How to Survive a Mid-Life Crisis!
and lead a truly happy life
By Wayne Parkes
"The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy."
Dr Martin Luther King Jr.
FACINGa career change doesn’t compare to dealing with a full blown,mid-life crisis. Nor is it as easily understood. Because whoever owns the crisis – you or someone else – faces distorting emotions, conflict and anxiety.Andside-steppingreactiveand vulnerable work colleaguesis impossible!
Psychologists often talk about sucha crisis in terms of work-life balance, under or over-employment, and dreams vs achievements and while manypeoplesail through their mid-career years hardly noticing any change, some others are deeply conflicted – changing not just their job but friendships, partner, career, even relocating to a South Seas island or ending up in a prison of their own making.
The key to understanding mid-career, mid-life, or even the 5-year dilemmas of Gen Y (in fact, any kind of life crisis) is to appreciate that most people embrace the values of their parents – directly and indirectly – and spend much of their working lives living up to their expectations. Meeting, or failing to meet these unconscious imperativesand how you deal with the ‘crisis’when it arrivesgoes a long way to determining happinessin life and career.Let’s have a closer look …
The mid-career crisis occurs when the unconscious expectations of ‘success’imbued in early life is achieved or lost. Success can be defined here as marginally out-performing your parents in terms of income, influence and status midway through your working life, taking in to account the natural growth from one generation to another.
Success at this point is measured by some discerniblemarker event or signifying achievement. Or a series of related events. Although there is no strict timetable this often occurs in late 30s or early 40s, or nearingtheir parent’s age, when - exiting puberty –they see their parents (and their place in society) as an adultfor the first time. Thereby unconsciously implanting images of how success might look like for themselves.
An event (which can trigger the crisis) may be positive or negative. Positive marker events – signaling success, or winning (according to your script)– can be attaining the title of‘Chief Executive’, ‘Partner’, or ‘Professor’; buying a house in an up-market suburb; paying off the mortgage; securing yourchildren a prestigious, private school education; starting a business; being published; or becoming Club President. Negative eventsare the opposite of course, and being marked as a “failure”are consequently often accompanied by plunging emotions, feelings of inadequacy and fearfulness.
Winning and Losing:
Listen carefully when people talk about realising their goals, and you will find winners and losers. Winners proudly say “I was made Manager before I turned 30”, losers complain about ‘missing out’ or being ‘victimized’. And a 3rd group also appears - ‘Almosts.’ Almosts get close to their objective but don’t quite make it. They say “I almost got to be a manager but the company got taken over” or sometimes they say “at least I got to be the Acting CEO for 6 months”.
Winning or losing also explains why many executives begin to question their choices mid-career and wrestle with questions like starting their own business, moving to a more exciting (or safer) ‘industry’ or doing more study.
Prompting such questions might be a disrupting call from a headhunter, the imminent prospect of a younger boss, disillusionment withthecorporate lifestyle (and an expanding waistline), an exhausting travel schedule, or the endinga run of fat bonuses.There is also a dawning realisation that from now on there may be fewer opportunities on offer, and dimmer prospects.
Burnout is closely associated with the mid-career crisis and winning or losing. Winners, Losers and ‘Almosts’can all suffer burnout! Many Winners, having fulfilled the unconscious programming of their parents simply don’t know what to do next; they feel lost, directionless and crave a repeat of past success – where the way forward once seemed clear. Today this is evident by the number of internet millionaires who, having built a successful business, sell and set out to do it all over again. Nothing new in this by the way - it has always been so!
Losers often find the effort of pursuing their goals too much and give-up by quitting or dropping-out. Others battle on complaining to anyone who listens, but without a deeper understanding and reassessment of their goals, are doomed to continue unhappilyto the point of becoming ill (physically or psychologically) and only marginally employable.Still others sabotage their careers in order to start again, often in another city or country.
Burnoutoften takes a deep toll on personal and professional relationships.Losing direction erodesconfidence, status and lifestyleadding pressure to fragile marriages of any kind,contributing tobreakdownand accelerating the downward spiral.
The Identity Crisis:
An Identity crisis happens when people get trapped in to pursuing the wrong roleand acting out someone else’sdreams (their parents, grandparents, or aninfluential figure from their youth such as a coach, teacher, or mentor). So strong is the inner voice that they live the life someone else wanted for them, rather than find (and therefore live) their own.
Some ICs continue to pursue roles envisaged for them that may have long disappeared (along with the travelling salesman). By 30 they seem somehow ‘old’. Owners of this kind of ICmay be easily spotted: they are late adapters, avoiding new technology, social media, and mobile phones if they can; and their tastes, music and interests seem (and often do) belong to a past generation.
Someothers aremuch less obvious: because even though they know in their hearts that they are trapped (somethingtheyrigorously deny), they find it impossible to escape the incredibly strong power of parental programming that holds them there.
The Mid-life Crisis:
The mid-life crisis usually occurs somewhat later. Like the MCC this too can triggered by many things: being ‘overtaken’ by one’s more powerful children, the noticeable aging (or the passing) of parents, a premature but age relatedphysical injury (e.g. a hip replacement) or the outstandingly notable success of peers (who may be invited to join prestigious Boards)or critically, facing the ignominy of redundancy or retrenchment.
All at once there is a glimpse of mortality and the realisation that there is an end to the tunnel to add to the melancholy of burnout and identity issues! And in spite of many past successes and minimalfailures, the MLC acts asa forceful reminder thatsome dreams and potential may never be realised. Amidst a wave of emotions and sometimes great turmoil,comes a creeping fear of lost opportunity and a life squandered.
Survivingacrisis Mid-careermight beeasier resolved than laterMid-lifeissues which sometimes require specialist counselling. But it is not straightforwardeither because half your working life is over and it is difficult to do after making that kind of commitment! But if you resolve to do something,anything, however difficult, it means revisiting, then renegotiating the contract you made before youembarked on the journey.
Besides, the key to survival lies not in buying a red Ferrari,finding a much younger companionnor by viewing the problem through the bottom of a glass, or the haze of chemicals.In fact making any radical career change in hope of reincarnatingone’s oldself can be pretty pointless and lead to deeper despair –although far less hiding away from the real world. No, survival is only made more possible by:
(i) looking deep inside and discovering the unconscious goals and motivations created in your past
(ii) then working out your own unique personal talents and special skills, and finally
(iii) determining how these might be applied to the future.Not at all easy to do – but by no means impossible either! There are a number of smart techniques and tools around to help the discovery process.
If you can achieve this, you will see a lifeand career lying ahead without the unknown hurdles that causeadversity. A future based upon your own conscious, rational and autonomous choices, not someone else’s. You may even turn a dream that was impossible to achieveinto a series of daily pleasuresand profound satisfaction.