The #1 Myth of Midlife Change: How It Holds You Back and Ways to Bust It Up

IMG_3403“Roll up your sleeves – midlife change is your best and last chance to become the real you.”

Thus begins the article, “The Existential Necessity of Midlife Change,” in the Harvard Business Review OnPoint, Your Next Move, Summer 2015.

I was puzzled momentarily. The term “real you” is odd, isn’t it?

Who are you now if you’re not the real you?

Here’s the answer: You are the “everyday” you.

Most of us have two selves – the everyday self which gets all mixed up in living a life and your true self (also known as the “real you.”)

I read a description of the ‘true self’ as a beach ball submerged beneath the water.

  Because your true self is a like a beach ball pushed deep under the water—you only need to take your hands off of it, and it will explode to the surface. 

 Oh baloney. Most people are not holding their beach ball down.

They can’t find their beach ball.

The Myth of Midlife Journey as Magical Transformation

Whether you are in your mid-40s or 70s, according to some experts you are in middle age. “Old” happens at 80.

Midlife change has broad application. So listen up everyone.

Your endeavors to create a new life and future career are in danger if you succumb to traditional lore – belief in two myths – according to Carlo Strenger and Arie Rutterberg, authors of that HBR article on midlife change and a duo with strong professional credentials.

First is the myth of age as the onset of decline.  According to this myth, people end their productive lives and retire at age 65.

For most of us this one is easy to debunk. We don’t feel our age, we have plenty of energy and drive and we know individuals who defy the stereotype of age. It’s not hard to see ourselves vastly different from our parents or grandparents who lacked our resources and health.

The second myth is the notion of midlife as a magical transformation. This one is most problematic and one I find insidiously lodged in the minds of many people – smart ones – like you.

Magical thinking is defined as believing that one event happens as a result of another without a plausible link of causation. 

This would be like thinking you can retire from your job, take a year off to relax, then your dream job will fall down from the sky along with your dream life and present a brochure to guide you with direct access to financial reward and professional success (and happiness!).

You’ve reached a certain age — over 50? 60? 70? — and a stage in your life where your energy level is still high and the concept of retirement makes you shudder.

You want a meaningful, useful life in your future.

So what do you do if Tinker Bell’s flights bestowing productive longevity are booked?

Artist and vendor each Sunday at San Telmo Flea Market, Plaza Dorengo, Buenos Aires.
Artist and vendor each Sunday at San Telmo Flea Market, Plaza Dorengo, Buenos Aires.

No More Midlife Crisis

The phenomenon called “the midlife crisis” which was the doorway into midlife transition isn’t heard about much anymore.

Jonathan Rauch, a contributing editor of The Atlantic and National Journal and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, explores the midlife slump in his excellent article and he rejects the term midlife crisis.

“I was holding a steady course and never in fact experienced a crisis: more like a constant drizzle of disappointment,” he writes.

The disappearance of the midlife crisis could be a shame since this pause had striking benefits for many. Tom, my window washer, used an early midlife crisis at 42 to create a clear vision purposely far into his future for  his life and work.

“I determined this was a business that would be good for me as I long as wanted and adapt to my changes in lifestyle,” he says.

Currently, Tom pressure washes and cleans windows for 28 Wendy’s in Florida and Alabama then chooses the residential work he wants.

In his early 60’s with two replaced knees, a gaggle of grand-kids and his faith as a priority, he smiles to tell me, “Life is pretty sweet.”

You can have a midlife crisis – even a self-imposed one (like mine at 40) – but the outcomes won’t likely be as long lasting as Tom’s. My midlife crisis resulted in establishing a business as a leadership development expert, author and speaker that was great for 23 years.

Then dribble, poof. I wanted something different. Figure it out. Reset.

Whether you have midlife crisis or not, you’ll still face finding out what kind of life you want to live Post50.

According to Strenger and Ruttenberg, this myth of a charmed, enchanted transformation sells the illusion that if people have vision and willpower, they can be anything or anybody they want to be with a fair amount of ease.

People like it. It’s fun to think you can hop right into your next move – meaningful work and life from 60-80 – with nary a doubt, snag, difficulty or delay.

Problem with this myth of magical transformation is that it conflicts with reality.

Who have you met who rolls out of bed one morning with a full-fledged, clear vision of his/her life after fifty and then followed a straight path – unencumbered and fully confident- to realize it?

We’re all enchanted with stories – doctors who become bloggers or dancers, and postmasters who become nurses. Those Purpose Prize Stories are inspiring but can make us feel inadequate. How did they achieve such clarity? In a short amount of time?

