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Planning Your Mid-Life Crisis

To be blessed is to receive gifts before knowing that they are needed. I’ve survived several mid-life crises thanks to wisdom I received from Delorese Ambrose back in my mid-forties.

Ambrose wasn’t speaking about mid-life crisis, although the context may have warranted it. My employer, a large national laboratory, had discovered that scientists might be motivated to master project management, but very few of them mastered human relations. During an era of declining budgets for basic science and a reduced role for nuclear weapons in national security, people needed to learn how to work together so that new missions could evolve.

Ambrose came in as a management consultant, which in part involves providing an organization with a framework to facilitate selection and support of leaders. In a plenary session, Ambrose spoke about the cycle of power. Her model had six stages, each stage involving a ground-breaking shift in perspective that made it almost impossible for people at one stage to understand the behaviors and priorities of those at the next. In many respects, the structure echoed Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, but the cycle as Ambrose presented it illustrated the dependencies of those at the upper reaches on the strength and success of those below.

When I sent Ambrose an e-mail, I was given to rue that I had passed the “sexy” part of the arc she described. The cycle begins without power, an existence in which almost every waking moment is concerned with the basics of survival. It ends with wisdom, in which enormous influence is contingent upon the continued success and good will of the community we serve, and thus power again is (paradoxically) elusive. The “sexy” stage – the stage at which we can be assured of getting things done – is at the half-way point of personal achievement.

Achievement evolves from association when our peers recognize that we have unique skills and traits that can be supplemented to create a competitive advantage for the community. This is the first true stage of leadership, and the leader often believes that it is due to their initiative that the organization succeeds. But the reality is more subtle. Success grows from the meshing of behaviors acquired through years of adaptation and compensation. The uniqueness of the leader’s innovative drive requires that others adapt that urge to the rest of society. In that process, they gain unique insights of their own, and become qualified to take their own turn in the sun.

When that time ripens, the leader feels abandoned. I observed several people wandering through this period of their lives, and the experiences were terrifying. It is to watch an individual in the prime of life, at the full height of their powers, watching the end of a life that they have struggled valiantly to obtain. It is like dying, and some will go so far as to destroy others in their attempts to avoid the inevitable. Among our commercial captains are those that are masters of this art, methodically exploiting middle layers of management in order to sustain reputation and position.

The end, when it comes against such resistance, is crushing. The individual is left without support or purpose. Those that studied their methods no longer need them. Lee Iaccoca was inspired to run for president while thus adrift, wandering the halls of his mansion. My mother spoke of retired businessmen who, working as fundraisers for the American Cancer Society, had never learned to book their own travel.

The exit from this stage is self-knowledge. It is, ultimately, the realization that it wasn’t simply the things that we did that brought us success. It was rather our ability to adapt to the constraints of success. When first mounting the ladder of achievements, that process happens organically. The changes in ourselves occur one step at a time as needs are presented. We often fail to recognize that those changes were indeed choices. We could have chosen to take that second honeymoon, rather than flying to Singapore to open a new market. We could have coached the little league team, rather than staying late in the lab to perfect a new fuel mixture. While these choices may have been formed under pressure, our decision to respond and adapt to those pressures was our choice, and the outcomes reflected our capacity to control ourselves.

Self-awareness is a taking stock of who we are, with the purpose of preparing ourselves to become the person that we want to become. From that place we enter the last two stages on the path of power. Given that we have complete control over ourselves, what is it that we want to do? What purpose do we wish to serve? And once we have entrained a community in the wake of our purpose, they then turn to us for wisdom.

So my advice to those entering mid-life crisis is, “don’t fight it.” Yes, resist it. Get as much as you can for your achievements. Allow people the time to envision a future without you. Force those that replace you to become as good as they can be.

But attend also liberation from the tedious requirements of a life that chose you into a life that you have chosen. Take advantage of the good will that surrounds you to ask “What moments with me were most inspiring to you?” Trace the evolution of those moments to recognize the strength of the choices you have made. Prepare yourself to enter again into the furnace of self-creation to rediscover and reclaim all the passions and dreams that were surrendered so that others could share in your success.

But for heaven’s sake, don’t succumb to the sad spectacle of trying to repeat your unreflective youth!

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