Changing your life is not a (mid-life) crisis

“Most men lead lives of quiet desperation and go to the grave with the song still in them.” – Thoreau

Whenever someone over the age of 25 suggests a profound change, one of their friends will say, mockingly “you’re having a mid-life crisis.” It’s the only response adults know to offer. We have no label for an adult who continues to grow, who works to better understand themselves, and who periodically chooses to re-align their life with their dreams. And most of us, as friends, don’t know how to respond when someone tries to step out of the box we’ve held them in, a box much like the one we hold ourselves in all the time.

To see a friend change is scary because it challenges the assumptions we have about ourselves. To watch a friend change careers, partners or cities forces us to question why we’re not doing the same, questions we spend most days trying not to ask. The instinctive response we have is parental: “stop being foolish, get over this phase, and get back in the (miserable) box.” Little is more trivializing than calling someone’s pursuit of fulfillment a phase. It presumes the status quo of the past is best, when inspection likely reveals status quo provides only an illusion of quality. Status quo is familiar and even when filled with mediocrity or misery we naturally prefer it to the unknown, even if we suspect that unknown just might yield fulfillment. Perhaps someone who changes their mind on life choices by the hour deserves mockery from friends, but they also deserve respect for expressing the universal notion that there’s a better way to go about living.

Making a tough choice is precisely when we need the most help from friends and family, but choice divides people. Many see us for who we are but only a fraction see us for who we can be. When I quit my career at 31 to try to become a writer, I heard “you’re having a mid-life crisis” and was hurt by it. I wasn’t in crisis. I’d calmly considered my life and my choices. I had a dream for my life and I wanted to put as much energy into it as I could, but I discovered there was no system to rely on like the systems that led me through school and career. But few people bothered to inquire what I wanted from my life, how this choice might improve my odds, or what they could do to help. I sought support from books (which helped me plan how to quit), but most offered shallow promises. You can’t expect a map if your plan is to go off the map. My best comfort came the honest uncertainty described in Bronson’s What Should I Do With My Life? which described a candid landscape of all the possible outcomes of wanting to live a dream.

Most people I talked to presumed staying in the same career my entire life suited me, simply because that presumption allowed them to hide in their own unexamined life choices. “Why would you throw this away?” I heard, as if making a right turn in a car destroyed not only the car but the road too. It was a surprise to discover where support for my choices came from as it wasn’t always from the friends and family I’d have guessed. When you share your deepest dream it’s surprising who understands and who is mystified, or even disappointed. Part of the adventure of a big change is resorting your allies, as you can’t predict who among those you know will be most connected with the person you’re becoming. And the biggest surprise of all is the new important friends you make along the way, happy consequences of a scary choice made with conviction.

Buying a Ferrari or having a desperate affair with the babysitter are cliches of trying to recapture youth, as they find their present devoid of meaning or joy. These acts are often done by people who have no idea what is really bothering them, and like scrambling in a closet for clothes when late for work, the cliches are the easiest and most impulsive things to try. They only understand later that the desire for the Ferrari or an affair were likely symptoms of a problem denied and not the problem or solution itself. If they’re lucky the resulting true crisis those decisions causes forces them to dig deeper into what’s missing from their lives and pursue change.

I imagine for myself a lifetime of changes initiated by me. I know I’m too curious, and life is too short, to follow the conventional footsteps that everyone is quick to defend despite how miserable they seem in the following. We use the phrase “life long learner” but it’s corny and shallow, suggesting people who quietly take courses or read books after college as if the essence of life were merely a hobby. We need a term for life long growers, people who continue to examine and explore their own potentials and passions, making new and bigger bets as they change throughout life. With or without a label I’ve learned more through my so called mid-life crisis about myself, my friends and the possibilities of life, than I could any other way and I plan to make similar changes throughout my hopefully long and amazing life.

