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Midlife Evaluation: 40 is the new 40!

How prepared are you for the second, and longest, half of life?

Until the age of 70, nothing that I drew was worthy of notice.

Katsushika Hokusai,
woodblock artist of “The Great Wave off Kanagawa

A friend of mine recently attended the funeral of a mentor who died an extremely wealthy, successful and well-respected man at 80. Invited by the man’s wife, my friend turned up expecting a Grand Affair with eulogies and lots of important people. Instead there were six guests including himself, all invited by the dead man’s wife. It turns out that this wonderful, successful, wealthy man had no real friends. Though he knew and was respected by thousands, there was no-one there to farewell him at the end.

Did he do something wrong in his later years that he ended up alone? No, he probably missed something a lot earlier than that.

The reality is that the quality of the second (and longest) half of life is determined in your 40’s and early 50’s. This is not just a social imperative, it is a physiological and biographical one. Despite all his success, the long second-half of this man’s life was shallow because he hadn’t made the transition from being self-full to self-less in these middle years. This is a journey every single person who has ever lived or will ever live will have to make at this stage in their lives. Whether we live to 100 or 1000, the 40's represent the pivot point.

Like the cornerstone in a stone archway, these years hold together the arch of your life, from early growth and expansion through to decline and ultimately death. There is a great deal of pressure and a profound change of direction required and it is not a period you can do well on your own.

In these years we must confront the reality of physical decline and the whisperings of doubt and worry that come with this profound change of focus. In our society these are things to be ‘managed’ or avoided, yet they mark of the beginnings of a new and deeper growth; the fresh shoots of a future harvest.

The Traditional Midlife Crisis

I recently interviewed an old friend of mine about his journey through a midlife crisis: after losing his relationship, his house, his business and his investments at 42, he started again:

From 44-48 energy carried me through, but by 49 I just couldn’t keep running, getting nowhere. I was exhausted. I looked up at the horizon and what kept coming close was 50, then 60. I had to find another way…

What should have been the single most creative period in his life - a period of deep introspection where he was held and guided to discover what he had learnt about the world and how to start giving it back - became a lonely and desperate struggle to survive[1].

As a society we are addicted to the exciting, fresh-faced (and generally shallow) rewards of youth. Unlike many earlier societies, we pursue these rewards past the point where they stop having relevance to our lives, simply because they are all we know and there’s no-one saying anything else!

The price we pay is mental illness, a shallow and deeply unsatisfying older age and often an angry death. The price society pays is even greater: a vacuum of leadership in all realms of life and an ever-expanding pandemic of mental illness, depression, suicide, domestic abuse, toxic workplaces and the entrenchment of dis-ease in the next generation.

The Elder: Transmuting Experience into Wisdom

This period of doubt cannot be wished away and must be addressed head-on: either way it is the price we pay for the joy and wisdom of latter life.

As the confidence and certainty of youth begins to ebb (around 38), a new relationship with our inner selves and the world we live in begins to grow. Nascent and fragile, this new knowledge seems a poor substitute for the robust confidence of the 30’s so, unless it is carefully nurtured it is often rejected in favour of more ready-rewards: a better job, bigger business, more money, accolades or recognition.

As the bright and exciting path of youth fades, but before the more profound and deeper path of the elder starts to appear (late 40’s or early 50’) we need to wander the dark paths of the middle years and rediscover ourselves.

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No society before ours expected people to traverse this period alone. From mediaeval German Guilds to African Masaii Warriors or Indigenous Australian Clans, 35 invariably marked the inflection point between the expansion of the first half of life, and the growth of wisdom into old age. Though it seems young to us now, 35 has always been the point where one became an elder: not because you suddenly became wise, but because you suddenly started the journey to wisdom.

The little voice of doubt that starts at 35 grows louder through the early 40s’. If ignored, if we keep operating like we did in the past, we risk facing what has become a rite of passage: the traditional midlife crisis experienced by my friend at 42[2]. However, if we surround ourselves with support, with mentors, coaches, friends and elders, this voice of doubt will become the germ of the great flowering that is the long second half. In these years we must confront a series of crises about what we value and who we really are in order to make the transition my friends’ mentor failed to make.

Since our society does not provide natural support for this period, if you want to make this transition well you must go out-of-your-way to find the guides, mentors, coaches and elders who will walk beside through this period of metamorphosis. Done well you can avoid the traditional midlife crisis and consciously craft the future you and your loved ones get to live into, a long second half rich in experience and the rewards of giving.

The price of doing it alone is that you will stay that way.

Your call…

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[1] It is important to note that men and women generally experience these challenges differently. I have written elsewhere about how a lack of recognition and compassion for the crises these years bring is often at the source of divorce in these years. In my experience, in latter-years when the middle period has been successfully traversed, many of these couples wonder whether they really needed to break-up after all. I suspect they often did not.

[2] The onset of the doubt of the middle years usually starts to be heard by 38 and, if ignored, starts really screaming-the-house-down by 42. If nothing has shifted by 44 we’re in deep trouble and we start to see the real symptoms of what we have now come to call a midlife crisis (including physiological impacts including heart-attacks and stress-related mental illness).