by Brian Watkins
I want to challenge a common notion we have about what we often call a midlife crisis — a term often used in a derogatory and judgemental way about someone making changes around age 35-50.
The term seems reductive to the point of being useless, in my opinion.
Sure, occasionally you see a 40 year old guy go buy a Corvette out of what gets labeled as a sense of insecurity about his manhood, where supposedly he sees the car as a way to recapture his virility or become “more of a man.”
Sometimes maybe that’s true. (But even when it is, why should everyone else care so much?)
Often what we’re really observing, though, is a person getting back in touch with hobbies, wishes, or desires they had when they were younger. Things that once adulthood and the conveyor belt of 9-to-5 life kicked in felt intangible. Society seemed to tell them these things weren’t feasible, practical, or worthy.
And then we get to an age where we realize that was at least 90% bullshit, and we start giving ourselves permission to listen to those parts of ourselves.
Before we go any further into unpacking this, let me get a few things sorted before there are objections. What I am not advocating is that everyone should do whatever the hell they want, that they should be reckless with their money, or that the responsibilities of adulthood are inherently bad.
Where it seems like this starts…
From a fairly early age school teaches us that what WE find interesting isn’t really important. The focus is always on breadth of knowledge rather than experimentation and finding what we love. It’s on memorizing facts and passing quizzes and not doing things that matter.
We’re largely taught obedience and following instructions rather than trailblazing and problem solving.
By the end of high school, counselors are filling our ears with questions about what career we’re going to pick, what’s best suited to our skills, and what makes us the most money.
These aptitude tests are based on incomplete information, and in some cases like mine, aren’t helpful. After all, what good is being told, “You’d make a good police detective, or a doctor, or an artist, or maybe even multilingual translator?” Those are too many options with seemingly too little in common, and while they might make sense on some level because of a person’s abilities, such as they are, they don’t take into account what a person finds interesting or is energized by.
But jobs aren’t supposed to be fun, so get over it. Make money.
Find a place of your own by a certain age, buy a practical car, climb the career ladder, find a spouse, have children, pay your taxes, listen to popular music, watch whatever Hollywood puts in front of you, and wear curb appeal as a status symbol.
Check the boxes.
By the time we’re 30 we’ve done so many mandated things someone told us to it’s little surprise we lose a part of ourselves along the way, and also no surprise depression is rampant or that a huge number of people report feeling unfulfilled and bored with their lives.
I think a lot of what starts going on around age 35 is a person starting to look at their life and panicking a little bit, thinking, “If the average lifespan is 75ish years I’m basically halfway done. Shit! I don’t have nearly the money in the bank, the happiness, or the fill-in-the-blank that I thought I would by now! I’ve got to go full throttle!”
Probably the part of that we can legitimately call a “midlife crisis” is this first reaction. A lot of what follows is more of a midlife awakening.
It’s a wake up call, and it can be useful.
Let me share a bit of my own story to create some context for where I’m going with this.
When I was 17 I was a bright, sensitive free-spirit. I loved jamming to music, tinkering with speakers, Jerry-rigging electronics, reading and writing stories, and fantasizing about awesome cars.
Those kinds of things energized me and made the pursuit of getting straight A’s and next steps seem worthwhile.
When I hit college I knew no one and suddenly felt like an outsider. I’d gotten spoiled by not having to study in high school to the degree that I struggled in certain classes. My world suddenly seemed all about certainty of direction, where I was measured by my ability to have everything already figured out and check somebody else’s boxes. I felt lost.
No one I knew gave a shit about stories, or speakers, or anything I cared about. I started questioning whether it even made sense for me to care about them anymore, either.
Everybody that appeared to have it all figured out cared about entirely different things. (I’d take me years to recognize the appeared bit.)
That feeling persisted as I got out on my own. I felt adrift for awhile, frustrated that I didn’t know what to do and was surely letting everyone who knew me down. They had such high hopes for me and here I was struggling between being on unemployment or asking family for money.
When I landed my first “grown up” job, I made friends with coworkers easily and felt like I belonged somewhere. After my first promotion I put aside how boring the job was with excitement that I must be finally making my parents proud.
