Midlife Crisis: Navigating Change with Grace Across Career, Family & Identity To Achieve Self-Actualization - 385

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“How do we go about solving the midlife crisis? How do we navigate our way through this period of change? On one side, I think about it in terms of embracing change, which is coming to the self-awareness that unfortunately, people will pass away. Death is something that happens to people around us and will happen to us. There's a phrase called ‘memento mori’, which means remembering that all people die. And so, there's a core tenet of stoicism, which is that the knowledge of mortality is a way of liberating a sense of life spirit because you understand how precious it is to spend every moment of your life aligned with your purpose and values, and what brings your life significance and joy.” - Jeremy Au

“Getting in touch with myself is writing down about the experiences that I’ve really enjoyed in life. What are experiences that no longer serve me as a person? What are the values that are really important to me? Who are the people that bring me joy and make me a better person? It’s about being very thoughtful about all of this on a blank slate because there are so many preconceived notions that other people have on me, and frankly, that I have on myself and who I'm supposed to be. That handicapped me from being able to achieve better understanding for myself.” - Jeremy Au

“For many, midlife crisis is a lot quieter. The expressions and externality of that response of what midlife crisis would be ranges dramatically differently from individual to individual. And the truth is, most people are going to have a much quieter versions of it because it's quite hard to have enough wealth stored away to be able to show it in such an ostentatious way that Hollywood would like to put out. What's instructive about this is that this is a visual of what a child would look like for an adult who has freedom.” - Jeremy Au

Jeremy delves into the midlife crisis, distinguishing between dramatic Hollywood portrayals (fast cars, alcohol and irresponsibility) and the quieter, introspective reality many face. Coined by psychoanalyst Elliott Jaques in 1965, the midlife crisis is driven by the realization of mortality, sense of past limitations and the desire for change. Referencing psychologist Abraham Maslow's "hierarchy of needs" pyramid, he emphasizes the underlying foundational shift that people experience as they mature from deficiency "lack" motivators towards personal growth motivators. Beethoven suffered deafness in his mid-30s, and went on to compose his greatest musical works. Mike Posner at the age of 36 overcame his "I Took A Pill In Ibiza" days to redefine himself beyond his fame towards a more fulfilling personal life. Jeremy reframes the midlife crisis from a feared stagnation surrounded by community disapproval, towards a pivotal moment for growth, discovery and self-actualization.

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(01:30) Jeremy Au:

Hi! Today I wanted to talk about midlife crisis. The reason why I want to share about this is because truthfully, I'm feeling some of those aspects in terms of the midlife crisis, in terms of career and direction and geography and family. I'm also sharing about this because people are asking me about it.

Recently, I went for a walk with somebody and the person asked me and said, Hey, I'm having these issues with my personal identity and next career, my chapter, how did you solve your midlife crisis? I laughed and I said, the truth is I have not figured out my midlife crisis. It's just that I've come to terms with the process and what it means in the grand arc of my life. Let's lay the ground by talking about what a midlife crisis is. Historically, the way that we think about a midlife crisis is the set of issues that happens to us in our late 20s, our 30s, our 40s, our 50s. And the truth is the definition of when that midlife is has changed over time because historically, our lifespans have changed over time. If we go back hundreds of years ago, in the midst of conflict, famine and disaster and all the various things that could go wrong. Living to 40 years old was a pretty good age and you had to be very fortunate to live to 60, 70, 80. And that was an interesting time for many folks because the midlife crisis, as you can imagine, would be something that happened in your twenties.

For us today in modern age, we've actually seen that our lifespans have increased to say 70 or 80 in developed countries. And so, the definition of the midlife crisis has stretched, in other words, our childhoods, our age where we became an adult has been pushed out from, you used to be an adult when you were 13 or 14, effectively, to finishing high school, to now finishing university before you kind of consider an adult, maybe that's 21, now maybe it's after your first job. So the adolescence age has kind of extended and the midlife crisis has stretched somewhat. That being said, it's not really a function of the time, but really I think the nature of the crisis that tends to happen. That being said, there are three types of midlife crisis from my perspective. The first is career. The second is really about family. Third is about identity.

So the first is very much about work, right? Because in your midlife, basically what that means is that you've graduated from university, which has been a focus and ladder into a job that makes sense for that major. So for example, you study engineering because you enjoyed science when you're young and then you became an engineer in your first job or even your second job. And then very much often, life gets in the way and that means that there are layoffs, or you may quit your job, has a bad boss, something happens. And so, work is very much our identity during this time period. And so, the disruption of that work, role changes our identity. And so there's very much a midlife crisis that often is associated with recessions, with layoffs, with finding a new job, a new career path.

