Let’s begin with a story about a guy named Shelly.
Shelly was in his late forties. He was a successful businessman, taking his company from a scrappy little startup to a multi-million dollar business. He was married to a beautiful woman, had three amazing kids, good friends, a caring community, and a house with a white picket fence. His life was cliche – the good kind. Then it became the bad kind.
Shelly had a midlife crisis. At first it started with the proverbial, and in this case literal, sports car. Then the cliche became a nightmare as slowly and methodically Shelly came undone. He threw away his business in search of an elusive, more satisfying profession. He ended his marriage in a quest for a somehow better relationship. He walked away from friendships, community, religion – all in a vain quest to discover deeper meaning and realize true purpose in his life.
Ultimately, Shelly took his own life, completed suicide. He never found his true purpose, but he did hand his beloved family a true crisis and tragedy.
I was his family. Shelly was my dad.
My dad’s death was a tragedy. However, what makes this a tragedy compounded was that my dad already had what he was looking for – he just couldn’t see it, couldn’t feel it, couldn’t receive the opportunities, gifts and blessings all around him. He was so preoccupied with the idea that his happiness was somehow outside of himself, somewhere out there… out near the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.
If only he could change his circumstances, then he’d feel fulfilled.
If only he could find the right profession, then he’d know his purpose.
If only he could meet the right partner, discover the right community, stumble upon the right opportunity, then he would discover deeper meaning in his life, realize a greater purpose for his life, and finally be happy in his life.
Shelly’s meaning, purpose and happiness never came, just like it never does for the countless other midlife men and women I have guided over the years, who also make this mistake.
In the words of my teacher and mentor, Dr. Viktor Frankl:
“For success, like happiness, cannot be pursued; it must ensue, and it only does so as the unintended side effect of one’s personal dedication to a cause greater than oneself or as the by-product of one’s surrender to a person other than oneself.”
Over and over I have witnessed men and women, particularly at midlife, who get the existential-itch, more-meaning-itis, and greater-purpose-pains. They have climbed the ladder of success, as it has been said, only to find it is leaning against the wrong wall.
They have outward success but can’t seem to internalize it.
They are surrounded by so many people yet feel so alone.
They have achieved, acquired and arrived and yet that damn Talking Heads song keeps ringing in their ears:
And you may find yourself behind the wheel of a large automobile
And you may find yourself in a beautiful house, with a beautiful wife
And you may ask yourself, “Well… how did I get here?”
Saying to themselves, “My God! What have I done?”
So, they set sail for the better job, the better spouse, the better circumstances. And they sail, and sail, and sail. They hit port after port, “looking for love in all the wrong places” – how many songs can I cram in one blog? Eventually when there’s no more wind in their sails, they drift, and sometimes, like my dad, they sink.
But it doesn’t have to be this way, it shouldn’t be this way. Don’t live your life this way.
Yes, you need meaning.
Yes, you have a purpose.
Yes, you deserve happiness.
Maybe you will need to change professions. Perhaps you will end up getting a divorce. Possibly you will totally uproot yourself and begin again in one of those exotic ports.
But for it to be authentic, to be real and to be lasting and true, you must…
1. Start where you stand. Take stock of what you have, what you’ve accomplished, and who’s by your side. Stay put. Get your own grass as green as you can before you go looking over your neighbor’s fence. You might realize the answer is in your own backyard.
2. Go all in. Maybe the problem isn’t them; maybe it’s you. Maybe you’ve been holding back, playing it safe, or protecting your heart. Yes, go for it at midlife, but first try going all in within your life. If it doesn’t pan out, so be it. At least you’ll move on knowing you gave it all you had.
3. Try believing the success “they” say you have achieved. Try receiving happiness, really allowing it in. Over and over as I work with the outwardly uber-successful, I realize that more often than not, they don’t have a production problem – produce more, do more, or be more. Rather, they have a reception problem – they can’t receive the fruits of their labor, the love of their spouse, or the success or happiness that is knocking on their door trying to get in.
4. Shift your gaze from self to other. We are not here for “self.” Freedom is not realized when we cut ties or forgo responsibilities. We are here for others, to give, to love and to serve. True freedom, as Dr. Frankl taught, is not “freedom from,” but “freedom to” fulfill our responsibilities, to serve a cause greater than ourselves.
5. Lastly, remember that you have a choice. You always have a choice. And overall, you only have one choice: to choose your response to your circumstances. Stop allowing your inner or outer conditions the power to dictate who you are or determine what you do. You can choose to make a stand, as Dr. Frankl called, “the defiant power of the human spirit,” summoning the deep reservoir of strength and resilience within you to stand your ground, persevere, and do the work discovering deeper meaning and greater purpose – not out there in the world, but always and only, within you.
Don’t make the same tragic mistake as my dear dad. Choose to live by these five simple rules and transform your midlife crisis into an afternoon of life awakening. If you do it, you just might just save your life.