Do you know people who think they're having a "midlife crisis"? While scientific evidence is sparse in support of such a down period, the stereotype persists: people reach a certain age and suddenly start acting out. They buy an expensive car, leave their family, or quit a longtime job to chase a dream.
The first of those three choices is relatively benign, the second is destructive, and the third? Well, if you have a dream you have always wanted to pursue and you chase it, why is that a crisis? Think of it as curiosity that can lead to a new calling.
Sociologists have documented what has become known as the "happiness U-curve," in which life satisfaction for many people declines through their 40s and 50s, then starts to increase again.
Accountants are not known for risky behavior, but it doesn't mean they don't have dreams. We honor the best in ourselves when we acknowledge and explore those dreams, rather than ignore or deny them.
Research has shown that longevity is tied to sense of purpose. So if you want to live a life that's long, strong, healthy, and happy, it's critical to find and pursue your purpose in life. This is also the key to not having that midlife malaise turn into a crisis. It starts with being aware that your happiness is directly tied to your sense of purpose.
If you find yourself feeling unhappy—not just temporarily sad, but feeling like you are stuck in a rut you cannot climb out of—that's a sign you may have lost your sense of purpose. Some symptoms:
- You feel a sense of quiet desperation and lack hope and excitement for the future.
- You sense your energy and creativity are flagging.
- Your thoughts feel dull and unfocused beyond just the occasional "senior moment."
- You feel your physical health and vitality are declining.
- Your relationships seem boring and unfulfilling.
One way to think about purpose is to ask, "What do want your legacy to be?" Maybe it's to help educate people about planning their financial future, or to protect them from identity theft, or to help an organization reach its business goals.
Once you know your purpose, you can begin to pivot—to make small but significant changes that over time position you to pursue your purpose. Pivoting isn't sudden, radical change. It's envisioning a way to change your life, preserving the parts of your life that serve you, and creating a clear plan for making sustainable change.
One thing that keeps people from changing is the idea that they have to throw out everything they have learned. They fear the prospect of starting from scratch, so they end up doing nothing, enduring and tolerating mediocrity.
To get out of this rut, here are some ways to start:
- Follow your natural curiosity. Maybe you have thoughts that begin with "I would love to ____" (fill in the blank: write a book, travel to another country, learn to speak Italian, etc.) Then a voice tells you that's crazy—you've got responsibilities (a mortgage, college costs, kids getting married, or other big expenses)." Instead, next time you have some radical idea like "I wouldn't mind doing that for awhile," sit and play with it.
- Establish rituals to explore opportunities. Find a place in your home to be your pivot "home base." It can be an office or spare room, or something as modest as a card table in a corner. Keep a journal and any inspirational items, such as books, in that space. Pick a consistent and regular time for considering change. Allow yourself at least 30 uninterrupted minutes daily and keep this time "sacred." Put it on your calendar. Make needed logistical changes to create and protect this time.
- Cultivate your vision. Vision is an inside-out job. What you cultivate on the inside is what you produce on the outside. The inside work of personal development depends on your ability to create a vision. Start by asking: "What is the creative opportunity in this situation?" Then follow that question to find the first actions you need to take.
Once you begin to take those actions, you will be on your way to pivoting to positive change.
Adam Markel is CEO of New Peaks, a personal and business training company. He is the author of Pivot: The Art and Science of Reinventing Your Career and Life.