The second, of course, is really about family. And when we are in our late 20s or 30s or 40s, obviously, there's a wide spectrum here. There are different sets of crisis, right? The first is, for example, becoming a parent is a form of change, or losing a child, or having a child graduate. All these fundamental facts that are part of becoming a parent. And conversely, during this time, your parents may pass away due to old age, or due to a heart attack, a stroke, and so, very much the death of loved ones, even siblings, close friends, those are things that are much more visible in our family and community.

The third type of crisis that we see is identity and is a little bit more subtle in many ways, because it's not really about the work side, of course, which is a function of what you do and output and utility. It's not really a function of community and family, which is what's happening around you, but inside out, what your identity is, is something that's honestly more obvious when it happens to us, rather than us looking at it. So for example, if you lose your job, you've always been a consultant and then your identity was really a consultant. Your community was being a consultant, then now without that work, without a community, you have that moment where you're saying, what is my identity separate from work, separate from my community?

And conversely, that often happens with the death of a loved one, is that people sit down and say, okay, what is my identity? What is my path? What is my journey? And so, identity is something that we have inside us. It's reacting, it's who we are, it's our values, it's our purpose, it's our mission, it's our significance, it's our hobbies, it's our passions. These are the aspects of identity that sometimes are more clearly articulated by things happening to it and our response to it rather than by the way around, which is us doing the self work on our identity, and then using that to guide and shape our reactions to the things that are happening around us.

What's interesting is that for society, when we look at midlife crisis, we often look at it in terms of different visuals. One visual that we often see, for example, is the middle aged man who suddenly buys a sports car, like a Lamborghini or a Ferrari, and honestly spending it recklessly, perhaps in gambling or in terms of flashy watches, or even breaking up their marriages, for example.

A common perspective of the midlife crisis, how Hollywood would look at it, or how we often think about the visuals of what a midlife crisis would look like. For example, we will often see the protagonists, perhaps a male or female in their 30s or 40s, they have a normal life, they're married, they have children, and they have certain responsibilities that they're very responsible for, and then they suddenly go on a bender, and they start taking all kinds of substances from alcohol to drugs, they are fiscally and financially irresponsible, ranging from gambling to buying fast cars to driving recklessly along the freeway in a red Lamborghini, they are partying with somebody new and fresh, someone of the opposite gender, who's highly beautiful. And that's the story that we have and visuals that we have of what a midlife crisis would be.

(07:10) Jeremy Au:

For many, the midlife crisis is a lot quieter than that. The expressions and the externality of that response of what midlife crisis would be ranges dramatically differently from individual to individual. And the truth is, most people are going to much quieter versions of it because actually it's quite hard to have enough wealth stored away to be able to put it, and show it in such an ostentatious way that Hollywood would like to put out in the visuals and it's technicolor and plot, right?

What's instructive about this is that this is a visual of what a child would look like for an adult who has freedom. When you're a child, you have all the toys. You have that fantasy of being super successful and famous and you have all the toys and you're the top dog in your home, like that's what a child is. And they learn the responsibility of having parents around them. And then they get told yes or no and so forth. But within that circle, there's a beautiful fantasy that's happening. And they think to themselves, "Hey, when I'm older, I will get to do all the things that I get to do with my play set and my play toys and my playhouse and my toy soldiers and I get to do them when I'm older." The truth is, they didn't get a chance to really do it when they're older because then, they start taking classes, they go for tuition, they go to university, they get a job, they find someone, they settle down.

(08:24) Jeremy Au:

There's all the settling that happens and then suddenly, you know, the classic conception is that people snap. Well, the truth is people don't really snap, people have these cost corrections, but they are frustrating existential moments where you're just like, Hey, what am I doing? I don't like this. I studied engineering, but it turns out that I don't like being an engineer. I like business administration as a major, but I don't like business as a career. I prefer to do something else. And so people around you are like, "Hey, I hang out with you. I've been around with you. I've always known you to be a civil servant for the past 10 years, 20 years because you were a scholar, because you were going to go there. You've been successful." Now, of course, people react around you because they're like, "Hey, you're going to do something different?" You know, "Hey, I didn't really sign up for this conceptually." Obviously, no one thinks like that explicitly, but you're going to be like, "Hey, I've known you in a comforting level as this person who's going to be a civil servant, to be successful one. And suddenly, you want to do something new."

Yeah, you know, people obviously have that instinctive reluctance and aversion to change because someone else's conservatism is, to you, a predictable person. And people like predictable people because, from our perspective, we like safety around us. We want to be unpredictable. We want freedom, but we want the people around us, to be as predictable as possible.

(09:37) Jeremy Au:

Unpredictable people around us are scary. And so, for us, we're often in a situation where someone around us is exhibiting personal growth, becoming a rising star, it can be a very threatening experience. But conversely, as you can imagine, that if you're somebody who's going through that midlife crisis, you're trying to find something new, to be someone new, then your friends and your peers are going to be not supportive because again, it's not about you being different. It's about the fact that you're no longer predictable to them. And so, that takes time for them to adjust, to come to terms with whatever that is new about you.

