Midlife crisis might be caused by the fact that we start meandering. In school, college and early career, we have a goal, a mission that drives us forward. We know what we want, and often how to get there.
But in our late 30s and 40s, we have achieved that goal, or major parts of it. A new goal, that is as much a step jump from our broke days, would be incredibly ambitious. And some people do attempt that, via entrepreneurship or chasing upper management. But for many of us, we remember what it took, the long hours and near burnout effort, and we don’t want to go through it again. And we have kids and family that offer us an alternative perspective and different satisfaction and challenges, that we also don’t want to lose out on.
Hence we meander, neither fully committing to our families (and regretting that later), nor aiming for something bigger to drive us. We buy bikes or sports cars or find a new hobby, as a proxy for the thrill, and that works for short periods.
But we continue to meander. And on that occasional quiet night, or during that droning meeting, we ask, is this all there is to life?
Often, we are conscious of our privileged position, the relative luxury in our lives, the irony of being higher on the Maslow-ian pyramid. But this knowledge is only rationally reasoned, we don’t feel it, and it doesn’t help.
One possible solution might be to ask ourselves what we really want for the long term, or what we will regret most if we don’t achieve it, and if we are actually taking steps to get there. We most likely aren’t, irrespective of whether we want to spend great family time, or get rich, or save the world.
But this is a difficult question, not just because we generally don’t know what we actually want, but also because we suspect that some of our previous goals will not stand up to self scrutiny. Especially because we have been through this cycle before, achieving them never fulfilled us the way we had imagined.
So asking this question, and performing this introspection, is simultaneously essential and dangerous. It might give us a north star mission again and also reduce the opportunity cost regret that lingers in the back of our mind (for either not spending enough time/effort on our family or career). Or it might just leave us further depressed, unable to find anything worth actually striving for.