Here Are The 5 New Words/Terms I Learned in Midlife That Revived Me
A wailing siren and a soft, reassuring hand. That is all I remember from my ambulance trip in suburban St. Louis on August 19, 2008. My heart had stopped just as the paramedic team arrived right after my giving a speech. “Break a leg,” is what they tell you before going on stage. Well, I’d broken my ankle a month earlier, had a serious bacterial infection in my leg, and was on strong antibiotics (as it turned out, the heart failure was likely an allergic reaction to the medication). What the heck was I doing on stage half a continent away from home in my condition?! While my memories of that day are opaque, I can still see in my mind’s eye the dream-like image that was swirling around my brain when I awoke in the Emergency Room: thick, sweet, fragrant oil dripping down a set of beautiful, dark wooden stairs in slow motion – I believe this was my experience of “seeing the light” when death was at my doorstep.
For most of the previous five years my internal weather report had been much like a cold summer day in San Francisco; I had lived with a persistent fog bank shadowing me from the sun. Most of the obstacles I’d faced – from near corporate and personal bankruptcy, to the painful end of a relationship, to a flurry of friends committing suicide, to a family member unjustly going to prison – would rank high on the conventional list of top stressors in one’s life. But, much of my stressful evolution during this time was below the surface. Many of you know what I mean.
I can’t describe San Francisco’s weather or my own internal conditions in just a word or two. There are microclimates that mean it can be both foggy and warm within the “49 miles surrounded by reality” that we call San Francisco – just like there were quite varied emotional states I experienced during my lowest point of my life, from age 45-49. With my new lease on life after this heart failure at age 47, which I saw as a kind of divine intervention, I started to explore why I felt so bewildered and full of angst. This led me to writing my last book Emotional Equations (2012), but it also introduced me to a series of words and terms that every person entering their forties should be taught. So, excuse me for sounding like Professor Conley, but here are some of my lingo lessons of the past ten years, some of which is covered in my next book Wisdom@Work: The Making of a Modern Elder which launches in September.
1.“The U-Curve of Happiness”
In his laudable new book, The Happiness Curve: Why Life Gets Better After 50, Jonathan Rauch writes, “Younger people consistently and markedly overestimated how satisfied they would be five years later, while older people underestimated future satisfaction. So youth is a period of perpetual disappointment, and older adulthood is a period of pleasant surprise. What’s more, (the researcher) found that in between those two periods, during middle age, people experienced a sort of double whammy: satisfaction with life was declining (that’s the U-curve, which manifested itself clearly), but expectations were also by then declining (in fact, they were declining even faster than satisfaction itself). In other words, middle-aged people tend to feel both disappointed and pessimistic, a recipe for misery.”
For those of you my age (turning 58 this Halloween), wouldn’t you have appreciated a road marker around age 35 alerting you that this was one helluva U-curve around the corner? Here’s the good news: across virtually all cultures, this is a real and universal phenomenon. So, just like we anticipate the end of a great film or the 4th quarter of a sporting match, we can know that the best is yet to come.
Middlescence (noun) pronounced “middle-essence”: “A transitional period, between the ages of about 45 and 65, marked by an increased desire to find or create greater meaning in one’s life. Often accompanied by physical, social, and economic changes, it is a turning point from which adults continue to develop and grow. A life stage created by increased longevity patterns in the 21st century.”
Adolescence as we know it, didn’t exist as a word until psychologist G. Stanley Hall wrote a book in 1904 with that name. In adolescence, we experience a major transition (puberty) in who we are and how we see the world. But, in midlife, our bodies are changing as well: hair is gray, thinning or gone, eyesight changes, wrinkles appear, women complete menopause, and men experience andropause hormonal changes. Our bodies are emerging out of the core of adulthood and into something else. A relatively new word, “middlescence,” is growing in popularity as the corollary to adolescence. And, yet, during adolescence we have all kinds of rituals and societal guidance to help young people through this transitional time of life (think bar/bat mitzvahs, quinceaneras, etc..). Where was my guidance counselor at age 45?
We buy property and liability insurance for our homes, but we – especially men – don’t consider investing in “emotional insurance” pre-forties to help us through this time of major change, much of which is kept in “quiet desperation” locked inside ourselves. The challenges you feel in this stage of life don’t have to be a shameful secret. For those who want to read more about this, I’d recommend gerontologist Barbara Waxman’s quick read, The Middlescence Manifesto.
Midlife is a relatively new phenomenon in historical terms given that U.S. residents added thirty years of longevity during the 20th century (moving from 47 to 77 years of age). We’ve historically thought of midlife as 45-65, but given how many people in their mid-thirties start feeling irrelevant and many others will work till their mid-seventies, midlife may now be 35-75 years old. This period is made all the more challenging by the fact that between one’s wedding and their funeral, there aren’t many positive midlife rituals so we’re left to suffer through transitions in family, career, and physical and emotional health without much social structure to support the “midlife marathon.” Anthropologist Barbara Myerhoff describes how aside from retirement and funerals as the “crude markers for start beginning and end of old age,” we really have no punctuation in midlife. It’s just one damn, run-on sentence.
