by Tony Wyman
At 57, I find too many times that I am “that guy,” the older, greying veteran warning younger men to prepare better for middle age than I did, to be in a better place emotionally to handle that moment that will inevitably come when they realize their best days are behind them.
Greybeards warned me, of course, when I was in my 20’s and was smarter than everyone else. And I treated their advice with the same disdain the young men I talk to treat my words. They are polite, as was I, before wandering off and totally forgetting everything I just said.
But, at some point in their lives, they will realize my words packed some wisdom, warnings they should have heeded. The reality is, for most men, life goes by so fast that, by the time they realize that they’ve spent their lives at their desks, depriving themselves of the joys and pleasures they should have experienced, it is too late to do anything about it. Anything, that is, except descend into a manic rush to make up for lost time, an anxiety and depression-fueled flight from stagnation we derisively call a “midlife crisis.”
The Onset of Middle Age and Mid-life Crisis for Men
Many articles on the subject of male midlife crisis talk a great deal about the angst some men suffer due to their declining physical abilities. Yahoo Beauty (of all publications!) published a study in 2017 claiming, in part, that men had a “harder time with aging than we thought,” whoever “we” is, because they could no longer bench a car in their 40’s and 50’s.
“It’s the ongoing ‘breakdown’ of my body that I notice and dread,” Yahoo quoted a 51-year-old New York writer, Robert Haynes-Paterson. “I’m healthy so far: no prescription meds, no heart trouble, etc. But I notice how much things have changed in the past couple of years — hair thinning, strength diminishing, muscles randomly pulling for no major reason.”
“The physical stuff — that’s what worries me a great deal,” added another writer, this time Ohio’s Greg Simms Jr. “For years — from age 38 and back — I thought I was invincible. Now, at the age of 43, I realize, starkly, that I’m mortal.”
But their concerns are, frankly, superficial and rather easy to correct. They could do what I did when I hit 57: increase weight-training to the point where I added more than 20 pounds of muscle and set personal bests in every lift I’ve done since I was young. The thing is, being stronger, more muscular and bigger than I’ve ever been has done absolutely nothing to address the real midlife crisis I and men like me have commonly at our age: the fact that we are past the halfway point in life and time is running out.
The phrase “midlife crisis” was popularized by Yale psychologist Daniel Levinson in his book The Seasons of a Man’s Life, where he described the life event as a “disillusionment” between a young man’s dreams and the inevitable shortfall of his accomplishments in later life. As the middle-aged man, now in his 40’s and 50’s, realizes that life has moved so fast and left behind many of his earlier ambitions that he no longer has the time, opportunity or serendipitous chance to fulfill his youthful ambitions, he falls prey to anxiety, depression, a panicky sense that he would never be the man he dreamed he’d be when he was in his youth.
That recognition that he won’t be the man his 20-year-old self thought he’d be when he was 50, more than his thinning hair and shrinking biceps, is what sparks his midlife crisis, what talks him into trading in his Oldsmobuick for a candy apple red Corvette and a “Mama Didn’t Love Me” tattoo.
Why Some Men Handle Mid-Life Better than Others
Not all men have a midlife crisis, of course, or, at the least, one that is noticeable by others. Some manage to get through the critical years with grace and dignity, while others fall apart completely. The key for some seems to be to shift their life goals from the aspirational ones of their youth to what Jesse Bering, writing in Scientific American, called “maintenance goals.”
One way to address this tension between storybook ambitions and anticlimactic adult realities is to focus on the bird in hand rather than those still in the bush. Data reveal that many middle-aged adults reformulate their aspirations in the wake of such a life review, gravitating now more toward maintenance goals—essentially, keeping things status quo and safeguarding their future—rather than setting their sights on lofty new dreams.
Complacency, he said, may be an unattractive and unglamorous solution to the problem of a mid-life crisis, but it is a better option that suddenly quitting a prestigious job or divorcing a long-suffering and faithful wife. But, for men looking for a more active and aggressive approach to the problem, there are other ways to confront a midlife crisis head-on.
The first thing to do is figure out if you are actually experiencing a midlife crisis or if you are suffering from depression caused by a mental or physical health issue. Forbes’ Coaches Council, a group of performance coaches assembled by the magazine to address top issues affecting business, can help. They list 15 signs you “hit your midlife crisis.”
- You’re apathetic. Your Monday morning commute into work isn’t as full of excitement and anticipation as is your Friday evening trip home. And while you are still pounding out the numbers and putting in the hours, you simply aren’t as emotionally vested in the success of the company as you once were.
- You dread getting out of bed. This was me when I was VP of marketing for Honeywell’s fire business. It was the hardest thing for me to do every day to just get my right foot out of bed and onto the floor. If I could do that, it could drag the rest of me with it. Some days, it took an hour for that foot to hit the carpet.
