The Reality Of Midlife Crisis & The Possibilities For Breakthrough
With transformational work, we can consciously turn midlife from a time of relentless pressure into the most (re)generative period of our careers
Leadership In Midlife
Approaching my 50s, I am pertinently aware of the immense emotional, physical, and practical challenges of middle-age and midlife. These are even more intense for transformational leaders—who have to grapple with their own turbulent emotional and mental landscapes—and seemingly diminishing body strength—right at the time they have to show up as the most inspirational, committed, and influential versions of themselves for their reports, teams, investors, shareholders, and partners.
This is whilst leading our projects and organizations through the encroaching storms of accelerated climate change (and pollution, global weirding etc.), worsening inequality, relentlessly disruptive technologies, seismic generational changes, and interminable culture wars. Not to mention a pandemic, supply chain meltdowns, and much more. Our employees, reports, collaborators, suppliers, vendors are all looking to us to provide, protect, and lead lasting, necessary, and successful change (AKA transformation) to ensure our organization fits the future—and doesn’t fail it.
Whilst we are helping others navigate the ruthless changes in the outside world, we also have to navigate through the rapid changes in our inner life: during our 40s and 50, we will go through the full realization that we are no longer the cool young kids on the block. Our kids, if we have them, will be embarrassed by us at some point. Our co-workers will think we are dinosaurs, no matter the trendy togs we might wear. We will realize, in one Zoom meeting or another, that we are no longer the smartest person in the room (if ever we were).
Reading glasses might be needed. Backaches, sore muscles, cognitive decline, joint pain may all begin to be far more apparent. We will probably struggle to stay fit and/or return to fitness if/when we lose it. We will start to lose friends—from conflict or death—and this will become more and more regular. Our own mortality and morbidity will loom up into our awareness. Divorce may unfold (or has already). Our parents and community elders may be increasingly demanding, emotionally and practically. They may be sick, need to be moved into a care home, struggling with disease, or dying.
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Midlife Crisis Is Not What You Think
Above all these huge psychological and emotional challenges, in midlife we have to come fully to terms with what we have not yet achieved; and what we are unlikely ever to achieve.
This can be existentially agonizing for many, if not most. The sheer volume and intensity of disappointment (that we have not got to where we wanted), disillusion (life, other people/the world wasn’t as good as we thought it would be), pessimism (things won’t now change much for us anymore), and despair (the world is truly *%£$ed) can be utterly crushing.
Cue the seemingly inevitable midlife crisis.
Nobody I have ever met has sailed through midlife without a “crisis”. Virtually everyone I have worked with—in leadership development, coaching, collaboration—has spoken of harsh and intense challenges. Judging by the leaders I support, midlife crises rarely come in the cliched Lamborghini / Toy Boy / extramarital affair versions.
Even those who seem radically successful—like this prize-winning journalist—can feel overwhelmed by the seemingly endless doubt and despair.
Everyday Signs Of Midlife Crisis
Instead, there are myriad and quotidian variations of Midlife Crisis—intense experiences of doubt and struggle about life’s purpose, value, and meaning—that are far more likely to happen. For example:
- Grinding low-grade dissatisfaction—even with seeming outward success
- Becoming disgruntled and disagreeable—and finding lots of people irritating
- Ruminating about the things you could have done/should have done
- Regrets about lost opportunities or near-misses in earlier career moments
- Cruising Facebook or LinkedIn to see how college friends or old colleagues have faired in the rat race
- Lusting after sexier job titles
- Checking the ages of famous and successful people—and not being pleased they are younger
- Creativity-crushing cynicism or innovation-crushing know-it-all-ness
- Needing to be the smartest in the room
- Demanding that juniors/consultants/vendors show deference
- Seeking out hip clothes and the latest bars
- Wanting to be invited to drinks by employees
- Wanting to be found attractive by employees and/or babysitters
- Addiction to high-adrenaline or endorphin activities
- Avoiding community duties and familial commitments (with golf, DJing etc.)
- Climate change despair or denial
- Being needlessly provocative and/or politically-polarizing
- Being endlessly flirtatious
- Relentless overworking—always *too busy* to be responsive
- Consistently feeling sidetracked at work
- Share-price and/or cypto-currency obsessions
- Late-night poker/porn/true crime habits
- Thinking “If only I was at Google / Tesla / X I would be seen for my genius”
- Thinking “If only I was CEO / CFO / SVP Strategy I would be happy”
The Nadir of Happiness Is In Our 40s-50s
You are not alone.
Research shows that middle-age is the period where unhappiness peaks (before rising again in our 50s and beyond). This is the Happiness U-Curve, made popular by the economist David Blanchflower.