32 Responses to “Changing your life is not a (mid-life) crisis”

  1. Linda Merker

    There is so much truth in this piece. Nowadays almost no one keeps their career for their life. Another factor is that things are changing too rapidly and jobs vaporize as new ones appear. I will be sharing this with my husband and some friends I know who need the encouragement. Thank you, Scott.

    Reply
  2. liz

    i think you’re lucky if you go through big changes without calling them crises! when you want a career change and it’s like starting over, it can be exciting and you can have all the fresh passion in the world, but if you have no idea how to go about doing this new thing, and the steps seem difficult and long, and no one you know knows anyone important to help you or connect you, and it seems like no one on the planet shows any interest in your big dream, and you’re broke and worried if you are doing the right thing, it can feel like a crisis every day until enough things go right and you get into the new groove.

    The label must come from the perception of the quality of the change, a judgement about the amount of time it takes to make the change or if anxieties get vocalized. if you seamlessly go from one job to another, it’s just a career change. if you flounder at all, it’s a crisis. either way, yes it’s always good to evolve and grow.

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    • Scott

      Crisis is an interesting word. 3000 years ago a crisis would be starting to death or defending your village from invaders. What in modern life is worthy of deep worry and fear? I don’t have the answer but I know it’s a good question.

      Reply
      • liz

        how about losing your house? a very real fear for millions of people these last few years, me included.

        Reply
        • Andrew Wellmeyer

          When considering a new career or other significant change, I believe there is nothing that cannot be undertaken if the proper plans are made before actions are taken. Scott is a good example of someone who succesfully changed careers because he figured out how he was going to do it before he made any moves. Careful planning on a foundation of knowledge can build you anything you desire. Challenges must be foreseen as things to manage or avoid, otherwise they may result in crises.

          Reply
          • liz

            i get what you’re saying but i don’t think the recession which changed many lives and plans and dreams was something most could have foreseen. and these are extreme examples, but i know a woman who lost every single thing she owned in hurricane sandy, and i know a woman who has a disease that’s crippling her and now she’s down to part time work. you can plan very carefully but it doesn’t mean you are always in control.

  3. James Reffell

    This is a helpful reminder right now. Thank you.

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  4. Sean Crawford

    Nice post.
    As I read your piece I reflected on how privileged I am to belong to an abnormal toastmasters club, called Miracles, where not only are we into a little growth in our speaking, but we are all into tremendous life changes. I am pretty sure I’m in the only such club in my entire city. So if I do any “crises” change I have a support group right handy.

    Scott, I’ve been meaning to tell you that I Iiked your sentence from a few posts back, your resume one, where you said you (in my own words) weren’t super keen on being a programmer. For one thing, (joke) this frees me from learning to write software code in order to become a start-up millionaire. And the line is a metaphor for zeroing in on who I am in my career. For another, it helps me understand how you aren’t like society’s stereotypical computer nerd—I get a kick out of how you have some artsy right-brain interests and abilities.

    I like your line there is no map for dreams, “Here be dragons.”

    I wish I could share my own dreams, right now the only one I’ve done is to step away from the career ladder in order to do my art every day, and that feels so deep down right and fulfilling.

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  5. Leslie Irish Evans

    Thank you! The courage to dream and the courage to keep growing is a precious thing. Always inspiring to see somehow who “gets it”. Also, I will make it my mission to help find a word for “life-long growers” (though that one’s pretty good).

    Reply
  6. Mike Nitabach

    When I was 31, I also was considering a major career shift (after having already made one four years earlier). Many people close to me tried to dissuade me, in large part by telling me that since I had already made a big shift recently, it wasn’t legitimate to shift again so soon. Fortunately, my girlfriend of the time (now my wonderful wife) convinced me to trust myself and not to listen to the envious assholes who were motivated more by their own dissatisfaction than by any genuine concern for my wellbeing.

    Reply
  7. Tisha

    Great post, and I think it helps to show that big changes are not always due to a mid-life crisis but maybe more of a dream being fulfilled, or some opportunity that has come up you can take advantage of.

