It is inevitable that midlifers will want to make some changes in their lives. This is a natural consequence of living a life.
(Below is the edited version of the podcast episode. It follows the episode closely, but not word for word.)
I used to think that a midlife crisis was this ridiculous thing that happened to people when they reach a certain age.
The usual representative midlife crisis story was a middle-aged man who suddenly realizes he’s getting older, decides he doesn’t want his life as it is anymore, divorces his wife, gets together with a much younger woman, and maybe buys himself a Harley or some expensive sports car. Bonus points if he pierces his ears or gets a new tattoo.
Funnily enough, I don’t remember a female version of this ridiculous midlife crisis story, but I’m sure there is one.
Now that I’m in midlife, I realize that this representation is even more ridiculous than I had thought previously.
First, it’s ridiculous because while this scenario has likely happened many times over, there are a thousand more stories of midlife change that do not come anywhere close to such a caricature.
Second, anyone who’s considering or going through a midlife change isn’t necessarily having a midlife crisis. I would say that most of the time, they’re not feeling like they’re in a crisis.
Third, to equate the desire for a midlife change with a negative connotation — a crisis — is a gross misrepresentation of what’s truly going on. And this negative image is often the reason people dismiss a potential opportunity for a meaningful transformation because they don’t want to be seen as having a midlife crisis.
But where did this idea of midlife crisis even come from?
We can thank a guy named Elliot Jaques, a Canadian psychoanalyst who in 1965 — when he was 48 — wrote a paper wherein he coined the phrase “midlife crisis”.
In his paper entitled “Death and the Midlife Crisis“, Jaques wrote that midlife is the period when we come “face to face with our limitations, our restricted possibilities, and our mortality.”
The funny thing is Jaques himself did not appear to have faced limitations or restricted possibilities. Between the time he wrote that paper at 48 and his death at the age of 86, he wrote and published 12 books; he consulted with a wide variety of companies, including the U.S. Army and the Church of England; he married Kathryn Cason with whom he founded a consulting company devoted to the dissemination of their ideas.
What restricted possibilities, you may ask!
Jaques’ idea of midlife crisis stuck around, but really, it was the book written by Gail Sheey in 1977 called “Passages: Predictable Crises of Adult Life” that cemented it in the public’s consciousness.
After Sheehy’s book was published, everybody seemed to be having a midlife crisis. (Source: The Philosophy of the Midlife Crisis)
And ever since then, we have come to accept this idea that anyone going through a period of soul-searching and re-evaluating their career, their relationships or their life in general — and if that person happens to be over 40 years old — is having a midlife crisis.
If I have a list of pet peeves on midlife topics, this is definitely in the Top 5.
This is not to say that a true crisis situation never happens in midlife.
Of course, there are situations and events that merit the use of the word crisis
There are mental or health scares that could turn into health crises. We may be faced with a sudden financial crisis that could knock us off our game. An unexpected problem in our close relationships could become a family crisis and a major life event.
But labeling a period when we’re unsure about things — when we’re asking ourselves questions about our lifestyle, our career, our choices, and our relationships — I don’t think it’s fair to make it seem like we’re having a midlife crisis.
Questioning, evaluating, pivots, and transitions — these are normal, natural parts of living our lives.
And they don’t only happen in midlife. They happen all throughout our lives. No doubt, you’ve had periods of time when you were younger and felt unsure of the way things were going, and you asked yourself big questions too.
So, let’s stop calling them midlife crises. Let’s never use the phrase midlife crisis unless we are referring to an event that truly warrants the phrase.
The Existential Necessity of Midlife Change
This Harvard Business Review article examines midlife change within the context of our careers.
As life expectancy increases, changes in middle age will become an existential necessity for many businesspeople. Some of these changes will be internally driven. Executives may feel that their work is no longer satisfying and that they want new challenges, for instance, or they may decide that it’s time to branch out. Other midlife changes will be triggered by external events: A CEO may face an irresolvable conflict with the board of directors; an executive may fear being fired; a manager may have been passed over for promotion and think that his chances of ever reaching the next level are slim. Whether a person goes willingly—or is pushed out—some midlife change is inevitable.
But the main point it makes — that as we live longer lives, changes in midlife will become a necessity — is true and applicable across other areas of our lives.
I would even go so far as to say midlife IS a call to action to re-evaluate, to make some changes, to re-align how we live with our values and with the vision we have of ourselves.
And if we’re not doing that, if we’re staying with the same-old, same-old, we’re not growing and we’re going stale.
That may sound harsh to some.
Think about it. Even the most expensive pianos in the world require tuning or they will begin to go off-pitch. Regular tuning is recommended and especially when the piano undergoes a change in humidity, temperature, or location! Imagine that. And not just pianos. Even the most expensive watches require service. Same goes with cars.
These are all complicated things with lots of moving parts that can go askew and off-kilter and needs re-alignment.
And so do we. We need a re-alignment.
It is inevitable that, at some point, midlifers will want to make some changes in their lives. That is a natural consequence of living a life.
We grow, we experience different things, our viewpoints change, we develop different opinions, we outgrow certain things and grow fonder of others. We move around and get exposed to new possibilities. And yes, we grow older, and some parts of our bodies don’t work the way they used to. All these means can lead us to want to change some aspects of our lives.
That’s why I say Midlife IS a call to action.
You may say, “But I’m happy with my life already.” Which is great and awesome, and I’m happy that you’re happy.
But I believe that we can be happy and content AND still strive to improve and get better.
Happiness and wanting to change for the better are not mutually exclusive.
I don’t believe that there is ever a point where “we’ve arrived at our final destination,” and we’re done growing. As they say, we are all works-in-progress and always on our way to becoming, whether we are actively aware of it or not.
And wanting to change for the better does not a midlife crisis make.