How I’m dealing with my third mid-life crisis
I had my first mid-life crisis at 18.
(Yep, I’ve always been a bit ahead of my time.)
Not long out of high school, my head was full of dreams and it felt like the possibilities were endless.
It should have been an exciting time, but instead I found myself paralysed by all the paths I could take. Compounding the problem was a tug-of-war going on between two key sides of my personality.
On one side was the natural entrepreneur — the kid who picked flowers from his neighbours’ gardens and sold them to other neighbours; the teenager who noticed his friends kept getting in trouble for losing their pencils and protractors, so used a spare locker to run a stationery supply business at school for three years.
On the other was the person whose faith was important to him; who had a sense he should be expressing that faith by serving others in some kind of ministry.
In short, I felt caught between pursuing a ‘career’ and a ‘calling’.
Because these two paths seemed mutually exclusive, I was wary of choosing one over the other. So I kept my options open. I started a marketing degree, worked in sales, volunteered as a youth worker and spoke at my church.
When I was offered a paid role at my church, it seemed like a decision was being made for me. And I was pretty happy with that decision. For ten years, youth work, ministry and studying theology were my life. And it was a satisfying life. I enjoyed my work, found it meaningful, and was good at it.
Then my early thirties hit.
And I began to feel another ‘mid-life crisis’ coming on.
This one was different to the one I had at 18.
First of all, I had more responsibilities. Newly married, my wife V and I had big dreams. We wanted to see and experience the world. But we also wanted to create a stable and secure future for the kids we hoped to one day have.
Secondly, I was less paralysed by possibilities and more worried I’d boxed myself in. I was on a very specific career path in the ministry, and while this was satisfying the side of me that loved the idea of a ‘calling’, my natural entrepreneur wasn’t getting a workout.
So that’s where my mind was at when a little voice came out of my computer one rainy November afternoon:
Master, you’ve got mail.
(Yes,I know! But you have to understand, this was a time when email was exciting enough to warrant verbal notifications.)
I duly opened Hotmail and sitting there was an email from Steve, a good friend of mine. It was the kind of email I’d normally have passed over because it only had four words:
Check out this blog.
But I was open to diversions.
And I’d never heard the word ‘blog’ before.
So, I clicked.
And was taken to a site called Tall Skinny Kiwi. It belonged to a guy called Andrew Jones, a New Zealander living in Prague, writing about spirituality and postmodernism. After reading Andrew’s blog for an hour, my imagination was captured. I decided I needed one of my own.
Blogging gave my life new energy at a time where a spark was sorely needed. Suddenly I was learning something new every day:
- A new way of communicating with people.
- A new way to teach.
- A new bunch of skills. (Who knew figuring out how to make html text bold could be so exciting?)
And while I certainly didn’t start blogging in the hope it would satisfy my inner entrepreneur, it did that too.
One of my early blogs was a camera review blog. It quickly attracted a level of traffic I could monetise through Google ads and affiliate links. I remember the thrill of making my first income from those ads. It started at something like two dollars a day. But, from that tiny amount, something big grew.
Two dollars became ten.
Ten became twenty.
Within 10 months I was making the equivalent of a one-day-a-week job.
Then it grew to two days a week.
This brought me to a funny sort of cross-roads in my life.
I’d been on a part-time contract to set up a new church and while that contract would eventually come to an end, there was a strong pull to continue working in the ministry. As mentioned, it had been my life and calling for 10 years and gave me the opportunity to:
- Make a difference to the world.
- Learn new skills and put them into practice.
- Grow as a person and express my faith.
But … there were opportunities arising for me via blogging that couldn’t be taken up because I didn’t have enough time. And interestingly, blogging was ticking most of the above boxes too.
It was a really difficult place to be in and there’s a long story that sits behinds the deliberations V and I made. (If anyone’s interested in hearing the long story, let me know. That can be a post for another day.)
The short story?
After many soul-searching conversations with V, lots of prayer and an agonising amount of internal back and forth, I finally came to the conclusion that I didn’t have to be working in the ministry to do God’s work; there were any number of ways that could be achieved. So we decided I’d give it a go. I’d become a full-time blogger.