This was proof I wasn’t a failure. I had health insurance and a salary. I even financed a car and checked some boxes, feeling satisfied to some degree that I was adulting successfully.
I spent some money on a new stereo and it was cool for awhile, but I made the mistake of reading too many forums about high-end audio by self-important strangers proclaiming what constitutes a good system, and by extension, anyone not doing those things is a wannabe. My pursuit of audio equipment became about having the right stuff and nodding in satisfaction at how well it reproduced certain frequencies.
Somewhere along the way it stopped being about enjoying music. Or making music. Or writing my own stories.
It became about writing other people’s stories.
As I took different jobs that seemed to be moving my career forward I tried to be a company man, working 50-60 hour weeks and weekends, fighting a battle with myself over guilt about all the money I’d borrowed from family years back. I was waging war against a perception I had of how those in my life saw me, and my frantic need to make sure my wife respected me predictably resulted in the opposite.
I made a lot of mistakes and lost a lot of friends, some of them I’d known since childhood. I jeopardized my marriage with insecurity and lashing out at all the wrong people.
When I suddenly lost my job at 31 something in me changed.
Unlike times before that where I’d been laid off or suddenly had to make a switch and I’d felt hopeless and depressed, this time I felt a swell of something positive.
That job had made me so miserable, so tired, so achy, and so damn dead inside that quite honestly I recall hitting the parking lot after being fired and feeling like the gates to a prison had just opened — and I was a free man for the first time in a decade.
And just like an inmate on his parole day, I had no idea what was next for me, but I was certain it would be better than what I’d been living with.
There was a degree of vengeance, of proving my old boss wrong about me, about saying a big “fuck you” to the whole corporate conveyor belt that put a fire in me to do things I’d never thought I could.
It’d been so long since I’d felt genuine joy at anything I felt like I’d forgotten how to do it. I’d been on autopilot, going the motions like a zombie, trying so hard to be something that I had no idea who was even underneath. I think I’d been afraid to look because it scared the shit out of me what I might find.
The lies I’d told myself were all that was keeping me going, so I thought.
It was early days for my self-improvement journey, but it was the first time I really looked at my life and put aside the disgust or beating myself up for the past, and simply said, “I’m going to find ways to be better.”
Like many things in life, deciding earnestly to do something is the biggest step toward having it. I’d never really set goals before that, and was kind of amazed at little wins I saw here or there for finally doing it.
I spent a few years going deep into self exploration, learning to be less angry, and trying to figured out what I actually still cared about. That proved to be trickier than simply asking yourself that would seem.
When I turned 36 that feeling grew much more pronounced.
I did have a sense of that panic for a couple weeks, suddenly looking at my life and feeling like I’d wasted so much of it on things that never made me happy and didn’t ultimately serve any dreams that were worth a damn.
But feelings of, “I’m 36 and only just now figuring stuff out?!” gave way to, “Many people never figure their stuff out. You’re 36 and doing it, and have plenty of time to rock it.”
I’d had plenty of opportunities to do certain things, to have certain things, to be certain things — what was really stopping me?
We are all our own worst enemies.
I’d given up creative writing that made me happy, the idea of ever being a “real” writer in favor of long hours and impressive-sounding corporate titles. Titles that went away in a flash at the whim of a CEO with different goals.
I’d given up all of my hobbies because I told myself the long hours that prevented them were worth it or adding up to some fantastical future, and eventually I’d be happy I did. I wasn’t.
I’d let loose valuable relationships out of paranoia, misplaced anger, and fear. Sometimes you can reach back out and repair those. Others are lost forever.
The reaction to this that I saw…
In late 2019 my brother in law gave me an old subwoofer and amp that he wasn’t using anymore. It was significant to me because it was a speaker I’d actually given him when I moved to North Carolina, and here it was back in my possession after almost 15 years.
It represented so many fond memories of a past spent fiddling with my car, cruising around carefree listening to music, and to having things to work on that excited me. And in a literal sense, it was even one of the very speakers I’d had those experiences with.
That was like opening the flood gate.
I started voraciously doing research on building speakers, powering them, specs, ideas, etc. I had so much fun doing it I started looking for places in my day I could play with them.
