Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Musings from the Tail End of a Mid-Life Crisis

In April of 2014, I abruptly quit my job. There were many aspects of that action that were completely out of character for me. I did not really understand why I quit when I did it. Furthermore, I was actively repelled by the idea of looking for another salaried job in my field or even the fields adjacent to my field. I did not understand why, but the thought of applying for any of those jobs made me want to curl up in a ball and cry. If I'd needed to get back to "regular" employment right away I don't really know where I'd have ended up.

Luckily, I landed in a part time contract position at a rate that allowed us to maintain our standard of living while I did the work I needed to do to figure out what the hell had just happened. It also gave me the time and space to try to build a company, which has been a really interesting journey.

I am really, really aware of how lucky I have been. I know that many other people don't have the luxury of taking the time to figure this stuff out. I know that other people land in a position similar to mine and experience a sharp drop in their standard of living. Take it as a given in the rest of this post that I really know that. My recognition of my extreme luck has made me reticent to write too much about the process of figuring out what the hell had happened. However, I made an off hand comment over at Nicoleandmaggie's about how the sense of clarity I'd gained from my midlife crisis was nice, and a long time reader emailed me to say she'd like to read more about that.

I so rarely get reader requests that I am excited to try to meet it! Hence this post, which has been much delayed due to headaches and life in general interfering with my blogging time..

I didn't call what I was experiencing a mid-life crisis at first, because there were some external things that clearly precipitated the problems. But then I realized that is probably always true about mid-life crises. I'll embrace the cliche I embodied and proudly proclaim that yes, I had a mid-life crisis.

It took me close to two years to really understand why I quit that day in April. The reasons veer into other people's stories too much for me to feel comfortable discussing them here. Luckily, they also aren't anywhere near the most interesting thing I've learned in the last 3.5 years.

What is far more interesting is what I've learned about myself as I have tried to build a company from nothing. I've written more about the company building over at my Tiny Letter, but I haven't really written about what the process has taught me about myself.

Here, in random order are the things I've learned:

1. I had too much of my sense of self-worth invested in my work.

I am more than my work. I thought I knew this, but I clearly didn't. Perhaps the pressures of parenting had taken too many of my hobbies away from me, but I think that is a cop out. I had (and have!) a lot of interests outside of work and separate from my role as a mother. I had just lost touch with how much those interests could contribute to my sense of who I am.

2. I wanted external validation too much and spent too much effort chasing it.

This one goes way back for me, and probably speaks to some deep-seated insecurity. I won't pretend I've conquered it, but I've looked it in the eye and acknowledged that I will never get the amount of external validation I crave, and I need to be OK with that. I'm working on being OK with that.

3. All my work really needs to do is pay my bills.

This has become a bit of a mantra for me. I use it to talk myself down when I start judging myself by other people's metrics of success. Once I've paid my bills, the only metric of success that matters is the one I define. The hard part in this, of course, is defining my own metric of success. This is also a work in progress.

4. I like money, and that's OK.

Early on in my entrepreneurship adventure I stumbled into some parts of the internet where entrepreneurs were extolling the virtues of cutting your expenses to the bone so that you would have a longer runway for trying to get your company off the ground... and I realized that no, that was not for me. We did trim our expenses a bit, and I pay more attention to what I buy at the grocery store, but I won't go to extremes. For instance: our local store helpfully stopped carrying the fancy orange-tangerine juice blend I like, so I now buy whichever orange juice is cheapest... but if my orange-tangerine blend ever shows back up I'm buying it in a heartbeat.

I also realized I wasn't willing to make my kids drop any of their activities, even though I know that this would cause them no harm.

Basically, I like our comfortable lifestyle and I'll go back to full time work to keep it if I have to. When I realized that, I knew I'd resolved the worst of the crisis that led me to quit my job, because as I said, at the beginning of the crisis, the thought of going back to full time work was horrifying to me.

5. I love to travel

OK, I already knew this one, but the introspection of the last few years has taught me that if I have to pick one thing to care about in addition to my family, it is getting to travel. Any work arrangement that doesn't acknowledge this is going to make me unhappy. Luckily, I don't need luxury travel, so while this priority isn't cheap, it is also quite achievable in a variety of different work arrangements I've considered.

The more general principle here is that it is good to know what makes you happy and recharges your soul, and it is OK to prioritize that even if it seems like something sort of shallow or unimportant. I'm not a spa person, but I suspect there are people who feel about spa days like I feel about seeing new places, and I say... go for it.

6. I like to make things

My explorations in entrepreneurship have covered a lot of ground. There are things I like about all of the aspects of my current business, but as I've reflected on what I most want to do, I've realized it is: make things. I love producing books. I have fun making t-shirts, too, and although I've decided the t-shirts shouldn't be a business priority, I'll probably keep making new designs now and then. (Party robot shirts are coming soon!) Once I decided to let the creative side of my brain have a little fun, I've come up with a lot of things I'd love to make: different types of books, different ideas for websites, ideas for apps... I write all my ideas in a special journal I keep for that purpose. I've produced more of my ideas than I would have predicted back when I started the company, and my favorite thing about my current work arrangement might be the freedom to pursue so many ideas.

Is there a general principle in this lesson? Maybe it is to pay attention to the work activities that make you happiest. Try to find ways to do those things more often, and avoid work situations where you're cut off from that joy, no matter how many other enticements they offer.

I'm sure I've learned more things, but that list is what I wrote in my little writing notebook as I was thinking about this post, and I think it hits the most important things. I can't say that the mid-life crisis has been fun, but at least it has been worthwhile. I feel better able to evaluate options about what to do next now that I better understand what matters to me, and what my "gotcha" points are. I don't know when I get to declare the mid-life crisis over. I think I still have things to figure out, but I am not responding to events in ways I don't really understand... and I'll call that a win.


  1. I always appreciate these posts, as they encourage me to focus on what I REALLY want out of a job. I'm a neuro postdoc right now. I love research. But I do invest too much self-worth in my work, and I'm worried a TT track job will only make that worse. I also want time with my family, as I fostered/adopted older kids who will only be home with me a little while, and who need a lot of support. It's a good reminder that when my job stops making me happy, I can change - it's so easy to get sucked into the vortex of a sunk-cost fallacy of how much I've already invested in the career path I have.

  2. Thanks for sharing this! I've been a long-time reader but infrequent (if ever) comments, and remember when you quit your job without the next leap forward planned out. I have a lot of myself invested in my work, and I'm not sure that I want to / can do anything about that right now, but I recognize where it causes problems in my life.

  3. Awesome! Thank you for writing about this topic.

  4. Chemjobber sent me here and I'm glad he did. Great writing. Thank you.

  5. Getting laid off from a job that I had been at for 11 years and being unemployed for 14 months did similar things to teach me about myself. Maybe that is why I haven't had a mid-life crisis. At least not yet. ;-)

    Thanks for sharing! I can identify with several of your items. For me, I would replace travel with crafting. I enjoy travel, but for me, regularly making things is more critical for my mental health.

  6. This is very insightful. A lot of my identity is tied to my work. I need my work to be meaningful to me, but I think in 2018 I'll work harder on finding more things outside of work that also provide this.


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