So let's take the opportunity to dive into what the midlife crisis is driven by. The midlife crisis as a term was coined in 1965 by psychologist Elliott Jaques who was then 48 years old. He was a relatively unknown writer and organizational consultant, and he used it to describe not just what he was observing, but also for himself. He believed that people felt a midlife crisis because people became aware of their own mortality, that they were all going to die at some point in the future, and also an understanding that they now had a limitation of their possibilities because of what they had done before. In other words, we come to realize that, hey, I want to do something else with my life. I don't like what I'm doing in my life, and my life is going to end at some time in the future.

As we know, children don't think about that. They see 100% freedom in everything they have, and also they have no sense of mortality, and especially as teenagers, people also don't have that sense because they feel like world is full of frustration, but hey, you know, there's no sense of mortality in the world, the joke here is that every teenager feels that they are invincible. This reminds me of the phrase, " youth is wasted on the young", which means that, when you're old, you understand what the benefits of being youthful is, but when you're young, you don't appreciate what youthfulness is because you don't understand that there's a time limit on our lives.

(11:21) Jeremy Au:

So how do we go about solving for the midlife crisis? How do we navigate our way through this period of change? For me, on one side, I think about it in terms of embracing change, which is coming to the self awareness that it is real, unfortunately, that people will pass away, that death is something that happens to people around us and will happen to us. And I think there's a phrase called memento mori, which means that remembering that all people die. And so, there's a core tenet of stoicism, which is that the knowledge of mortality is a way of liberating a sense of life spirit because you understand how precious it is to spend every moment of your life aligned with your purpose and values and what brings significance and joy to your own personal life.

The truth is, we're much luckier on this front anyway, because back in 1916 in Germany, the average life expectancy for Germans was 49 years. So if you had a midlife crisis in your 30s, you know, the truth is you could probably expect only maybe 10 to 20 to 30 more years of life, whereas for people who are experiencing a midlife crisis today in modern society, then the truth is, there's another 50, 60, 70 years to be there.

The second part about navigating the midlife crisis is really getting in touch with yourself, which is super cheesy because I feel like that is the headline of every yoga studio, of every self help book. The truth is, there's a lot of promises out there, right? This magical transformation. And I don't want to have this conversation about being in touch with yourself as some happy, mythical, super amazing time because the midlife crisis is incredible opportunity to become finally the person, whoever you want to be.

Well, the truth is that's pretty tough because everybody is in the business and sell you 100% magical transformations. And I say that because, you know, being in touch with yourself is something that for me personally, I've always kind of looked with a sense of skepticism, if not cynicism. What I mean about getting in touch with yourself is really writing down to myself about what are the experiences that I've really enjoyed in life. What are experiences that no longer serve me as a person? What are the values that are really important to me? Who are the people that actually bring me joy and make me a better person? And being very thoughtful about all of this on a blank slate because there are so many preconceived notions that other people have on me from before, and frankly, that I have on myself about who I'm supposed to be, that handicapped me from being able to achieve this set of better understanding for myself.

The truth is when we hit our 30s, we already have accumulated a set of hopefully academic experiences and professional experiences that we have learned from, and we have enough time to learn from them. So we now have perhaps dated people and some of those relationships worked out. And we've learned from that and we've moved our way towards being in relationships that we better understand that are benefits for us. We have tried different careers, industries and started to zoom in and say, Hey, this is a domain of expertise I want to master and these are things I'm still curious about.

So the midlife crisis comes about because we have come to a better understanding ourselves, but we may not necessarily have bridged that into a concrete set of actions. For example, leaving a job for a better career path or something that you want to do. Moving from a generalist to a specialization. These are all aspects that people are struggling with.

What I'm trying to say here is that there is an opportunity here. The opportunity is underscored by what the Harvard Business Review shared about, psychologist Abraham Maslow, who was famous for the pyramid of needs and where they put self-actualization at the top of the pyramid. Of course, your food shelter at the bottom of the pyramid and people have that pyramid of needs as they work towards that higher level of needs.

So Maslow basically is saying that there are two sets of motivations. One is about deficiency and the other part is about growth motivations. So what psychologist Abraham Maslow is saying is that people are moving from deficiency motivations towards growth motivations. Deficiency motivations are about lack. I don't have food. I don't have respect. I don't have social credit. I don't have capital. I don't have shelter. So these are very much, as you can tell, important motivations for so many people in the early stages of their career because you are trying to make sure that you earn enough money for rent, for food, to have a relationship.

