“Probably the happiest period in life … is in middle age, … the shadows, which are at morning and evening so large, almost entirely disappear at midday.”
The first half of life is a shadow compared to the richness and the joy that is available in the second, and longest half of life. However, we deeply misunderstand the critical role the middle years of life play in shaping and forming the second half, and we suffer terribly for it.
This weekend I met a woman from Oregon, US. Having just turned 41 she was starting to get nervous: self-aware, she could feel the tides of her life shifting and she didn’t know what the impact was going to be.
She was especially nervous about what it would mean for her loved ones: how was she going to navigate this period powerfully:
“I’m heading into mapless terrain; I’ve always known where I’m going and now, seemingly suddenly, I don’t. I don’t even know who to ask for help…”
It almost made me cry.
She’s on the threshold of a metamorphosis where, like an alchemist-of-old she can transmute her experience into wisdom, her knowledge into joy. However, instead of feeling excited by the prospect she feels scared and alone.
It shouldn't be this way, but it is.
All the results you achieved in the first 40 years of your life, the joys and the suffering … the full scope of your experiences; provide the foundation of the full expression of who you get to become in the second half.
While we spent the first half of life focusing on material things: growth, expansion and playing the intrinsic games of youth (career, family, money, relationships etc.), the second half of life is different.
The long second half of life is a not an extension of your younger years but the flowering of your full potential: the time when you can become the fulfilment of who you were meant to be.
It takes half a century for a human being to get that point: 40 years to gather the experiences required and then another ten to make the transition. What makes this wisdom wonderful in our current age is that you cannot fail the first 40 years. Everything you do, everything you experience provides the wisdom you have to give back in the second half.
You can’t fail the first half, but you can fail the second and the decisive factor is what you do in those critical middle years.
An avid Gardener, I like to imagine the first half of life as the period of creating the soil and the second half, the long harvest.
The key to a good and extended harvest is the quality of the soil. The quality of the soil represents the quality of your experiences (I imagine the painful experiences as the blood and bone that gives you some extra ‘oomph’). From this perspective it doesn’t matter what material results you have achieved; their only purpose was to give you the foundations for the real harvest that starts later.
The challenge of the middle years is that you need to choose the right things to plant!
It’s not anything goes; it’s not even what you may think you wanted going into this period. You see, as every good gardener knows; not all soils are created equal and it’s the soil that determines what you should plant, not your preferences.
We all know people whose lives just seem to get richer and more wonderful as they age (and I’m not talking money). Conversely, we all know people who grow into a sterile and grumpy old age, often dying unhappy and angry, especially with the people they love most.
It’s the people who stop and take the time to understand what they have in their middle years - the qualities and character of the soil they have to cultivate - whose lives grow richer, not poorer in the long second half.
I have the privilege of walking beside people as they go through the process of uncovering their gift, their purpose, and creating their lives from there. I have interviewed people of all ages, read hundreds of biographies and analyses and it all points to a common phenomenon: if you slow-down, look inwards and listen your purpose is there waiting for you.
Where in youth you create from a blank slate, in the middle years you have the extraordinary privilege of uncovering the gift of your life from the mass of earlier experiences. Like a Golden Thread it lies under everything you experienced and, as you age, it increasingly demands your attention. Your purpose choses you, not the other way around.
I’m not saying this process is easy. The middle years are challenging because you are forced to stop and assess after 30 years in a faster gear. You suddenly need to cease the dynamic drive and pulse of youth and teeter uncomfortably on the cusp of a fundamental shift. It’s part of the design. It’s like taking a holiday at the beach after a year of non-stop working: you pace your holiday shack for a few days like caged-tiger just itching to get back to work before you finally slow down enough to enjoy yourself.
The reason my friend can’t see the path ahead when it was previously so clear to her is that the middle years demand this fundamental reassessment of purpose. What was clear becomes unclear, what was certain becomes uncertain, who you knew yourself to be is suddenly insufficient. Seen from the perspective of the long, rich second half this is as it is meant to be, but it doesn’t make it comfortable. It is certainly not something you should be doing on your own!
If you want to talk to us about what it means to uncover this Golden Thread or just get an even-keel in these middle years if you’re feeling a bit tossed-around, feel free to schedule a time that works for you HERE. There’s no obligation and it’s free, but a new perspective can make a world of difference!
