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!

Distributing the Treasure

In the parable of the fields, Jesus says of his kingdom that:

The kingdom of heaven is like a treasure hidden in the field, which a man found and hid again; and from joy over it he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.

Then in the parable of the talents, Jesus addresses the Apostles and says of the servant that hid the money he had been given to invest:

‘You wicked, lazy slave…take away the talent from him’…For to everyone who has, more shall be given, and he will have an abundance; but from the one who does not have, even what he does have shall be taken away

The two parables illuminate the challenge of bringing divine power into the world. The unsuspecting finder of faith has no idea what to do with it. Looking at the history of the Hebrews, it is obvious how fragile faith is. From Aaron to the Pharisees, from Saul to Herod: the leaders of the nation of Israel corrupted faith for political and economic purposes. Aaron acted in good faith because the people were afraid when Moses disappeared on the mountain, but in the time of Jesus the Pharisees twisted the fear of divine retribution to line their pockets. Saul, having been anointed king by Samuel, was angered when others threatened his authority. In Herod’s time, that pattern had become so entrenched that oppression of dissent was not even remarkable. Given this, perhaps it would have been best to keep the treasure hidden.

But the Apostles were students of a master who prepared them to exercise faith in service to the oppressed. They had seen what faith could do. All that they required to see it multiply was simple courage. For those demonstrating courage, the master would not judge between those with greater or lesser skill in the exercise of power, but reward them all. For those lacking courage, the portion of power that was given them would be given to others.

The tension between the two parables should be heeded by us today as we ponder how to go about distributing the riches that Christ has provided us to do good in the world. As people of compassion, our natural tendency is to respond to fear and righteous anger with promises of aid. The obvious first step is to eliminate the cause of the fear and/or anger. When that cause is hunger, it would be hard to fault an offer of food. But when the cause is political tyranny, forceful intervention (as currently in Russia) can be propagandized to justify further oppression. The Russian people have offered adulation in response to Putin’s aggressive militarism.

So we have to ask, when offering aid, “What are you going to do with the power we offer you?” When the hungry man is fed, will he then seek employment? If an oppressed people is offered political assistance, how will they organize to overcome the tyrant? If these question can’t be answered, then their troubles are merely symptomatic of a large social disease that must be addressed before individual problems can be solved. They may need education, or political enfranchisement – or assistance in finding a leader that can articulate their needs.

I think that many of the world’s problems today require the last: for those offering Christian compassion to go beyond simple charity to supporting the development of leaders motivated by Christian ethics. In assessing candidates, I favor strongly the wisdom of Lord Baden-Powell, founder of the Boy Scouts. In developing leaders, the program upholds this law:

A scout is trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean and reverent.

These qualities are an interlocking web of virtue that ensure that power is not diverted for personal gain, but rather directed towards those that first inspired our compassion. They are not qualities that necessarily translate to the easy currency of popularity. That is gained all too often through promises of an end to fear and oppression that cannot be made good until the people themselves begin to manifest the qualities of true leadership. As it is said in the Chinese I Ching:

Of the great leader, when the work is done the people say ‘We did this ourselves.’

God took 2000 years to work his will on the people of Israel. For those continuing that work in the world today, patience (although perhaps on a more human scale) is essential. As in Jesus’s relationship with the Apostles: It is not upon us to do the work ourselves, but only to offer the oppressed the hope that it can be done at all. Hope is the seed of courage, Christian compassion is the seed of faith. When courage and faith combine, anything is possible.