So these are really important factors, and these should not be underappreciated. It is important in our early career to focus on those deficiency motivators. What's interesting is that as we get older, as we also accumulate the resources and experience needed, and self awareness, we start moving into growth motivators where we want to self-actualize. We want to perform at our peak of performance. We have sufficiency in terms of our food and our assets and our fundamental relationships that we feel that we want to do something more to be at the top of our performance rather than covering something that we are lacking for.

So this step change is obviously in a perfect world. So this obviously is an awkward spectrum, right? Where, you know, again, you're starting your early career with a sense of lack. And then as you go into your career or your domain in your life, it's more about being at your full potential. For example, I had an opportunity to visit Beethoven's childhood home and it was fascinating to hear about his early success. He was a child prodigy in his music because his family also had a lot of exposure to music in terms of the profession. And so he grew up with a lot of tailwinds that were supporting him. And the truth is he really took advantage of that and he really did well in his early career in his twenties to become a successful composer and musician.

(16:45) Jeremy Au:

However, for Beethoven in his mid thirties, he started going deaf, which is, as you can imagine, horrible, right? I mean, I can't imagine if I was a musician and if I had a choice between going deaf or going blind, well, you know, you would imagine that being able to hear is such a key part to your ability to appreciate music. Just like how a painter would probably prefer to be deaf rather than blind. So in his childhood home museum, I was able to see the depth of his crisis. You know, he wrote these letters, he had to carry a giant ear trumpet around to listen to other people, and, you know, he couldn't even hear his own music, which is so sad if you think about it.

At the end of the day, his prior years of experience as a composer and musician allowed him to hear the music in his own head. And so even though he was deaf, he went on to write some of the best compositions that he had ever written, far superior than what he had composed in his twenties and early thirties. So imagine that, that after becoming deaf, after having this crisis of faith, after having this gigantic frustration in his social, as you imagine, life, as well as his personal life, he goes on to become one of the most successful composers in the known world at that time. And his legacy is still with us today. His most heroic symphonies were composed after he became deaf, which is incredible if you think about it.

There's a poignant scene in a movie about his life, and the way they describe it is that, he attends the orchestra that performs the symphony, and he gets a standing ovation from the crowd, and he can't hear anything. It's silence for him. He hears the music in his own head, and he hears applause in his own head. But it's not something they can hear with his own ears.

So what I'm trying to say here is that it takes a lot of work. The midlife crisis is an opportunity. Yet it takes a lot of effort to get from point A to point B. I was recently reading about Mike Posner, who was a great example of a musician. who exemplified the 2000s, 2010s, and he was really famous for the song, "I Took a Pill in Ibiza", and in it, he talks about his lyrics, taking a pill to impress Avicii, who is a musician, who died from suicide, but of course was super popular in the 2000s.

This year, he wrote about his reflections from the past 10 years since he released that song. And that song was fun. I mean, I listened to it in my twenties and it was talking about, Hey, you know, I took my millions of dollars. I went shopping. I spent it on a nice car. I think it was a fantastic song to listen to because it's aspirational materialism that so many people love, right? And now he's 36 years old, and he basically wrote and said, Hey, you know, it's my 36th birthday. And now that I reflect on this, everything in this song is no longer true for me at 36 years old.

From his perspective, he took a lot of self work via executive coaching, via his friends, relationships, self work. And now from his perspective, he's in a much better spot psychologically, spiritually, relationally, community wise, even physical health. These are all aspects that to him, he is no longer the same person he was 10 years ago, and he's happy about where he was 10 years ago, but now he's even happier about where he is today.

(19:42) Jeremy Au:

For him, he shared that he made a massive investment into his relationship with his mother, with his sister and his relationship with God. He took the time to work with therapists. and end his fear of intimacy and become a better partner as a person and a better partner to himself. And as a result, he is now in a much better relationship compared to his past relationships. In his own words, he's basically going through a midlife crisis and he's gone through it and now he's happier for it.

In conclusion, we're talking about the midlife crisis and in many ways, it is a crisis, but also an opportunity. Again, it's not about the fantasy, about some magical imagination. There is a path dependency to your career, to your personality, to your skill sets that not only provide broad parameters to what you're able to expand into, but also a strong foundation into your future success about what you eventually choose. The crux of it is that moving from a deficiency motivator, the lack of something that you're trying to make up for, Into a growth motivator, into becoming the fullest version of yourself is an opportunity to really embrace that, to embrace the change and feel that change and to acknowledge that change and change into the person is more true to a freedom and style that you want to be as a person.

It's not easy. It's not a five minute fix. It's not a one month fix. It may take a year. It may take several years. And yet at the end of the day, having the opportunity to have a midlife crisis, the opportunity to come to realization that your old self is no longer true. Well, I think that's an opportunity to become the person that you can become.

On that note, thank you so much and see you next time.


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