The Purpose Prize, now in its ninth year, is the nation’s pre-eminent large-scale investment in people over 60 who are combining their passion and experience for social good. The 2014 Purpose Prize awarded $300,000 to six individuals.

What if you’re struggling to get it right? What if the picture of work and life you want is fuzzy? What if you realize more than at any other time in life, this could be your last chance?

There’s a magical bookstore section just for that.

The dysfunctional approach to creating a life Post50 as fun and easy– especially one that involves work – is fueled by books: Fifty is the New Fifty, The Best of Everything After Fifty, Live the Life You Want After 50. Art of Aging Gracefully, Fearless at Fifty and Aging: Perfect Time to Stop Being You and Start Being New.

Dr. Ruth chimed in recently.

“I want to say make the best out of the time of your life. Now I’m 87 years old and I can still dance a whole night if I find a good partner.”

Honestly Ruthie, I’m way younger than you and I’m ready to go home long before dawn. (I go to bed at 9:30.)

Vague ideas for your future can make you wonder if you’ll even come close to figuring it out.

One of the best ways individuals choose to cover up lack of clarity, fears, doubts, and ambiguity is to divert the attention away from what they will do with their lives to glib statements of the obvious and most prized gift of late-in-life design.

The common exuberant reply to my question, “What’s next for you?”

“Freedom. I’ll have f-r-e-e-d-o-m.”

Well, yes you will. Now, how will you factor that in to designing a life of meaning?

IMG_3160Fairy-Dust Choices: Make-Believe, Run Away and the Fleeting Retirement Honeymoon

Radical transformation is unrealistic mainly because finding clarity is often rough and grueling. Sorry, but it is.

When people don’t quite know in which direction they would like to evolve, they abandon their efforts to change in different ways.

Any of these three choices can scuttle or spoil finding a life well-lived:

  1. Dream vs. Fantasy.

    Caught between the chasm of dreams and fantasy, individuals can still seem respectable by saying, “I’m still figuring what I want to do out.” When it comes time to create a late-in-life scenario, many of us hold onto a fantasy of what we could have been.  A dream uses the imagination to create possible scenarios in which our potential can come to fruition. Getting lost in fantasy is a waste of energy and impedes change. Choose dreams. Let go of fantasy.

  2. Dodge the Future.

    Research shows that escapism is a common reaction to career derailment. Similarly when asked to create your next move Post50, people take trips to get away from their troubles, immerse themselves in current careers, eat and drink excessively or avoid discussing their thoughts and plans with anyone. These kinds of diversion may get you some mental space from the work to be done, but rarely lead to creating good material for a productive transition. It takes time to create a life from 60-80 but distractions and diversions? Those are easier but unproductive choices.

  3. The Go-To Vacation Mode.

    Individuals stretch out the “retirement honeymoon” or choose low activity until the stench of boredom and dullness suffocates high desire for a great life. Whether you leave a corporate job behind, sell your business, reduce your work hours in self-employment, crank up as a volunteer or turn the business over to the kids, you’re going to have a respite from life as you know it. You can expect disenchantment to follow if your new life is not full of motion and meaning.

“Honeymoon” is a well-documented phase of retirement. When a person “retires” and therefore, no longer participates in paid employment, they frequently take one of three possible paths.

  • The “honeymoon” path is characterized by feeling and acting as if one is on vacation indefinitely. Men and women become very busy doing many of the leisure activities they never had time for previously, especially travel.
  • The “immediate retirement routine” path is adopted by those who already had a full and active schedule in addition to their employment. These individuals easily establish comfortable, yet busy schedules soon after retirement.
  • The “rest and relaxation” path is described as a period of very low activity as compared to the “honeymoon” path. Persons who have had very busy careers with limited time to themselves frequently choose to do very little in their early retirement years. Frequently, however, activity levels do increase after a few years of rest and relaxation.

Following the honeymoon period or a time of continued rest and relaxation, there may be a period of disappointment or uncertainty. A person may miss the feelings of productivity they experienced when working. Disenchantment with retirement can also occur if there is a significant disruption in the retirement experience, such as the death of a spouse or an undesired move.

Your life force does not just extinguish itself at age 50, 60 or 70. Drum roll.

There is no better period better suited to inner growth and development than midlife, when many people learn to listen to their inner selves, – the real you.

