Wednesday, June 15, 2011

How To Manage a Mid-life Crisis

Another piece written for a magazine that never stumped up. I wrote in 2003 and was talking about a time some five years earlier. How things have changed.

Saturday morning. Content in my work, settled in my family life and fulfilled in my spare-time activity. I was drinking a coffee and listening to a new CD (Gomez, I recall). I was reading the paper. I had adopted my, ‘I’m comfortable with the world’ position, a rather curious combination of bum on chair and legs dangling over arm; the arm of the chair right, where did you get that imagination? It’s going to get you into trouble?

Strangely somehow, the thought wormed it’s way into my head, that I wasn’t happy. Next second it all went non-specific, autumn fruit-shaped.

Happened to you? ‘Not me,’ you strut. Can you strut verbally? No matter. You did. Some people stay content and focused all the way through to old-age without ever having personal doubts. Others die before they get to mid-life. Although if you are dead it’s scaring me to think of you reading this.

Average mid-life is thirty-nine, according to actuarial tables. I’ve heard of actuarial tables. A worrying sign of maturity don’t you think? It is, of course, ‘average’, in the same way as someone with their feet in the fridge and their head in the cooker on gas mark six is comfortable on average. Death can happen anytime.

I was drifting complacently through my forties when my self-worth went walkabout. What was going on? I grasped for ‘Sometimes I feel So Uninspired’ off the Traffic live album. That never usually failed. But no joy. It was all going so well. These things happen to other people. Why me? Why now?

The cause? Well I’d done the same job for sixteen years and wanted a change. The woman I fell in love with had her own full-time job and we saw each other less. I’d mismanaged money all my life but now it bugged me. My piano needed tuning. I was out of touch with young people although I’d been a youth worker once. I was unfit. I felt mortal; I never used to. I still wanted to achieve something. I’d supported West Bromwich Albion for thirty one years. My Dad had died. You get the message. My life wasn’t in a dreadful mess but somehow one of those things tipped it.

Some insignificant detail to the outside observer loitered on the street corner waiting for a life to mug. One straw; one snapped camel. All the values, hopes and aspirations that sustained me through my early life seemed irrelevant. One day I knew who I was, the next I didn’t. I used to have goals but they had either been achieved (hooray, well done) or begun to seem out of reach. Who wanted to score a winner at Wembley or play keyboards for Sting anyway?

What did I do about it? Well panic, frankly. I do a lovely line in panic. My God it’s all gone wrong, I’ve wasted my life, I’m a loser, pass the scotch. Well a small one wasn’t a bad idea but as rational thought was the best bet I didn’t choose to base any major life changes on the solutions arrived at whilst in its company.

Then I did some thinking. I’m good at ideas and details but rubbish at strategy and long-term goal-setting. Shopping for supper is about as long-term as I get.

Where to think? Up a mountain? I was scared of heights. In the company of men down the gym? I didn’t belong to a gym. Formal arrangements? Join a supportive group? Sounded a bit AA. Long car journey? An undisturbed retreat house? These last two were nearer the mark for me.

But eventually I chose my own house, during a day off work, when everyone else was out. Not that you care but there are two teenagers who share our place too. Used to be cuddly; now they’re blokes. I chose to think about the problem in the same place as I had been when I came across it. I re-draped my legs across the arm of the chair and put the Gomez CD back on.

I tried to write down, how I was really feeling. Yuk. Feelings. Horrid things. What were my emotions? What were the issues, problems, circumstances that prompted the crisis? Hey, crisis. Perhaps this is one of those mid-life crises everyone talks about. That realisation helped, in a perverse sort of way, like the chronically sick being told the name of their inoperable cancer. Bad image. Sorry.

I got those feelings bagged though. Pulled the critters out into the open and let them see daylight. I realised that despite family and home happiness I was fundamentally down. Unmotivated. Wandering lonely in a crowd.

To get deeper into the subject, I listed things that were my hopes, goals and ambitions twenty years ago. They were almost all material – house, car, holiday sort of things. I owned lots of stuff now. Not wealthy, but I didn’t have dysentery and I wasn’t covered in flies. Shouldn’t I have been more grateful?

And successes? There was that solitary football trophy. I had one other medal, for being a runner-up in the 1979 Birmingham Insurance Institute Quiz Final. Sad or what? I reckoned I was an OK father and a decent husband. I had a few bits of published writing, one of which won a competition.

I also wanted to think through the things that were really important to me, avoiding the material world. My car might have been essential but its importance would fade and eventually my only thoughts about it would be to do with replacement. I listed important relationships, places of worth or belonging, situations in which I was valued for myself (some) rather than my appearance (hardly any) or possessions (that drumstick from the 1974 Uriah Heap tour was still precious though).

