A few years ago, I was facing a transitional period of my life.
I always loved working. I loved the intellectual stimulation involved. But also, let’s be honest. I got a real buzz from conventional achievements — degrees, fancy jobs, paychecks.
In my early 40’s, life began to feel a little different.
That buzz that I used to feel from all those things started to fade. I wasn’t sure what had happened. Maybe it was because I had kids. Maybe it was because I no longer “had” to work in the same way. I had reached a certain level of success in my career. I was no longer striving for the top. I no longer needed to. Or maybe I didn’t have the same fire, I wasn’t sure.
At first I thought I needed to change jobs. I tried that. It helped in some ways but felt worse in others. I still couldn’t get that same charge that I used to feel.
I started to think that I wanted more balance in my life. But I couldn’t find things outside of work that felt fulfilling, or worthwhile, or frankly, not boring. I mean, I love my kids and they kept me busy for sure. But I felt a little bit like I was punching a clock.
I kept trying all the same things that used to get me fired up, but I kept getting different results. I spent several years at a loss. In the back of my mind, I was reaching for something, but I had no idea what it was.
As someone pointed out to me recently, I no longer feel this way. Almost daily, I used to express angst or at least, malaise. Now it’s more common that I express enthusiasm, curiosity, or joy. I didn’t even see it in myself, but it’s true. And there are a few reasons. A few things I uncovered that helped me climb my way out of that gauzy gray hole in the middle of my life. To find myself energized, charged, challenged in new ways for the first time in many years.
Here are a few of the things I found or did.
For me, I thought that this underwhelm came from being burned out by my job. And that was true, in part. That’s why my first step was to try changing jobs. But doing that was just a change in my external circumstances. I was still in the same bleary space on the inside. It didn’t matter where my desk was.
What I needed was to accept that what felt important to me now was different than what felt important in my 20’s and my 30’s. That what I wanted for myself was different.
But I was afraid to acknowledge that my priorities had changed. Because I thought if I prioritized other things besides work and success and other externally driven things, I would take my foot off of the gas of my career. And that would mean I was no longer ambitious, or driven, or a success. Peering over that ledge made me dizzy with the possibility of an identity crisis.
But the truth is, life changes, it evolves. I needed to accept the reality of that, and acknowledge it. I needed to let my inner voice speak and allow it to say something different than it said in my 20’s and 30’s. Because moving to a different house or a different job or a different country won’t change what’s in your heart. The change that happens on the inside has to be heard and acknowleged. Or the conflict between your inner life and your outer reality will break you in two.
There are funny cliches about midlife crises — the red sports car, the copious amounts of plastic surgery. Surface humor that minimize the true turmoil that so many of us feel. (And I don’t want to judge anyone else’s choices. If a fancy car and a face lift make you feel good, go for it.) But a new Tesla won’t quiet the voice in your head. The one that says you’d rather connect with others than make lots of money. The one that wants to turn everything you thought and believed about your life on it’s ear.
And as I finally started changing my priorities, I learned something important about my identity, too. It actually didn’t rely on any of those external circumstances. I started to change the priorities in my life more in alignment with my internal compass. And realized that I am still and always will be ambitious and driven. My identity hasn’t changed because I’m driving in a different direction.
Midlife requires an intentional decision to focus on the present and future instead of the past. It’s so easy to think about all the things that have already happened in life and lament the changes. I used to love my job. I used to be able to run 10 miles and not need to stretch afterward. I used to be able to get away with 5 hours of sleep at night. I used to, I used to. There is a physical reality of middle age that means change. Change that you didn’t ask for and don’t always want. So you find yourself painting a rosy picture of the past, of all the things you took for granted.
But change is a reality for all of us, welcome or unwelcome. Focusing on what you used to do or what shouldn’t have changed only keeps you from moving forward. As Byron Katie says,
When I argue with reality, I lose — but only 100% of the time.
Instead, I try to think about the beauty in the present moment. My kids are in such a good phase of life now, funny and interesting. I have the ability to say no to potential clients that will cause me more angst than is worth my time. And I’ve learned how to turn them down in the most direct and least dramatic way possible. I have so many freedoms that I never had before.
So instead of focusing on what used to be, think about the truth of this moment in time. If you are not in a happy place right now, what will bring you happiness in this moment? It no longer matters what brought you happiness before. Instead of thinking about how you used to be able to run 10 miles, think with pleasure about how you are able to run 5 miles. Think how good it feels to run, period. However far your legs can take you today.
My Why was very different in my 20’s and 30’s, if I can be honest with myself. I wanted to achieve. I wanted to be a “success”. That was my driver. But somewhere in my early 40’s that Why stopped working for me. It wasn’t enough. It didn’t matter enough anymore. I’d reach a new level of external success and still feel blank inside.
At some point, I stumbled across Simon Sinek. He has two books — Start With Why and Find Your Why.
His philosophy is that everyone’s true “Why” is to contribute something that makes an impact on others. On other individuals, or your community, or society.
It was a question I had never asked myself before. How did I want to make an impact?
At first it almost felt cocky. Who was I to think that I even could make a difference in other people’s lives?
When I started writing, it didn’t occur to me that it would be a way to make an impact. It was an attempt to “try something different”, of breaking out of that gray space I was in.
But over the past year, I have been blown away by the connections I’ve made with other people through writing, through putting myself out there in a new way. And how much those connections have made my heart sing. Made me come alive in ways I didn’t think possible.
I’ve found a new Why, a way to make an impact. It’s not flashy or impressive and it doesn’t pay me the big bucks. But it has changed my life for the better.
I remember at a certain point feeling angry that this was happening to me. I didn’t have time to wade through the muck of all these feelings! This malaise was agony, I thought, and it was not productive. It doesn’t achieve anything. The whole thing pissed me off.
Now that I’m through it, I realize that fighting the truth of my feelings was only making it worse. More difficult. Sinking me deeper in the mud.
I was only going to find calm in the second half of my life by acknowledging what I was feeling. By taking the time to wade through my own quagmire and find out what new things would now feel right to me. Even if those thoughts and feelings were scary.
In the end, we all have an internal voice that speaks our own truth. We might not know exactly what to do with ourselves, but we know which direction we want to head, and which things no longer work. We all have our own internal map inside. We just have to be brave enough to look at it and follow it. Even if it takes us to places that look nothing like where we were before. And we havet to be strong enough to keep listening to that voice, when we’ve let others crowd it out for so long.
So to all of you in the middle of your life, be strong and be brave. You know, like I do, that life is fleeting. Don’t waste any of it continuing to do what you “should” or what you used to do and focus on what feels right this this moment, this phase of life. Because middle does truly mean that. There is so much beautiful life left. It’s not over yet. Not even close.