The trough of our wellbeing—life’s darkest nadir— is around age 47 (my age right now!). Blanchflower just published a paper that shows that, in Europe, the nadir was around 40 in the 1970s and is rising to over 50 today.
If all else is equal, it may be more difficult to feel satisfied with your life in middle age than at other times. Blanchflower and Oswald have found that, statistically speaking, going from age 20 to age 45 entails a loss of happiness equivalent to one-third the effect of involuntary unemployment.
This explains why middle-aged men are more likely to die by suicide than any other age group. Antidepressant use peaks in this age group. Opiate addiction in the over-40s has tripled in just over a decade. Check this out from the UK’s ONS that shows the age of addiction getting later; and numbers getting far larger:
Encumbered by dependents younger than us, and often those older than us too, life can feel like a grim endurance test to make ends meet… and not have a heart attack or panic attack in the process. It can feel like every ounce of our energy, itself likely starting to fade, goes out towards others… and precious little of it is reserved for our own needs.
This is when the Ferrari/Tesla seems like a great idea. Or the 2nd/3rd house. Or the golf trips. Or just some kind of intense experience or drug to blot out the agony.
But it doesn’t have to be this way.
A “crisis” means a turning point in the original Greek. One of the key transformational insights we teach is that every crisis can be metabolized into growth at our “leadership edge”. If we can pause, take stock, and use our meta-cognition to explore the deeper meaning of the crisis, we will always discover a leadership upgrade available to us.
Erik Erikson’s 7th Stage Of Development: Stagnation vs. (Re)Generativity
A psychologist I have learned much from, Erik Erikson, talked about middle age—and the midlife crises that can so easily derail us, our organizations, and our families—being a period of huge importance. After all, we can no longer claim to be ignorant youths at this august age. Middle age is the 7th of his 8 stages of development. It is the longest of all his stages—and the one within which we get to leave a legacy (of some kind, planned or not).
In each of his stages—which are not evidence-based truths but useful lenses for our leadership development and maturity—we have to reconcile seemingly opposing polarities of development. For example, as younger adults in our 20s and 30s, we have to find a way to become intimate with others—even though such vulnerability and commitment can be terrifying—and the seeming opposite of the independence we strive for. If we don’t, we will become lonely and isolated and this will delay our adult development as a whole.
In our 40s and 50s, however, we must find a way to resolve another tension: between generativity and stagnation. We have to choose between emotional and mental stasis and willingly undergoing a transformation into becoming what Eriskon calls generative.
Generativity reflects not simply productivity but the interplay of internal needs with connections to society that leads to concern for and active nurturance of a new generation.
Generativity is a function of heartfelt care—not charity, duty, wealth, status, or intelligence. It requires us to expand how much, and how deeply, we care about the world, our loved ones, and—ultimately—ourselves.
Research bears out the value of such a seismic shift in our priorities. The epic Harvard Study of Adult Development, I believe the longest-running research program on human development, shows that by the time we are in late life, aged 80 or so:
Close relationships, more than money or fame, are what keep people happy throughout their lives, the study revealed. Those ties protect people from life’s discontents, help to delay mental and physical decline, and are better predictors of long and happy lives than social class, IQ, or even genes. That finding proved true across the board among both the Harvard men and the inner-city participants.
From Generative Human to Regenerative Systems
Given that we are currently in the middle of a complex, multi-layered crisis—with climate change, inequality, (culture) wars, and ill-health shaking up our entire planet—we can evolve Erikson’s generativity into regenerativity.
I summarize regenerative thinking as “leaving the world better” with our careers, projects, and enterprises. If you’re interested, I have written extensively on regenerative business, technology, and systemic change. E.g.
Erikson’s insights suggest that, in midlife, we have to either focus our energies on finding deeper meaning and purpose so that we start to generate and regenerate our world; or we will be hit by a massive and sustained midlife crisis. Even if our careers seem great, if they are focused on old drivers of motivation like power, prestige, and profit, our evolution will be stunted. Our consciousness will stagnate. Cue midlife crisis and the nadir of happiness.
Middle-Age As The Start of An Expansive & Exhilarating “2nd Half of Life”
If we heed this developmental rite of passage consciously—as transformational leaders of our own lives and careers—our 40s and 50s can be the exhilarating start point of the 2nd Half of Life. Equipped with our hard-earned insights, we can focus on deepening our embodied wisdom so we can show up with presence, gravitas, and power needed to care about others; and our world. This caring—another term for leadership purpose—becomes the red-hot core of our leadership endeavors.
Midlife is, for many people, a time of recalibration, when they begin to evaluate their lives less in terms of social competition and more in terms of social connectedness. Jonathan Rauch
This won’t happen by accident, however. We have to do what coaches and leadership developers call the “inner work”. This means stopping solve problems ‘out there’ for a few hours a week to turn inward instead. Using embodied leadership practices we can metabolize the feelings of disappointment, pessimism, and despair into commitment, care, and hope. Thus, we transform the inevitable midlife crisis into a gateway into the most purposefully and relationally creative period of our lives.
