainly did for me. Initially, I took a huge pay cut, and living with financial uncertainty was challenging. But the gift of becoming independent and self-directed–in Joseph Campbell’s words, of following my bliss–was the greatest gift I could have possibly given myself.
“We often,” say the authors, “feel like butterflies confined by the cocoon of our real lives, waiting to be released.”
But butterflies don’t enter the cocoon as butterflies; they enter as caterpillars. And in order to transform, they quite literally liquify; losing all trace of their former identity before claiming their intended shape. In the words of poet Kim Rosen, “congealing in impossible darkness, the sheer inevitability of wings.”