And the rest, as they say, is history
Over the past 17 years, blogging has seen me tick many more boxes, several of which I never thought to dream of:
- It definitely satisfied my inner entrepreneur!
- It made us financially secure.
- It made me a published author. (Problogger, the book I co-wrote with Chris Garrett, was published by Wiley in 2012.)
- It gave me the chance to travel extensively, speaking and teaching in locations all over the world.
- It put me in a position to help raise money for, and increase awareness of, several causes I’m passionate about.
- It allowed me to bring like-minded people together and connect.
Most importantly, however, it showed me that a ‘calling’ and a ‘career’ are not mutually exclusive at all.
I’m forever meeting people who tell me that reading Problogger and Digital Photography School (my two main blogs today) have helped them:
- find new creative outlets that have boosted their mental health
- build new skills that led to promotions at work
- develop confidence and overcome fears
- grow new income streams to support their families
- achieve either financial security, a better lifestyle … or both!
Given it also opened up opportunities for me to talk to people about deeper issues of life and faith, it’s the understatement of the century to say blogging has been rewarding at every level of my life.
I’ve just turned 46.
And a new feeling is starting to nag at me. The feeling that ‘something is missing’; that there might be more to life.
Am I seriously having a third mid-life crisis? (Albeit one that’s occurring at the appropriate time?)
What even is a mid-life crisis?
The cliched version is where a man, (it’s pretty much always a man), suddenly makes big life changes — buys a Ferrari, signs up for an Ironman triathlon, takes up with a younger woman.
According to research, however, ‘mid-life crises’ happen across both genders, and to more people than not. For those of us who live in safe, economically strong Western nations a ‘happiness u-curve’ has been observed. As adults, we’re happiest when we’re 18. Our happiness then declines steadily to our mid-forties and fifties, before rising again in our later years.
Scientists aren’t certain what causes the happiness dip but they do know this; there’s a lot going on for adults in their forties and fifties.
Our work is demanding due to the responsibilities we have and the hours it requires. But, we’re also a bit bored. We’ve achieved a level of mastery that means we can operate largely on auto pilot. (Which leads us to wonder with dread, ‘Is this my life for the next 30 years?’)
We’re obsessed with creating a financially-secure future for ourselves and our kids, so we’re always looking forward. We find it hard to be in, and enjoy the moment.
We’re perpetually worried. Our kids are growing up fast and being exposed to things we never had to think about when we were young. Meanwhile, ageing parents require our attention and care.
Mostly, however, we’re obsessed with time
The phrase the days are long and the years are short is often used to describe those highly-immersive and difficult first years of parenting.
As your kids get older and you hit your middle years it can feel like the days are short and the years are shorter. Time starts to elapse at a dizzying pace.
And we’re caught in a paradox.
The tendency to lose friends and family members to terminal illnesses around this time makes us highly aware of our own mortality. We’re constantly reminded to live in the moment because who knows how many of those moments we have left.
Yet, it also creates a desperation to do ‘all the things’ before time ‘runs out’.
No wonder there’s a happiness dip in our middle years!
More time, less stress, more meaning
While writing this post, I polled my network to see what people my age felt their main challenges were. One of the lines that stood out to me was this:
We want more time, less stress and more meaning.
I know I definitely want all those things!
But the thing is, I don’t think we just want these things, I think we feel we deserve them. After all, we’ve worked hard, we’ve raised kids, we’ve volunteered our time — shouldn’t there be a point where things ‘settle down’ and we get what’s coming to us?
The problem with this mindset is that it leads us to focus heavily on what we don’t have as opposed to what we do. It’s a fast path to resentment and unhappiness. One I’m not really keen to head down. And I’m sure you’re not either.
Like me, I suspect you’re:
- Quite happy with your life.
- Very aware it’s a good life.
- Very grateful for that good life.
So they’re not the problems at hand. The main problems are more likely to be these:
- feeling we have something more to offer the world,
- having no idea of what that thing might be, and
- feeling frustration at having to root around in the margins of life to try and find the answer.