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The kids will still need a lot of attention. Our co-workers will still demand answers. Our parents may need a lot of care and attention. We may get seriously sick ourselves. Our organizations will still need a lot of our mojo/moxie to survive and thrive in the rapidly-changing world.
But on the inside—through our inward leadership work—we will have transformed. This then will change how we experience all the challenges of midlife and turn this period into the most fecund and generative period of our lives to date: The 2nd Half Of Life.
Research bears this out. Studies have shown that in the 2nd Half of Life our confidence can blossom; and our creativity can bloom. Economist Bruce Weinberg has published research that, whilst showing some are most innovative in their 20s and 30s, other types of transformational leaders, innovators, and artists peak creatively in their 50s.
Such “experimental innovators… accumulate knowledge through their careers and find groundbreaking ways to analyze, interpret and synthesize that information into new ways of understanding.” This chimes with another expert psychologist, who states that “it is possible to stay creative throughout one’s life span.”
Doubling Down on Leadership Purpose & Transformational Leadership
As well as being a possible descent into a midlife crisis, middle-age can also be an invitation to commit to really finding, and then fully expressing, our purpose in the world. This will mean rethinking what is important—and refocusing our energies, monies, and time on ways to contribute meaningfully to the brokenness all around us. These activities must take precedence over our old behaviors otherwise we will stagnate—even if we think we’re having fun and living the life of X. As I have written elsewhere, purpose can save our lives.
If we choose to do the transformational inward work to become later-life innovators, artists, culture makers, activists, conscious parents, and leaders of change, a whole new playground of possibilities—more meaningful, existentially rich, and purposeful—opens up; even as the things we thought were important fade into the background. If we put our major efforts into tending to the rich gardens of our most important relationships—kids, lover(s!), family, friends, business partners, elders, collaborators, and the customers who really appreciate our offering—we will grow fast as adults.
Then we avoid frittering away our energies on worthless stuff and meaningless meetings; and on ruminating on our despair and disappointment. This, in turn, reenergizes us, bringing us back some of the moxie/mojo we’ve been missing. We may well feel better—and may even look younger—than we ever have!
The twinkle in the eye returns. And can use the renewed mojo/moxie that comes from this (re)generativity to contribute meaningfully to the betterment of our world. We become truly Transformational Leaders: able to confidently and consciously lead our people, organizations, and systems towards a regenerative future.
The Two Choices Everyone Must Make As A Leader
This is the choice. We do the work needed to become (re)generative as mature adults and leaders, which takes a huge investment in personal growth and all that that entails … or we become cynical and pessimistic, consoling the pain of developmental stagnation with fame and fortune; and the illusions of freedom.
The Way Of Breakdown: We ignore the invitation, the initiation into this rite of passage. We crave what we did not get; become disillusioned and pessimistic; we stick to being right about everything… and become shells of who we good have been if we stepped into maturity wholeheartedly—rather than resist it with a fragmented, traumatized, and disorganized heart.
The Way of Breakthrough: We heed the invitation and step up fully into this rite of passage—even if we do so, like I did, alone. We grieve for what might have been, strong in the wisdom of what happened is workable. We let go of who we thought we were, and who we thought we wanted to be, to embrace who we are becoming as a (Re)Generative leader.
No leader—no human being!—gets away with not engaging in this life-stage choice fully. There is no escape—other than death; and even then, we still leave the consequences of our choice on the matter for our children, teams, employees, and partners to deal with; as best they can. It is a doozie of a Hero’s Journey: a boss-level.
We must become leaders in our lives and society and choose—consciously and emphatically—to upgrade our consciousness or let it subside into ever-decreasing circles.
It’s not easy to transform Midlife Crisis into Midlife Breakthrough. But it is 100% possible. I stake my reputation on that. We can be ahead of the curve of leadership wisdom and access the levels of stability and agility typical of older people in our 40s. We can then sensemake and decision-make wisely as leaders; stay open to possibility and innovation in moments of huge complexity and uncertainty; and thus lead significant and lasting change that adapts our teams, projects, and enterprises to the rapid environmental pressures all around.
This has to be the path of the Transformational Leader. We have to get ourselves right before we can lead our people and organization to survive, and thrive in, the very different future that is rushing towards us all. This is a profoundly intense and immense—but developmentally natural and necessary—transition into what my business partner Alison and I call our “Wisdom Years”. I don’t think we can be truly transformational leaders without developing and embodying such wisdom.
We lead an open online program on how to accelerate and exhilarate this journey. It’s called The Essentials of Transformational Leadership. Do join us.
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