It’s too much of a cliché really, the sun-glassed ageing dude in the cool sports car. Some smile at the sight, others cringe depending on how close to home the image strikes, but we all know what’s up. The mid-life crisis. Here’s my take on it.
The typical path to growing up is strewn with external prompts and cues. Everyone seems to know what we need to be doing. First orders come from parents, teachers and peers, then the ‘needs’ of life take over. Get a job. Get an education. Get a girl (or guy). Get a better job because you want your own place. Got the girl? Good, now get ahead because soon you’ll get a mortgage. Then you’ll get the wee gifts from the stork. So much getting.
All that stuff is very appropriate and of course there’s lots of fun along the way. Yet there’s also plenty to learn about other than spreadsheets and designer coffees. Adult developmental psychology is an interesting study and good to arm yourself with as preparation for your future. It’s a bit of a gloss over, but in a nutshell the 20s are meant for cruising into the world and piecing together a personality that fits you. Take it slow, watch and learn, broaden your mind, get to know yourself and have fun. Keep cool and don’t listen to those old harpies going on about a career path and working hard. Grow yourself up your own way.
It’s the 30s that are designed for stretching your muscles. We do this by wrestling the things of the world into a shape we can master. We are testing the limits of our worldly self. Be as busy as you like and as clever as you can. You’re built for it at this stage. But let’s not keep that going into the mid-40s or you just might end up with that little ripper of a sports car (and not much else going for you).
One hurdle to leap over is our view of ageing. The east had (has?) a tradition of honouring the aged, but we in the west so glorify beauty and productivity that ageing looks like little more than losing our attractive edge combined with the dimming of our faculties, moving in quarter time and bits sliding south. What we don’t know before we get there is the inner richness that can deepen our later lives and make it oh so much more delicious than those earlier strident years.
Without a model for what growing old means we resist going there. In a society built around beauty and having things, success just goes on being more and more things. Bigger and better homes, more expensive holidays, little sports cars, flexing even bigger muscles at work (really?!). And we can go to absurd measures to hang onto those looks because that’s what gets us the kudos — still taking our cues from outside ourselves.
But here’s the dirty little secret — in the forties the path turns inward. All your healthy development is now tied up with how well you connect with your highest ideals and deepest drives. To do that you really want to get to know yourself. Stop taking your lead from outside yourself. Just get the stuff you really need. Let go of that workplace warrior. Take a few risks. Be bold and unconventional. Build meaningful bridges to other people. Start doing the things you love to do. (And you might need to develop a bit of courage to see you through).
Oh, and make sure your emotional intelligence is honed and get really clear about your values and higher order ideals (and act on them). As the Desiderata reminds us, go placidly amid the noise and haste.
Godspeed.More on Workplace Warriors and other Archetypes