    Reply
  8. Travelling Mudskippers

    Thanks for writing this post. We’ve experienced a lot of similar responses to our decision to sell everything, quit our careers and travel indefinitely starting in August 2013. Overall, we’ve been pleasantly surprised by more positive responses than negative ones and we chalk up the negative ones to people needing to justify their own choices… Well written!

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  9. Andrew Wellmeyer

    I have another comment following an observation. I share your perspective of how people frequently seem to have their minds in a box. It seems to me that people frequently substitute an understanding of a concept or entity with a definition. If I may point out an interesting contradiction: I have followed with interest many of your attempts to draw lines around a word to hone in on a singular definiton, but here in this post you are discussing peoples desire to cling to their definition of you and your life.

    Instead of thinking of words and life opportunities in a context or situation where they belong, I prefer to think of them in terms of what goals I can accomplish with them. Often I simply try them out and decide later (sometimes immediately) if it was a good idea or not.

    So I would say that the question of whether or not we should be in the box is not the important question, but every other question we may ask about the box is!

    Reply
  10. Gerrit Pelzer

    Three years ago, I left a well paid corporate job behind to follow my calling, and I became an executive coach. I got tremendous support from my parents, my girlfriend, and some other friends. More than I actually expected! I am very grateful for that, because without these people it would have been so much more difficult. A big thank you to al of you!

    Interestingly, when I work with corporate managers today, many of them start questioning they are doing…

    Reply
    • Scott

      I enjoyed that. It made me think there’s a common pattern of these idealized views of what professions are and we romanticize them and decide on majors/careers without having a clue about what daily work in those professions would be like.

      Your story to me was one of exposure – you had two real data sets to work from (law vs. neuroscience) and it was only through showing up and trying things out that you were able to make (what I’m assuming) has been a good choice for you.

      I’ve been become fond of the idea of gap year – I didn’t do one, but I wish I did and I wish more students were encouraged to get some life experience before they make a 10 or 20 year bet on a career.

      Reply
  11. Michael

    Scott
    Thank you! I been trying to convince my self that being bothered by mediocrity in my life is just a mid life crises phase and I need to chill out, life is good.
    you have masterfully articulated what’s been nagging at me and I couldn’t quite put into words. It felt like u were speaking to me and knew exactly what i am faced with, so this post made quite an impression.
    What prompted it and Why did you write it?

    Reply
  12. Julie

    Thanks so much for this, it came exactly at the time I’m facing this and being told about my “mid-life crisis.” I’m glad I’m not the only one.

    Reply
  13. Snorkasaurus

    My decision (at age 39): Quit my job as an IT admin, sell the junk I have acquired over the years, buy some land in the [Canadian] woods, and see how long I can survive. Not a midlife crisis, just a response to the realization that living the life of a professional consumer is hollow and sad. I am 1.5 years in, rapidly running out of money, and happier than I have been in over ten years.

    Reply
    • Scott

      Snork: Have you written about your experience anywhere? I’d love to read more about your decision and your experience over the last two years.

      Reply
      • Snorkasaurus

        Most of the writing I have done is documentation for my own records. Of course my “old life” entailed having extremely in depth knowledge and skills within a certain field, while my “new life” seems to require moderate knowledge of numerous things I have never even seen before. I made myself a personal wiki and have been using it to keep track of things as I learn to cook, grow food, hunt, and even build an earth sheltered home using technologies such as passive solar, thermal mass, rain catch, cisterns, and photovoltaics. Some of my experiences have been posted in the “Indie House” category of my web site, but I should warn that it is ripe with colourful language and the okasional speling misteak. :-)

        I am extremely lucky that my financial situation affords me the opportunity to explore this path… my only dependents are two dogs, and being the son of a Scottish accountant I am an instinctual “saver”. I am quite aware of the fact that many people are somewhat stuck (for whatever reason) in a consumerist lifestyle and I can certainly sympathize with the anxiety and stress of life altering decisions. If there were any words of encouragement I could offer to people considering big changes it would be: “One day we will all be dead. You have very little control over when you’ll die, but you should have plenty of control over your ability to live a life you can be proud of in the meantime.”.