I don’t know about you, but the family and work responsibilities I have, (responsibilities I didn’t have at 18 and 30), don’t allow time for expansive experimentation and following many different paths in order to find the one that will bust me out of this current funk.
Which leads me to this realisation:
Instead of being resentful and frustrated at having to operate in the margins of life, I should focus on being more targeted about how I go about it.
Introducing … Sparks
Over the years I’ve run a business, just about every meaningful, rewarding and educational experience I’ve had can be traced back to things I call ‘Sparks’.
What are Sparks?
For want of a better description, I’ll say they are ‘energy’. The feeling that, ‘Hmm, there’s something interesting here.’
Sometimes, like when you meet someone for the first time and just know they’re going to become someone special to you, that spark can quickly turn into a roaring campfire.
Other times, like when a single line in an article plants a tiny seed of thought in your brain, that spark may lay dormant for years, requiring a very particular propellant (the right amount of time and space for instance) to grow into something bigger.
Most of the time, they’re something in between. Fuelled by simple curiosity, they flare up into a candle flame, and can stay alight for as long as there is the equivalent of wick and wax on hand to keep it going.
The most important thing to know about Sparks?
It’s that there are two steps involved in them turning into something special or significant:
Step 1 — Is noticing the Spark in the first place.
Step 2 — Is acting on the Spark.
For example, it was one thing to notice the kids at my school were getting in trouble for losing their pens and protractors. But the real fun started when I fanned that Spark into a flame and provided a solution for this ongoing problem.
It was all well and good to notice I loved preaching at my church and working with youth. But it was only through volunteering to do those services for free that it became my vocation for 10 years.
It was great that I noticed the ‘Check out this blog’ link in my inbox from Steve. But everything good that came from blogging came because I clicked the link, then read the blog, then actually started my own blog(s).
Throughout my life I’ve acted on countless Sparks. Not all of these actions led to positive experiences. Sometimes I got burnt! But they all led to growth, and, most importantly, they brought change. We humans are living organisms and if we’re not continually growing and changing, I have to wonder … are we truly alive?
How I’m going to tackle this third mid-life crisis
So, clearly I’m thinking Sparks are the way I’m going to re-engage with life and address that nagging feeling of, ‘Something’s missing. I think I have more to offer the world, but I don’t know what it is.’
What’s the main thing standing between me and Sparks? The fact that my life is busy and full.
The obvious thing to do here would be to address the ‘busy and full’ bit before anything else; to clear space to notice and act on Sparks. But … I know from experience that I’d approach the ‘clearing space’ bit with great vigor initially, and then at some point, life would get in the way. At which point I’d decide, ‘This clearly isn’t the right time for this.’
I don’t want to play that game.
So I’m going to take the ‘do something so small it would be silly not to do it’ route instead.
I’m going to identify Sparks in a very intentional and targeted way by reactivating a very simple exercise I’ve done on and off for years.
Each night, before I go to bed, I’m going to answer these two questions:
What gave me energy today?
What did I do that gave other people energy?
I’m really looking forward to seeing what insights this daily reflection throws up over coming weeks. I’m interested to see if there is anything I feel compelled to act on.
But mostly, I’m interested.
Which tells me I’ve already started to ease my way out of mid-life crisis #3 :)
Keen to join in?
Are you in a similar place to me? A bit disengaged and angsty, but with very limited time available to experiment your way out of it? Then maybe you’d like to join me in doing this simple daily exercise.
I’ve created some free diary sheets with the two questions on it. You can request them here and write on them each night. Commit to doing it for 30 days and see what happens.
If you’d like to do the 30-day challenge with a group, join the Sparks group on Facebook here. We’ll be starting the daily exercise on August 1, 2018.
Update: over 500 people have now completed the 31 day challenge and and we learnt a lot about where sparks fly. We’ve continued the group where I now provide daily prompts to help us all find our spark.
Join us today — I look forward to hearing what you find!
A big thanks to Kate Rolfe who created the custom illustrations for this piece!