- You’re debating, but not taking action. If you spend hours a week contemplating changes you should make in your life to improve your situation and get yourself out of the spot you’re in, you are likely in a midlife crisis.
- Your life is on autopilot. Day after day, you do the same things, injecting little diversity into your life and making no new plans to go in a different direction.
- You’ve lost your purpose. If the only reason you show up, is because that’s what is expected, not because you want to be there to get something done and to make a difference, if your life feels pointless and purposeless, you may be in a midst of a midlife crisis.
- Your plan is no longer working. The life you made for yourself now feels stale, stagnant and routine, no longer inspiring you to take the next step.
- Making big changes that aren’t you. Here’s where the Corvette comes in, along with the much-younger girlfriend and the sudden aversion to getting a haircut.
- You’re jealous of others. When you spend all your time thinking about how others seem to be happier, more engaged and more excited about their lives than you are with yours, that’s a sign you’ve lost focus on your goals and direction.
- You think you already know how your story is going to end. You’ve resigned yourself to a life’s ending you never would have settled for before.
- You’re willing to walk away from it all. Despite having successes, you’re ready to throw in the towel and strike off in some wildly different direction that takes you off to pursue some passion or dream that isn’t appropriate for your stage in life.
- Everything feels like a chore. Jobs that used to occupy your mind and keep you interested and engage, now seem purely like a labor that just has to be done.
- You’re successful, but not satisfied. While this can often be the catalyst for a better, more rewarding life, if it turns into a case of “Is this all there is?” depression, that’s a sign you’re having a midlife crisis.
- You’re no longer playing to win, instead you’re playing not to lose. We all know the guy who comes into the office, puts his head down, does his job, and leaves at 5 PM having made as little impact as he possibly can, while he rides out the clock on his career.
- You hear the clock ticking. Someday, the clock runs out for all of us, but you hear it ticking all day for you. Tick, tick, tick. Every second is another moment gone by of the few you have left. To compensate, you make rash, unwise decisions that make some sense in the short run, but that are problematic in the long term.
- You’re confused and uncertain about your direction. You don’t know where your current path is taking you, but you also aren’t doing anything to take change and go in another direction, if that’s what’s best.
Now What? Steps to Handle Your Midlife Crisis
So, now that you know you’re in a midlife crisis, what do you do about it? For most men, going through a midlife crisis simply treading water until their lives are over isn’t a solution they are willing to accept. So what do we do?
First, abandon the idea life is over for you. So what if you’ve past the halfway point in your lifespan and society thinks you’re too old to start anew? The actor Samuel Jackson struggled with drug addiction early in his life and didn’t find success as an actor until 43 in the movie Jungle Fever. Famous foodie Julia Child was unknown as a cook until her show The French Chef premier when she was 51. Designer Vera Wang was a figure skater before she gave up her skates and got into fashion at age 40. She’s now considered one of the 50 most influential fashion designers of our age.
Second, evaluate where you are, who you are, and where you want to go. You are right about one thing, the clock is ticking. But, you know what? It was ticking when you were 19, 25 and even when you were out all night celebrating your 39th birthday. Nothing has changed except how you see yourself. And that is a choice you make every day. If you want to change, you can.
Third, stop waiting for things to get better. Nothing is going to get better until you make it happen. You don’t have to go over the top and do something absurd that throws your whole life in disarray. That’s jumping off a cliff before you check to see if you have a parachute on. Instead, figure out what you want, create a plan to make your goal a reality, and start taking the steps needed to chart a new course.
Fourth, take care of you. You’ve spent your whole life caring for other people. Now it is time to do the same thing for yourself. Nothing will give you a better start to the next stage of your life than getting into shape, eating properly, feeding your mind and finding something to sink your heart into. Hit the gym, take on a new diet that makes mealtime a joy, take some classes for the fun of it, and find a way to really contribute to the good of the community in which you live. You’ll have energy, vigor and a new perspective on what you can contribute once you sink your teeth into a set of new habits and motivators.
And, fifth, give up on old regrets. Make a list, if you have to, of the things that you regret in life and bury it. We all make mistakes. We all fall short. Everyone of us has something in our lives about which we are ashamed. Those things are in the past and there is nothing you can do to make them go away. All you can do now is choose how to deal with them. Apologize sincerely where you can. Reconnect with people you let drift away. Forgive yourself for not being the president of the world or whatever it was you dreamt of as a kid and never accomplished. The rest of your life depends on how you treat your past almost as much as how you treat your future.
Of course, making real change is much easier said than done, especially for us old guys who are stuck in our ways. But, treading water is just as much a decision as is choosing to swim. If your choice is to stay where you are, to hope that something better floats by that you can latch on to in desperation, you shouldn’t be too disappointed if the wait takes forever. Literally. Life is, indeed, short. For men in their 40’s and 50’s, it is more than half over. Why tread water when swimming can be so much more fun and rewarding?