How do you feel about your life: Bitter or Better?
Your answer will color everything about your existence. At home, at work, with friends.
A while back Stephen Shapiro, author of Goal Free Living, described a common life situation in a post called The One-Third Life Crisis. It's about a successful (by any achievement-oriented social standards) guy who is a 33 year-old Harvard grad, pilot, board member, etc. But at 33 he described his life this way to Stephen:
Do well at Step A and you can proceed to Step B. Do well at B, and proceed to C. As I look back at my life so far, I realize that I was playing by a very narrow set of rules. And if I played by those rules, worked hard, and caught a lucky break or two, I’d be rewarded with plenty of wealth and prestige.
And that worked okay…for a while…until I began to have nagging doubts. “The Path” began to feel just a bit too narrow. I felt that I was always trying to do well in life in order to move to the next step. As a result, I had completely lost the ability to live in the moment or to appreciate success for success’ sake. And failure? Well, that wasn’t even an option. Most insidiously, I began looking at the people in my life only as potential allies (or, gasp, even pawns) in my quest to keep plugging along down The Path.
And here’s the worst part. I had completely lost my sense of risk, creativity, and wonder. So I felt that even if I wanted to get off The Path, I was woefully and utterly ill-equipped to navigate on my own. That’s the essence of the one-third life crisis.
What Are You Experiencing at 30? Or 40 or 50 or 60?
This isn't at all unusual. In fact, I became so fascinated by it that about 10 years ago I started looking into research that might produce a plausible, helpful explanation. This was prompted by what I noticed were increasing requests from successful 30-somethings within my client organizations who were expressing dissatisfaction with their circumstances. The stories were similar:
1. I'm not happy
2. I should be happy because I have a good job, make good money, home life is good; I've done everything I was supposed to do.
3. So why I am I feeling unhappy and stressed out?
Until About 30, You Don't Have to be You
Because you've got enough energy to do just about anything. And people let you.
Physiologically, you're on a roll. Psychologically, you're starting a career and a life. And guess what? Everyone around you will let you do your thing. Your family understands this. They allow you to "get your career started." Your boss loves this. And you are able to put in 60 or 80 hours a week at being really good at what you do. And you are probably doing pretty well. Heck, why not? Your sheer energy and time is compensating for a lack of genuine passion or talent. So if "it" isn't what you were meant to do--or consistent with who you are--you can't fake it forever (you don't know you're faking it. You are doing what you think people are supposed to do). At +/- 30 your energy begins to drop a bit. And you start asking questions about it. And you should.
Because growing up means being--and accepting--who you are. It's the only way you'll stay in the game and be happy about it. I've found that the most difficult--but most rewarding--thing that I've done personally is to answer this question:
"What are all of the things I think I am--but am not?" These resulted in a looonnngggg list of answers that combined bloated self-perception with lots of expectations from other people. Do it. It's a huge relief to get rid of the baggage.
Then change the question from "What could I do as a career?" to these three:
1. "What do I really value and see as priorities in my life?"
2. "What are my natural talents and how can I use them to support #1?
3. "What specific skills do I have--or need to get--that help support #2?"
If you get honest about 1, acknowledge 2 as not being boastful--but a gift--and use 3 in the service of the first two, you'll be back in the game.
And just in case math is your strong suit: draw a Venn diagram of Values, Talents, and Skills. The place where the three intersect is the actual "you." (You're welcome).
55: Bitter or Better?
A final observation.
Somewhere around the age of 55 people--and I see it mostly in men--decide to be either "Bitter" or "Better" about life. It's a choice. But it appears to be a choice based upon evaluating one's circumstances against one's expectations of how life should be (or should have been).
The distinction usually lies in a choice that was made to:
Live as one's self, and therefore feel better. There is only one standard and it will always be met.
Live according to others' expectations and one's definition of how things "should" be. This leads to a bitteroutcome.
So what about our searching friend in the beginning of the post? It sounds as if he is choosing to ask the right questions at the right time. And he even has a group of trusted advisors to guide him and keep him accountable.
I'm guessing "better."