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There’s something about 39

I was having a much-needed massage after a long-haul flight to New York.

‘What do you do?’ asked my massage therapist.

‘I help people make career choices, often around midlife when they want to make a more significant contribution in their work lives’  

‘Yes’ he mused.

‘There’s something about 39. You’ve either resolved your career or you need to make some changes’

‘Can I have those words to use in a book?’ I shot back.

‘Sure’ he shrugged. And here you have it.

The number of male clients I have seen who just happen to be 39 is uncanny. For women, the age is 28, the beginning of what’s called ‘The quarter life crisis’.

Midlife is not an age, but a life stage that theoretically runs from 35-55 years old. It’s an important period in life where we review our careers and test the fit between our life and our work.

The conversation took me back to my own life around that age.

A charmed life

I watched in a kind of trance as the electric gate rolled back to reveal our beautiful Victorian home with its sparkling pool and a magnificent view of Table Mountain.

Rondebosch is an expensive, leafy suburb and home to some of the best schools in our country. It is also within easy reach of the University of Cape Town. It’s called ‘The Golden Mile’ for good reason.

I had a good job with a large corner office and had the best life could offer. This was it, or was it? If you’d been alongside me in the car, you may have heard a different conversation.

Running a workshop a few years before, I had invited the group to do a very powerful exercise. They had to draw their ideal job and lifestyle in one picture. The rules were that there were no constraints of time, age, qualifications, money or commitments.

Fortunately, artistic talent was not required, so my own artwork turned out to be a very cryptic drawing with small stick figures in the middle of the page. Two big people, two small people, a house with a chimney, a few dogs and many large trees. The exercise is of course not what you draw but what you see in your mind as you draw it. I could see the many shades of green in a park-like garden and the jewel colours of bougainvillea. I could hear the quietness interrupted only by the sound of birds.

As I looked out from my car, I saw our garden and the mountain beyond.

But there was something seriously wrong with the picture I saw in front of me. I was in the wrong picture. I realised I didn’t even like living here. I didn’t like my old school that was across the road, yet we had moved to send our boys there. I was living perfectly good values, but they weren’t mine. I loved the work I did and I worked with wonderful people, but my dream was to help people make better choices in their work lives. I could only do this through isolated projects and voluntary work.

This was a very good life, but it was not the life I wanted.

Midlife is just another crisis

Let’s start by redefining the word ‘crisis’.

At each significant stage of our lives we face a crisis. It presents us with a fork in the road where we need to make a choice between what we want and what we believe society expects of us.[1]

A crisis is therefore not a calamity, but simply a crossroad that demands our attention and which we can resolve in one of two ways.

Our crisis between birth and two years old is whether to trust our caregivers and feel safe to explore things, or to see our environment and the people in it as untrustworthy.

Our crisis at toddlerhood is whether we develop the autonomy to explore, to express ourselves and to master new things, or whether we end up feeling inadequate and fearful of new things.

Our crisis in early school is whether we develop the initiative to question new things, or to suppress questions to avoid embarrassment and displeasure from other people.

Our crisis in middle school years is whether we experience acceptance from our same-sex peer group and become creative and productive, or whether we end up feeling inferior.

Our crisis in early adolescence with physical and hormonal changes is seeking membership in your peer group which now includes both genders. You resolve this by either identifying with your peer group or having a sense of alienation from them.

Our crisis in later adolescence is deciding what is right and wrong and seeking an identity of our own. This involves experimenting with roles and possibilities for our future which may include religion, relationships and careers and is sometimes accompanied by feelings of confusion and depression. We either resolve this crisis by conforming to other people’s expectations of us, or we find our own identity independent of what other people will say.

Our crisis in early adulthood is testing relationships. We either find a way to develop intimacy with others or end up feeling isolated. This is a busy time of discovering the workplace, creating a lifestyle, setting up a home, perhaps committing to relationships and having children. This period of life is about who you are with.

And then we reach the crisis of midlife. Your age starts to show, your biological clock is ticking and it may be time to lose some weight and join the gym. It can be a restless time as you contemplate the second half of life. The feeling that you are not accomplishing anything of value may feel overwhelming at this stage.

The key task of midlife is to resolve your career. 

We either resolve this crisis by finding a better fit and a purpose that matters to us, or we stagnate by pursuing self-enrichment and a self-involved lifestyle that can present as burnout, depression and illness.