Finally, I listed things I still wanted to achieve. Not just work-related matters. In fact for me it was fast becoming apparent that work was the problem and that a complete change of direction, nagging away in the back of my mind for some time, had now taken over and would be the only way to recapture motivation.

At an early stage I told someone about it. I chose someone who normally encouraged me. Some of my friends are draining and would have responded to my depression with several reasons they had to be more depressed. That wouldn’t have helped.

I also avoided talking to a particular mate who had already had a major change of career and coped admirably. I guessed he would make matters seem more straightforward than they were. This was my problem and to deal with it I needed empathy, not inferiority. With some friends, a problem shared is a problem doubled.

I told my partner. I didn’t think she was the right person to talk things through with but I didn’t keep her in the dark. Avoiding the truth with a partner provides soap operas with many a storyline but totally stuffs up real life. Why wasn’t she the right person? Simply because she knew me so well she would have been too involved in the consequences. I needed to establish my desired outcomes before seeing how they worked in with hers.

It was time to deal with my list. This sounds like I was systematic. No way. Many of these things happened at the same time, on top of each other, sometimes all fighting for attention, on other occasions leaving my mind with its usual ‘vacant’ sign up.

What about those feelings? In isolation they were poor indicators of what to do. Taken together with a sober assessment of the facts they were helpful. I am the sort of person who begins sentences with ‘I think’ rather than ‘I feel’. I made a few statements using my less preferred way of beginning. I also tried to imagine how my friends and family would feel about this. It’s a bit management-speak, but they were all stakeholders in my process of change.

I had a list of old ambitions. Some achieved, some now impossible. What remained? Mainly things I no longer wanted to do. So I had moved on.

I looked at my list of values. I also tried to add some strengths. I make a nice cup of tea but since I had no desire to work in a café this was without merit. But I could write. I was reasonably articulate. I could organise a project. I could get the best out of creative people. Those things would come in handy.

In their book Play To Your Strengths (Piatkus 1992) Donald Clifton and Paula Nelson define a strength as, ‘ inner ability, something that can be displayed in a performance, versus a material possession or a title.’ The thesis of their book is that if you focus on what you do best success will follow. It can read as a weensy bit patronising but the exercises are helpful. I guess some people are rubbish at everything but I’ve met very few of them.

I now had an idea of how I was feeling and thinking, a diary of achievements er, achieved and a very small list of what I stood for and was good at. I dreamt on. Remember, ‘To daydream properly takes immeasurable amounts of imaginary time’ (It’s on a Dan Reed album although he might have been quoting someone else and I don’t do research).

I looked at the list. I marked each idea for achievability, time required, financial commitment and realism.

Edwin Bliss wrote a couple of natty little paperbacks called Doing It Now and Getting Things Done. They’re time management books. In the latter (Warner books 1991) he talked about velleity. This means, ‘...wanting something but not wanting it badly enough to pay the price for it.’ Everything I listed as a new ambition needed to be something I both wanted and could see myself making the effort to get/do.

I could see myself training others because I like helping people do things better. I liked it more than I liked doing things myself. I had an internal value that made achieving the goal possible. I did not have the will to become a gardener. I like finished gardens but couldn’t ever see myself investing the necessary time. It was a wild-life park behind my house and I wouldn’t change it.

What was my new ambition? Several categories:

To have a career change. I needed to go talk to a specialist (that would be a careers advisor then).

To go self-employed as a writer and trainer. The Bank Manager might want a say. (My bank manager was called Tracy; does anyone else find that threatening?)

To make the most of time with my partner. We needed to work out how to use our diminishing time. Talk about how to make each other happier.

The West Bromwich Albion defence were beyond the scope of mortals and, recalling one of my previous occupations, I prayed. Sadly, by the time you read this, the answer to the prayer will be all too apparent.

If you do a similar exercise, be realistic. If you really would like to climb mountains put, ‘Join climbing class’ on your list and work it from there. No-one should take up climbing on the Matterhorn. I went to some evening classes on writing skills.

Failure has been described as the back door to success. Someone else said there are no problems in this life, only opportunities. If a mid-life crisis is keeping you company right now please welcome it as an opportunity to do something new and successful. Take time to think it through. Get in touch with your feelings. Make a list of your old and new ambitions. Add a touch of your own strengths and values and shake the whole thing down until you really know who you are and what you want. And then do it. Oh yes, that’s the hard part, but it is fun.

Steve Tilley is a former insurance clerk who became a clergyman who turned into a trainer and a manager, back into a minister and now spends at least part of his week writing for a living.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Just read this , really moving ...
Just wondering how a 'thinking person' can write a piece that describes the emotion of the turmoil so beautifully ....