When Should I Start My Midlife Crisis?

I'm not dead yet.

In fact, I'm half 90 this week -- better known as 45 years old.

I think I'm doing pretty good, all things considered.

I have a home, a wife, great kids, a job and motorcycle.

Yet, I'm starting to worry that I'm getting a late start on my mid-life crisis.

Not that I'm planning a whole lot. I already have a motorcycle. I don't drink, smoke or fool around. I got my big career change out of the way a decade ago and I am pretty happy with it.

Maybe I already had it, and just didn't notice.

This birthday has got me wondering what we should consider mid-life these days.

While overall US life expectancy is 78 in this country I am in a position to know that how we live is a major variable. Previous generations have embraced smoking, drugs and alcohol in such a way as to skew the curve such that I often see 90 year olds healthier and stronger than 65 year olds.

That said, according to this calculator from the University of Penn- I'm predicted to live 85 years -- 95 if I'm really, really good and 76 if I take up the habit of driving drunk while not wearing a condom.

However, there is more to life expectancy than risk factors. The Death Clock, which uses a lot fewer factors figures I'll live to 95, but Amy will live to 103! That's the gender penalty. On the other hand, the Social Security Administration is only planning on me living to 81. While another calculator says I'll live to 95.

Or we could all be hit by a bus tomorrow (not all of us by the same bus, of course), making these actuary tables moot - at least on an individual level.

Moreover, we are always underestimating human ingenuity. We are on the verge of some major medical breakthroughs in terms of life expectancy. As aging baby boomers and Google founders pour their riches into ways of living and functioning longer, my guess is that we are going to see a continued increase in the lives of people with few risk factors who take care to lead active, growing lives.

Which brings up the question of the crisis itself. What is a midlife crisis? More than anything it seems to me to be a crisis of expectations - where we come to terms with the fact that we are unlikely to become pro football players or rock stars now that we've reached our 40s.

It is similar to the bad birth experience some mothers find themselves facing after they create elaborate birth plans for the delivery of their baby -- only to discover that baby had different plans about where and how he or she was going to enter the world.

In mid-life, as in birth, it seems we are overwhelmed by what could have, or should have been rather than what we have.

Many of us create ambitious fantasies about our dream life or dream career tangentially tethered -- if at all -- to our real abilities. That "what do you want to be when you grow up" game sticks with us.

Sometimes it becomes the "what do you want to do when you retire" game after a while.

My guess is retirement is likely to be a thing of the past in another 20 years -- so I don't even play that game much anymore.

As Moltke the elder once almost said, "No plan survives first contact with the enemy." If you want to make God laugh, make long range plans. Life intervenes.

Rarely does life go according to our childhood aspirations. Yet these aspirations get integrated into our identity, our dreams - however unrealized - are woven into the fabric of how we think of ourselves. It is that dissonance that causes the crisis in our identity.

I have, at various times had serious plans on being:
  • an astronaut
  • a music producer
  • an engineer/inventor
  • an airline pilot
  • a novelist 
  • a professional football player
  • an Olympic athlete 
Obviously, a couple of those dreams have fallen off the list.

On the other hand, I never had any aspiration to become a journalist - yet I did that for more than a dozen years with mild success. It is a career that I fell into, and it would not let me go.  Nursing was more of a calling than a career choice and the first 10 years dedicated to helping others heal has flown by.

Of course, looking at what we have accomplished and what we have seems to be the psychological salve to sooth this crisis of expectations. We are what we do. When bad things happen, looking at what we learned, or how we grew changes our perception of those events. 

The fact that we have reached the midway point of our existence -- without being hit by a bus -- should be an opportunity to take stock of what we have done, as well as what we have the gumption, ambition and means to still achieve with whatever time is left. 
Unlike our 12 year old selves, we understand now that hard work, dedication, money, talent and dumb luck are all ingredients to achieving anything we set our minds to.

Mostly, dumb luck.

That life hasn't turned out like we planned is often due to the absence of one or multiple ingredients -- or that you were planning on silly things in the first place.

Looking back at my list, I would have missed out on many of the most wonderful things of my life if I had pursued some other course. In his book 59 Seconds, Richard Wiseman talks about creating an attitude of gratitude for what we have -- but ignore -- in our everyday lives. (see the video above)

This exercise is a great for when you are mourning the death of your rock and roll dreams.

Or, whenever you have a birthday.

National Institute on Aging
Calico, Google's Anti-Aging Initiative
Wharton School at University of Penn
59 Seconds: Change Your Life in Under a Minute by Richard Wiseman

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