The concept of a ‘midlife crisis’ was created in 1965 by Psychoanalyst Eliot Jacques, who first noticed this tendency towards a crisis in creative men. His paper reported that they either died, like Mozart, Chopin and Van Gogh, or went through powerful transformations in their work lives. [2]

The crisis beyond midlife is in later adulthood, around age 59 where we either develop a serenity that comes from an acceptance of life, warts and all, or we become bitter, cynical, dictating and judgmental. But that’s for the next chapter – something about fifty-nine.

Midlife has a language

The words of a midlife career change have become familiar to me:

‘I am successful, but I want to make more of a difference’

‘I want a career that also satisfies my lifestyle, I don’t only want to work!’

‘I am looking for more purpose in my life and work’

‘I need a change, but not sure what it is!

Lecture theatres at Business Schools are frequently filled by midlifers. They have energy, intellect and ambition, but are at a place where they want to make some important choices. Some are seeking advancement in their existing organisations. Others are seeking opportunities in different organisations or different parts of the world. Some are contemplating starting their own business. And some want to make a three-point turn and go in a new direction.

Eastern cultures have recognised the need for contemplation at this stage of life. The Chinese had an ancient custom where the son of the ruling elite would spend three years in quiet mourning when a parent died and would suspend his duties in mid-career as he reconsidered a future that would enrich the culture of China.

Rodin’s famous statue ‘The Thinker’ reflects a man deep in thought and frozen from action. It was reputedly dedicated to Dante who was facing his own midlife transition. 

Rodin explained: “What makes my Thinker think is that he thinks not only with his brain, with his knitted brow, his distended nostrils and compressed lips, but with every muscle of his arms, back, and legs, with his clenched fist and gripping toes.”

Carl Jung went through a depression in his late thirties and emerged at 42 with what he regarded as the primary material for his lifetime work.

Midlife is an invitation to hear your own voice and to find the work that will carry you through the second half of life.

Bob Buford, in his book ‘Half Time’ compares life to a soccer game. The first half, he says, is about success, the second half is about significance.

Midlife can present us with the first opportunity to consider the second half of the game.

Midlife is hearing your own voice

The organisation I was working for was engaged in a merger. As senior managers we were considering roles in the new organisation, since there would most certainly be some duplication. I was on my way to an interview and stopped to say a hello to my dear mentor, Lidia, who lived down the road from us.

‘You look grey!’ she said when I walked in. ‘Maria!’ she called to her housekeeper ‘Bring this man a large pot of tea and some toast with Marmite’. After pouring tea, she took out a blank sheet of paper, picked up a pen and looked at me intently. I remember her coiffed hair, elegant gold hugging blouse, regal nose and caring but no-nonsense way in which she asked me this simple, but powerful question.

‘So, Andrew, tell me what you really want!’

When last did someone ask you that? When last did you ask yourself that?

I went for the interview, but by then I knew what I wanted. And it wasn’t another job in a corporation. My own consulting business already had a shape in my head.

During World War II, scramblers were used to prevent the enemy from making sense of telephone conversations. There are photographs of British Prime Minister Winston Churchill in the War Office with a scrambler phone on the desk. Sometimes our own voice gets scrambled and it can be difficult to discern which voice is ours and which voice belongs to what other people, society, our parents, colleagues, friends expect of us.

We all too easily take on the values of our community, our culture or the people we grew up with.

Is it time to ask yourself what you really want?

Midlife can be a spiritual awakening

Midlife for some people can be a spiritual awakening.

I had been fascinated by decision-making for many years. I had read every book I could lay my hands on and was in the process of completing a thesis that explored career decision-making as a way of driving performance in organisations.

One day a member of my team brought me a book on job hunting called What Color is your Parachute by R.N.(Dick) Bolles.  

Job hunting was not my topic of interest, but with an evening free in my hotel on a business trip, I dipped into it.  Now, I need sleep to function well, but I ended up reading it through the night.

I had long struggled to connect spirituality with work. I knew intuitively they were connected, but how? This book would resolve for me that my spiritual mission was indeed in the workplace where I could make my best contribution. I now see how often the quest for purpose around midlife is also a spiritual one.

I suddenly saw my work and my spiritual life come together in one place.

Dick became a dear friend and mentor to me over many years and I spent many wonderful weeks with him and his wife Marci at their home in San Francisco. He was a minister for nearly 25 years and when churches were shrinking, he wrote a self-published book to help ministers find jobs outside of the church. It has been a best-seller worldwide for over 35 years and continues to be.

I knew then that I had a mission, not just a job.

Midlife is a danger zone

The word ‘crisis’ in Chinese has been said to combine the words danger and opportunity. Armstrong has said that even in contemporary Japan, women of 33 and men of 42 years of age are said to have entered a ‘calamity’ year and are advised not to start new business ventures. (Armstrong page 163).