IMG_3435The Opportunity to Live Twice, Thrice and More

How do you find a geographical location to give you wonder, live a life you want and find work you love Post50? How do you go from where you are now to where you want to be?

Let’s learn and be inspired by Susan Reece, PhD, who built a successful career in Human Resources and Strategy leadership. Like most high achievers with a senior vice president title, she works long hours, manages a team, travels and is highly productive for her company.

She could easily use a packed schedule to say she’s too busy to contemplate her future.  She did not. “What’s next for Susan?”

Where she wants to live is still under investigation. (A recent trip to Chattanooga resulted in a “nice place but not for me.”)

But as far as a possible next career? Susan has enrolled in Kansas State’s financial therapy graduate certificate program – a 12-month online graduate course with a sweet price tag of $15,000.

Behavioral Finance, a new, booming industry can shift Susan’s career out of corporate leadership into an educator/consultant role that “will allow me to practice my passion for psychology and behavioral finance in a new way.”

Does this smart, experienced and talented woman need another degree? She writes in her application, “One of my primary drivers of life satisfaction is learning. I believe this program would provide a great deal of personal fulfillment in addition to professional growth.”

The investment of her time, money and energy serves a dual purpose – joy in learning and growth to extend a career arc.

Done with a high level of self-awareness, there’s nothing mystic or dreamlike about Susan’s journey.

Self-actualization is a work of art throughout a lifetime achieved through effort, stamina and stillness. Most of us will remake retirement by extending working lives, embarking on new careers, launching entrepreneurial businesses and volunteering to make a difference.

All done within the context of freedom to design life again.

Chris Farell, author of “Unretirement: How Baby Boomers are Changing the Way we Think  Think About Work, Community, and the Good Life” (Bloomsbury Press, 2014) believes the transition can take 4-5 years.

Get Real About Your Future Life

Any mushrooms you find in the enchanted forest of “magical transformation” won’t help set you on the path onto a well thought-out and meaningful future Post50 life.

But one of these actions just might.

 You Are Lost or You Will be Lost. Figure Out Why You’re Lost. Studies by change management expert William Bridges highlight the tension people feel when they’re torn between hanging onto their current identities and expectations and letting go. To begin to consider your future while being fully present in a current work situation is akin to entering the Twilight Zone. The status quo is disrupted but it’s not clear yet what success will look like in the future.

Ask: What are you losing? What are your giving up?

Make Life Hang Together. New visions for where to put your time and energy in work or volunteering are only part of your life. What you can you do to help crystallize new visions and energy is to think about life as a whole. What kind of lifestyle do you want? What are must-haves in your surroundings? How much money would you like to make? How much time do you want to work? What do you want to do in the remaining time? What would you do if you were the ultimate decision-maker?

Look Back. People can and do make changes. This one may be a little long. If you’re 55 and have teenagers at home, it’s going to take longer to implement. If you have a high-salary job but have a high mortgage, you may need to take fewer risks. We’re ill prepared for a 30-year bonus of life and work but looking through your past can be a break through. Look back to pivotal career and life decisions, how and why you made them, how they turned out. Make yourself the center of a Personal Case Study. Why did you make those decisions? What are the criteria now?

Find a Financial Cushion.  Money gives you a little psychological freedom. Having a financial buffer makes it more likely that when you find something meaningful you’ll be able to act on it. While you may not want to invest $15K in a degree, you will want to invest in conferences, resources, and experiences as you explore. Trust me. You’ll want a stash of cash.

Fleece Your Schedule. Make the time. Who wouldn’t benefit from setting aside dedicated time to sit down and thing about what they want from work? Reflect on your career. Reflect on your future. “Even if it’s an hour every other week, you’ll make progress,” say Nathaniel Kolof, CEO of ReWork, which provides recruiting services to companies that offer purposeful work. According to Kolof, sometimes just to think about it will get the ball rolling.

Filter. Filter. Filter. Filter out peer pressure and popular opinion. Don’t do what other people do just because you lack clarity. Be inspired by those who are taking different paths. Investigate phased retirement. Negotiate a sabbatical. Talk to someone you admire who has made an interesting transition. The possibilities for a different time in life and work – it’s all yours. Value this stage of life just as much as you did when you were in your 20’s and 30’s. The future is no less important.


 Photos by B.Pagano. Buenos Aires, 2015.

About Barbara Pagano

Barbara Pagano,Ed.S., author and speaker, influenced over 3,500 executives in organizations to achieve higher performance. She is now on a mission to help individuals extend their career arcs and craft lifestyles of productive longevity.
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