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  • helenjbutler

Mid career crisis, anyone?

You’ve spent the last 15 odd years building a career that you actually feel proud of. On the whole, you like your job, and the people you work with (mainly). You have some really good relationships. You might have kids and a nice house in a good town. But somehow you still feel a bit ‘empty’ and even (*whisper it*) bored. It feels like your life is mapped out before you in a steady stream of small accomplishments, and the thought of repeating every day over and over again like this for the next 20 years leaves you feeling exhausted and uninspired. Is this the time to make some big changes?

Well, it might be, but not necessarily. Studies have found that ages 37-47 are right at the bottom of the ‘U’ curve for happiness. It’s when we may feel that our life course is now determined by past events, so our choices are withering away like our bodies. It’s when our time is in huge demand – from our work, our families, our ageing parents… They all want a greater and greater piece of us and our days are filled with things we have to do.

At this age, it’s common to feel a sense of nostalgia for the lives you could have had, regret for the missed opportunities and claustrophobia because you feel like your choices are now limited. You’ve spent nearly 20 years on a path, which means that you’re never going to be a doctor, or an astronaut, or an athlete (even if those things were never seriously on the table for you anyway). There’s a certain element of loss that we all face when we reach these years. Even if the decisions you’ve made have largely been the right ones, they still inevitably meant that you sacrificed something, however happy or unhappy you were to do that at the time.

Added to all this is the severe FOMO that nearly all of us experience these days with our super connected worlds. There seem to be endless career and life possibilities, and so the natural response to all that is ‘why am I doing this then’? It’s a strange contradiction: how can you be doing something that’s meaningful and yet still feel like something’s missing?

But, it’s not all doom and gloom. I said it was a U curve, right? So things will get better, and this period is an opportunity to reinvent yourself in as big or small a way as you want to. There are some things you can do to work out if this is just the usual mid life malaise that most people are affected by (and ease it), or if you really should be making some big changes.

This post is heavily indebted to a Harvard Business Review podcast with Kieran Setiya, who is a Professor of Philosophy at MIT. He’s written a book called Midlife: A Philosophical Guide which chronicles his attempts to come to terms with this midlife malaise. Both are worth checking out if this is resonating with you. To summarise his approach (in a rather extreme way, sorry), this is what you can do:

  1. It’s easy to dream about alternate worlds, but those are not granular. It’s the specifics of your life that matter – the relationships you’ve built, the experiences you’ve had. All the things you have an emotional connection with. Remind yourself of those and it will immediately reframe your story.

  2. If you’re too focused on completable goals then satisfaction is pretty much always either in the future, or in the past, and so to some degree you’re sacrificing your present. When your goal is done you simply move on to the next one. Obviously, we all have a lot to do and it goes against my very instinct as a coach to say this, but why don’t you re-think some of these goals to be non-exhaustible ones. For instance, instead of being focused on getting the kids to bed, focus on being a good parent. Instead of being sharp focused on writing a funding proposal, focus on the kind of company you want to build. Do something for yourself now and again that doesn’t have any productive outcome, even if it’s just a walk in the sunshine. And I know you don’t want to hear this, but mindfulness is the key to breaking free of this. Be present in the moment and life is just, well, better.

  3. How much of what you do every day is all about neutralising problems? In the book, Setiya divides our actions into ones that have ‘ameliorative’ value (you take something unsatisfactory, and make it better) and actions that have ‘existential’ value (things that are positively worth doing themselves). If you classify what you do in a typical day into these two columns, what do you find? If they’re heavily weighted into the first column then have a think about the blue sky projects you’ve had on ice for a while: how could you take those forward?

If after all this, you still feel like you’re in the wrong job, or the wrong relationship, or whatever, then of course, take action. At age 40 you are likely to still have 25 years of work ahead of you and over 30 years of life. It’s not too late to be whoever you want to be, even if that person turns out to be you.

If you’re looking for a fresh perspective and tried and tested processes to clarify your thinking, please get in touch.

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