The chaos of midlife holds the danger of making impulsive decisions. So, before you chuck up your job in a hurry, get divorced, buy a franchise for which you are unsuited, change your car or emigrate in a hurry, use the energy that midlife offers to work out what you really want.

Rushing out and making rash decisions because you feel uncomfortable and unfulfilled can create a genuine crisis!

Midlife is not the time to jump into nothingness. It is not an invitation to be impulsive, sell up and move or take whatever package may be on offer and buy a business in an industry you know nothing about.

By the time I took the plunge to leave corporate life we had no debt, we had 18 months net salary in the bank. We had severely stripped our expenses. We didn’t eat out. We made fires and read books instead of going to the movies. We did things that didn’t cost money. I gave up my company car and bought an old station wagon. I completed studies that prepared me for the work I do now, studying while the children were asleep.

I spent at least two years working on my new business plan and how it might work. I used up my frequent flyer points to learn from people in this industry in the USA, UK and Germany. I set up an office at home and did some voluntary work to test some of my thinking.

Sometimes it’s not what we do that determines our success, but how we do it.

Not everyone will agree with you

Waiting for everyone in your life to bow at your feet and support your plan may be wishful thinking.

What you want may not fit the traditional career journey that you or others have in mind. There will be voices of reason that will discourage you and voices that will inspire you and connect with you at a different level. The challenge is knowing which to follow.

We got good advice from people who cared for us. Advice to take a safer route by staying in corporate life. Cautions that where we were going may not work or pay. And often it didn’t. Their advice was sound.

Through my consulting work I have worked with many groups of people being retrenched from stable organisations. Today jobs aren’t safe either. And they get more unsafe every year. As artificial Intelligence becomes a reality, we are told that nearly 35% of jobs will disappear by 2025. That too carries risk for many people.

When we considered moving out of town, there were other voices that considered our best interests:

‘Your boys won’t be able to go to your old school’

‘You will lose a fortune on your house’

‘You’ll spend your life getting to work and back’

‘You own blue chip property that will increase in value exponentially’

‘The work you did in Germany won’t necessarily work here…’

They were all right on all counts, and more.

But it wasn’t right for us. We sold. We moved. And we paid. And we paid again. And I would pay again if that was required.

The cottage on our new property became my office and conference room. It later became my son’s cottage and now happily Grandpa lives there.

We live in our dream home with five gorgeous dogs. It’s not an upmarket triple-story mansion. The bathrooms are old and the kitchen needs an upgrade. It’s not blue chip and won’t sell for a fortune. But we have a park-like garden with big trees in which our boys built impressive tree houses in. It is dark and quiet at night. Bougainvillea flowers in all corners of the garden and I can hear the birds in the morning. Log fires fill our winter nights. We have a holiday home at the coast where we have made wonderful memories over many years. My elder son George joined a flying club 8km from where we live and is now a Commercial pilot. My younger son works at a community animal clinic not far from home and makes a difference he cares about.

I own beautiful offices within walking distance of home. I see the sun come up over the Stellenbosch mountains from my desk. I look across the park at a row of blue-gum trees that wave gently in the wind and reflect the beautiful evening light.

I have been able to travel abroad many times to learn from people I admire in this industry.

I have been consulting and working with Corporations for almost 17 years across South Africa. I speak and teach at our top Business Schools.

I do work I am passionate about.

Did everything work out the way I planned? Of course not. Life is not that linear or predictable.

Have I sometimes woken up and wondered what I was thinking and wonder why I didn’t stay in Corporate life where I would have made more money with less stress? Yes. It’s tough running your own business.

It’s tough following your mission sometimes.  But I have also woken up and wondered what it may have cost my soul to have continued on a journey without purpose. Living a life that you hate so that you can live the life you want later may be the biggest risk of all. You can also stay in a job that robs your soul and die of a heart attack at 42. You can work your entire life to retire, only to die two years later. 

I love what Steve Jobs said: ‘Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart’.

Midlife is a nudge

If you have reached 39 or thereabouts and are questioning the fit between your life and your work, you are right on time!

Midlife is a normal time for review –  welcome to the human race.

But it’s not an ultimatum. It’s may simply mean confirming you are on the right track.

If however you are considering a significant change, perhaps read the chapter ‘Careers are like carpets’ before you take any leaps of recklessness.

©Andrew Bramley, Career Warriors® 2019. All rights reserved.

[1] Development through life: A psychological approach (revised edition) Newman & Newman. The Dorsey Press 1979.

[2] The Human Odyssey, navigating the twelve stages of life: Thomas Armstrong, Ph.d. Sterling Publishing 2007

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