        Reply
  14. Jeremy

    Perhaps “Renaissance Man” would be an appropriate term. Means “rebirth,” is associated with polymaths and has noble connotations. Compared to mid-life crisis, which has negative connotations, despite being appropriate per definitions.

    Reply
  15. Dan Sutton

    Once again, we think identically. I love change: stagnation is appalling: when one’s life stagnates, so does ones’s mind. I refuse to tiptoe carefully through my life, only to arrive safely at my death!

    Reply
  16. Carey

    How about this person being called a “perpetual progressor.” Or an “undying developer”?

    Reply
  17. Allison

    Wow. What a beautiful piece. In all honesty,I wish I had read it nine mos. ago when I chose to leave a job (that nobody could believe I left).
    I kicked about in a pool of trying to justify and explain myself, even though people could see all along that I was horribly depressed. Work felt like a prison. Dramatic, right? But not really. I had a micromanaging supervisor, a long hour and a half commute each way, and a job that literally sucked the soul out of me. I left. I cashed out the savings I put away there, after 3.5 years and came home. It took me six mos. to realize no one owned me anymore. Is it easy? No. But it feels like life! Like finally living. Doing without things is fine. There are so few things I need really. And life is so much simpler. But back to the point, I spent a lot of time explaining my choice to miserable people who looked at me like I was crazy. Maybe I am :) but my small business is working :) and the American dream is alive and well!

    Reply
  18. Kylie Dunn

    This was a really interesting post for me to read, given the last couple of years of my life. I couldn’t agree with you more that I think it’s people pushing back on the impact this would have on them, and how it makes them feel that someone else is willing to do this.
    I think that I felt I was unable to make some of the changes that I really wanted to in my life without some sort of reason to do so. My Year of TED gave me permission to make some significant changes, and more importantly allowed me to understand what those changes needed to be.
    I’m very fortunate though that I have a group of very supportive friends around me who are all extremely jealous of the courageous steps I have made to change my life. I’ve been trying to get them all to see what changes they might be able to make as well, but the majority of them aren’t ready for that yet.
    My parents on the other hand have begrudgingly come to accept that change is a fairly constant thing in my life. They don’t understand it, and they have taken a long time to get to the point where they don’t say “but why would you give up a good job/take the risk/leave the relationship” etc.

    If you want to know what My Year of TED was I blogged about the experience at http://www.kyliedunn.com/p/project-overview.html

    Reply
  19. Chris

    The word ‘crisis’ is misunderstood. In its original Greek meaning, it refers to “(self-)judgment”, or “decision”. It’s only in modern times it has received a somewhat negative connotation. Nonetheless, the issues you describe and the conclusions you reach – although generally interesting and thought-provoking – are socioculturally-bound. And I don’t even mean it in an inter-cultural way. Within any given society (let’s pick an average Western democracy), there are chaotic differences between people. For most people, it’s a luxury to cognitively plan a course of action; it is naive (and perhaps even offending) to ask a single mother of 3 (just an example) to give up her 9-5 job and pursue her dream of becoming a writer/aviator/professor. Rather, true betterment and – dare I say – enlightenment comes from recognizing the opportunities hidden in the unexpected changes life inevitably throws at all of us. That’s a far more difficult and a far more genuine path.

    Reply
  20. Deniz

    Thanks Scott! As a person who lived in 3 different countries for different careers, I found your post very true and inspiring. Discovering our potential is the real journey of life, else is just a loss of time.

    Reply
  21. elliot

    Struggling through a transition right now, thank you for writing this.

    Reply

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