Where all previous cultures recognised this threshold, celebrated it and made a real effort to hold and support people as they made the transition, we don’t. The best we can muster is the idea of a midlife crisis: hardly an empowering context.
I have written previously about the role of the ‘elder’ (starting at 35 years old) in every other culture (click HERE); how critically important it is for people making the transition through the middle years to have guides, coaches, mentors and support.
The truth is that right now there are no elders to help us (they’re busy!): we have to help ourselves.
So here are the five things you need to do. We step through all of them in one form or another in our Midlife Creation program (and you can read about that HERE), but one-way-or-the-other, this is the work that needs to be achieved in these years if you are to experience your second half of life as a symphony of your own design.
1. Slow down and look after yourself
Energy is no longer your primary resource. There are smarter ways to work and it’s time to start finding them. From as early as 38, your body starts to slow-down (though you may not notice for a few years). You need to start creating the practices that give you the time to think and create.
Just like you create the body of your 40’s in your 30’s, the habits of self-care required to live a rich and creative life in the second half are formed in middle-age. Michael Simmons has written an excellent article HERE about what he calls “compound time”. Like compound interest, Michael sees this as time the greatest leaders and creatives of history spent on themselves and their passions that had no immediate benefit but allowed them to create the long harvest.
2. Look inwards and backwards (not outwards and forwards)
I’ve written elsewhere about the role of the recurring theme in your life (your Leitmotif- HERE). Another way of looking at this concept is that’s it’s your gift: what you have spent your life learning about. This theme runs through your life from birth to death and the extent to which you can align yourself with it in the second half of your life is the extent to which you can create a magnificent life of joy and satisfaction (and vice versa, the extent to which you don’t create life around this theme is the extent of your suffering!)
The foundational purpose of the middle years is to discover this Leitmotif, but you need to still-the-waters and be willing to look back over your life to find it. The best way is to uncover your Leitmotif is by recreating the path of your life from the vantage of a mature adult, rather than the younger person who lived it. I call this process the ‘Hero’s Journey’. We do this work in the first phase of our Midlife Creation program (HERE)
3. Close doors
In my experience, this is often the part people have most trouble with. We’ve spent decades opening opportunities, and now we have to close them… forever! The sense of finality (and mortality) that comes with closing doors - saying we’ll never do this or never be that - can be challenging. However, done well, this work helps to further uncover the Leitmotif that is driving your whole life and gives you a degree of clarity about that way forward that is surprising and wonderful.
4. Consciously create your future
This is something children do as easily as breathing, adults find it a bit more difficult. With a clear sense of the Leitmotif of your life my clients tend to report the experience of looking out to 80 years old and beyond is more akin to a discovery than a creation. Once you’ve a sense of what it is you have to give back your future tends to define itself. You become more like its servant than the ‘master-of-your-destiny’ (an interesting contrast to the experience of ‘creating’ before middle age).
A beautiful client told me this phase was like “breathing crystal clear air” for her. She had struggled through her 50’s because she had resisted her Leitmotif: to bring relief and succour to people experiencing suffering, domestic violence and death. Once she owned it, her future opened-up in unimaginable and inspiring ways.
I tell my clients to start with the perfect day in when they are 80. To write down everything about the day, from what they eat, what they do, what they feel, where they are, how they feel… everything. From there we get to work backwards and create the trajectory that will get them there.
5. Find Guides, Coaches, Mentors
You can’t do this phase alone. No other culture expected you to, until ours. Our elders are missing-in-action so you will have to find your own guides.
The reality is that the middle years are years of crisis: growth is like that. However, with support and guidance you can transform each experience into a new opportunity and recreate yourself anew. I’ve had clients who have used this work to launch careers they would never have dreamt of before, others who made a 2-degree shift in direction to align with their life with their purpose and never looked back.
There is nothing I get more pleasure from than walking beside people as they go through the process of consciously creating the second, and the longest half, of their lives.
You are the elders of the next generation: you have an obligation to create a life of joy and satisfaction for yourselves, so you can be the guides and supporters of your, and my, children.
(nb. you can’t engage my services this way but I’m always keen to hear from people about their experiences and offer support if you want it).