As kids, many of us learn about the beautifully-transformative process by which a caterpillar morphs into a butterfly. The caterpillar, in early adulthood, feeds on all kinds of leafy resources to prepare itself for the chrysalis of midlife when it will hang upside down, spin itself a silky cocoon, and then digest itself dissolving its own tissues, and come out the other side as a colorful flying insect. But, if you were to open the cocoon mid-morphosis, it would be a gooey mess. Welcome to your midlife. The idea of liminality was introduced into the field of anthropology in 1909 by Arnold Van Gennep who described rites of passage, such as coming of age rituals, as having the following three-part structure: separation, liminal period, and re-assimilation. When you’re in a liminal state, you’re in between two stages. Professor Herminia Ibarra (her book Working Identity is worth a read) suggests many of us attach much of our sense of identity to our work, so it’s natural that a certain ambiguity and disorientation can occur when we’re in transition – especially when we stray off our career path. Based upon what we know of what’s to come, I believe this diagram (created with some of our midlife students at our Modern Elder Academy in Baja) more aptly describes our life stages. So don’t fret the goo, there’s a coming emergence that will help you to fly. Oddly, when you turn this diagram on its side, it resembles a butterfly.
4. “Midlife Atrium.”
In her 2010 book, Composing a Further Life: The Age of Active Wisdom, Mary Catherine Bateson suggests we build our years of increased longevity the way that we might build a new room addition onto our home. She writes, “Adding a room to a house is likely to change the way all the rooms are used. Mid-career renewal is potentially a more dramatic change. Rather than building something on at the back, we are moving the walls and creating an atrium in the center. The atrium is filled with fresh air and sunlight, and it presents an opportunity for reflection on all the rooms that open off of it.” In other words, the increased longevity we may have compared to our parents or grandparents doesn’t necessarily mean an extra ten years occurring at the end of our life. Rather, it means we have an extra decade, or atrium, in our midlife. Maybe this will inspire you to create an architectural blueprint for a midlife atrium, complete with a variety of choices of how to spend those extra midlife years (this is what we do at the Modern Elder Academy). Maybe you want to launch an “encore career” (another term I wasn’t familiar with)? Maybe this is the time when we begin to evaluate our lives less in terms of social competition and more in terms of social connectedness? Maybe it’s time for presence to overrule performance and recognize that just maybe, that “midlife crisis” is truly an “awakening”? Philosopher William Irvine suggests, “People are unhappy in large part because they are confused about what is valuable.” An atrium in midlife offers us the space to gain clarity.
5. “Modern Elder”
Power is cascading to the young faster than ever before due to our increasing reliance on technology and, yet, many of these young digital leaders are expected to miraculously embody the relationship wisdoms we elders have had decades to learn. It’s time to liberate the word “elder” from “elderly.” This won’t be the first time a demographic group has reclaimed a word. “Yankee,” “black,” and “queer” also used to be derogatory terms, so let’s reclaim “elder” but in a more modern way. Own the word, it gives you power. For me, I was a “Modern Elder” at age 52 joining Airbnb in 2013, twice the age of the average employee and mentoring the CEO, who was 21 years younger than me, but I also reported to him. I coined the word “mentern” to describe what it means to be a mentor and an intern at the same time, as “mutual mentoring” was what I’ve learned in my five and a half years at Airbnb where I’m cast in a role that is part-sage, part-student. I learn DQ (digital intelligence) from those younger than me and they may learn a little EQ (emotional intelligence) from me.
Peter Drucker coined the term “knowledge workers” a year before I was born to describe the future of work. I believe it’s time to retire than phrase since knowledge is stored in our computers. Today dawns the era of the “wisdom worker.” Thirty years ago, Ken Dychtwald (who coined that term) wrote that companies will seek “mature men and women who will be retained and whose compensation will be based not on the number of hours they work but on their experience, contacts and wisdom.” Indeed, wisdom has always been pro-social, something a society wants more of.
There you have it: five little-known words or terms that can help you navigate midlife. Lastly, let me give a huge thank you to all of you who responded to my inquiry about the words that renewed you in midlife. Here were some of your words: surrender, humility, patience, legacy and impact, intention, intimacy, grace, recess and reset, gratitude, “transcend accomplishment addition” (one of my favorites), ENOUGH!, community, contentment, resilience, presence, evolve, curiosity, mindful, reflection, R-E-S-P-E-C-T, potential, transformation, and the dreaded “mortgage” which I’d never realized was French for “dead pledge.”
Author Jonathan Rauch suggests, “If you wanted to design a society that exacerbated midlife misery and squandered the potential of later adulthood, you might deliver education in a single lump during the first two decades of life, load work into the middle decades, and then herd healthy, happy and highly skilled older adults into idleness. In other words, you would do more or less what we have been doing for the past century or so.” It’s time for us to break the chains that bind us and to popularize new language that renews us. I hope you found this little lesson in midlife lingo to be enlightening. I look forward to hanging out with you in our midlife atrium.
Chip Conley is a New York Times best-selling author and long-time hospitality executive who renewed himself in midlife by collaborating with the Millennial co-founders of Airbnb to create the world’s largest global hospitality brand. His next book, Wisdom@Work: The Making of a Modern Elder, is available on pre-order.