One morning I woke up and got my coffee, and then sat on my couch and fired up my stereo and put on one of my favorite albums. It framed my day in such a positive way I was like, “That’s it, this is a thing now.” No news, no social media, no work emails, and no rushing to be anywhere. The first hour or so of being awake was mine.
I’ve started my day that way almost every day since.
I became mostly vegetarian, started learning in earnest to cook more exquisitely, got serious about self-care and exercise, and made it a point each day to show affection to my wife and make her feel valued.
All the years of trying to get my shit together and feeling frustrated, and I felt like I’d finally started figuring things out by pushing aside societal expectations and re-embracing the free spirit I’d left behind somewhere.
As I started exploring new goals it occurred to me that the only vehicles I’d ever driven were “practical” sedans, minivans, and more sedans. Everything 4-cylinder, everything reliable and unexciting. I’d fantasized about certain cars so much in my youth, but subconsciously always gave myself reasons why they were for other people but *I* could never have one.
And so yeah, right on cue the year I turned 37 I started thinking about Camaros and other fun cars I’d like to own when it made sense to get something new. But not out of a sense of insecurity, fear, or filling some hole within.
Because it was a promise I made myself when I was 17, and in nearly 20 years I’d let myself down with BS excuses.
When I first told family I was thinking about a muscle car as my next car almost no one was happy or excited for me. The reactions were almost entirely concern that I was about to make a stupid decision, or dismissal that I’d clearly not thought this through. “It’ll pass,” they almost seemed to say. And by “it” they clearly meant my “midlife crisis”. In a couple cases they threw those very words at me.
(So for those that’d argue 37 is too young for a midlife crisis, evidently not for the people doing the judging.)
I was confused at the reaction, because in my eyes this is the least insecure I’ve ever been, the most certain about what I want out of life, the most willing to put myself out there and participate in the world, and the most permission I’d ever given myself to pursue happiness.
Constrastingly I looked back on all the years of my twenties where I felt lost and insecure, lashing out like an asshole at everyone around me and constantly telling myself I wasn’t good enough for any of my hopes and dreams.
This — the now — seemed like the complete opposite of a “crisis” to me. Nothing about it was compulsive, no aspect of the plan left not considered. It was as simple as saying I’ve always wanted one and it’d be nice to open the door and put the keys in something that seemed fucking awesome every day rather than shrugging at an old ride and saying, “Meh, it gets me from A to B.”
Here’s what struck me as particularly funny. Previously I’d told a few people I wanted to get a Toyota Avalon or a Lexus as my next car. Sort of a super-Camry if you will. No one balked at that despite the ~$40k+ price tag. But once I wanted a $36k muscle car, I was being crazy.
I think that tells you how strangely biased our perceptions can be.
“An 8-cylinder engine will be so expensive to fuel!” some cried.
Not really. On average it gets about 5 MPG less than my Camry, which on a typical gas tank equates to 90 less miles (or ~4.5 gallons) . At current gas prices, that means an additional $9.23 per fill up.
People spend $9 on things that don’t serve them all the time, be it cigarettes, junk food, or books they’ll never read. If you’re not willing to spend $10 on something that excites you, where does that leave you?
The point is, I think we’re mis-labeling a phenomenon that can be incredibly positive. There’s nothing wrong with reaching the midpoint of something and getting more organized or suddenly feeling a push to give yourself a few less reasons NOT to do things.
Take the sheer number of retirement age people still feeling unfulfilled about their lives as evidence of the danger of all the reasons not to do things we give ourselves.
Society is full of judgement about hobbies, goals, or desires that are “juvenile” or impractical. But everybody spends money on stuff that’s important to them, and everybody has priorities. You could argue anybody’s hobbies are stupid and impractical if you tried. And why are we so hung up on shitting on others’ joy, anyway?
Perhaps you could say that in the same way becoming a teenager is a point of change, where you’re a kid suddenly dealing with adult concepts and feelings and learning how to exist with that, having a midlife awakening is a pivot point of adulthood as the beginning of saying, “I’m giving way too much of a shit about the wrong stuff.”
A precursor to that point older people joke about in finding freedom in saying, “I don’t give a damn what people think anymore.”
Here’s to your own awakening and self-permission to happiness. Thanks for reading.