While the mid-life crisis seems as old as modernity itself, it was actually invented by a British man with a french sounding name in the late 50’s. And even though science has largely disproven that a mid-life crisis exists, that doesn’t mean you aren’t having one. And it also doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do anything about it. In fact, I’m going to tell you exactly what to do, if you think you’re having one, whether you actually are or not.
THE INVENTION OF THE MIDLIFE CRISIS
In 1957 Elliott Jaques stood before a crowd of his peers and mentors to deliver a paper to the British Psycho-Analytical Society. He was undoubtedly nervous not merely because the attendees loved to challenge any presenter with a slew of questions, but also because the paper he was about to present was both controversial and autobiographical.
Over the past several years in his 40’s, Elliot had been experiencing a growing amount of anxiety and depression. His life felt without purpose, and he began to question the meaning of his existence. He knew that artists often went through a period in middle life where their work took a dark and dour turn, and he began to wonder if there was a hidden pattern that might explain why he was so regularly bummed out.
So he concocted a theory called the mid-life crisis, put it in a paper, and was reading it to the crowd. After he finished, despite his concerns, no one rose to ask any questions. There was a brief discussion but nothing else.
The silence convinced him his idea (and perhaps himself) was a failure. And it would be nearly 10 years (Oct 1965) before he published the paper in The International Journal of Psychoanalysis.
But despite its initial reception, the mid-life crisis eventually became widely accepted. It burst into the popular zeitgeist of coaching and the early days of management psychology like a hit single. It grew in acclaim and stayed there despite studies that showed there was a minimal scientific basis to say a mid-life crisis was predictable or even likely for most people. Which leaves us wondering, “Why does the idea of the mid-life crisis persist even though it may not even be real?”
LIFE IS JUST A SERIES OF CRISES
If you think of life as a board game that starts when you’re born, at first you play the game using the rules your parents laid out. Then as an adolescent, you might rebel and explore breaking those rules., Finally, you craft new but still similar rules to make it into adulthood.
At some point during this game, you realize that this game has really high stakes. Stakes like happiness, getting to have sex with attractive people, raising children, making money, and, most of all, making meaning in your life so that you don’t feel like you’re falling through a void called space with no purpose at all. And so you take the game more seriously.
Now imagine you’re playing this game and all of a sudden you realize you didn’t really understand the rules. You thought that you were trying to collect green pieces, but then you realize it’s super hard to win that way. You realize that you SHOULD have been collecting blue pieces all along.
At that moment, you’re going to feel panic, a giant OH FUCK!!! You’ll notice your position on the board, the placement of the other places, the end game is approaching, and you’re not quite sure if you have time to change strategies or not. And you have to decide, “Do I stick with what I’m doing now? (despite knowing it’s less than optimal) or do I switch strategies, giving up the ground I gained in the hopes that I’ll be able to use my new strategy to ‘win?’ And by win, I mean to dominate, get what I want, and declare myself the victor.
This is a crisis. This is what it looks like. This is what it feels like.
But here’s the thing. There are certain times in the game where people often wake up to what’s going on. I remember the first time I played chess with my dad, and I realized I was in trouble. He started taking my pieces, and NO MATTER what I tried, I couldn’t stop him.
For a lot of people, quarter-life and mid-life are moments where we’re more likely to notice the game isn’t going how we thought it was. We start to realize the rules may be different than we imagined.
But in truth, you can wake up to the game ANYTIME. In fact, if you’re paying attention to the game of life at all, you likely will be waking up a LOT to what’s going on. And each time you do, you will probably notice rules you missed, strategies you didn’t take into account, and consequences you hadn’t predicted.
And each of these moments causes a crisis. Do I stick with the strategy I’ve been using so far, or do I switch?
So a life of growth, awakening, leadership, and development is one in which you are merely passing through a series of crises, one after another, in each moment waking up to a new level of the game, learning new rules, and understanding better and better what works and what doesn’t.
The real danger is that you DON’T realize this is normal. You get scared and dig into your OLD strategy, or that you think you need to do something radically different (divorce your wife, quit your job, take up squirrel suit SCUBA diving) to adjust your approach to the game of life.
BUT AM I HAVING A MID – QUARTER – OR THREE TENTH – LIFE CRISIS?
Sorry, I forgot to answer this one. The answer is, maybe. The real answer is it doesn’t really matter how you classify your crisis. Research shows while some people have a crisis in life and that some people are more prone to crises than others, having a crisis has more to do with waking up to the game and less to do with when you have it.
But if you’re curious if you’re having a crisis you can answer these questions:
1) Have you recently realized you’ve been playing the game of life wrong?
2) Have you noticed that you have an old and well-worn strategy that you didn’t realize was a strategy until recently?
3) Have you noticed some negative consequences to living your life the way you do that you sort of knew before but kind of avoided?
4) Are you super bored and kind of upset about it?
5) Have you realized you have been following advice you took as true and that it was just a pretty good guess?
6) Were you certain up until recently and now are having doubts about your convictions?
7) Have you felt that “OH FUCK!!!” feeling and ignored it?
8) Has that feeling now become pervasive enough that you can’t ignore it anymore?
9) Do you have a consistent sense of anxiety or depression for no apparent reason?
If you answered yes to any or all of these questions, you MIGHT be having a crisis.
Then again you might have indigestion, you might be bored, or you might just need to have a glass of water. The key here is DON’T PANIC. In my next post, I’m going to tell you what to do next if you think you MIGHT be having a life crisis.
Here’s To Playing It Well,