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In Midlife, Sometimes the Hardest Words Are “No Thank You.”

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How we can use our multiple brains to make difficult decisions

I’ve been wracked with needing to make a decision about something for over a week. I’ve been struggling to reconcile multiple parts of my decision-making network in order to come to a conclusion. The process was so taxing on my system that my inability to make a decision literally made me sick.

But getting sick was actually what I needed in order to get out of my head, separate my ego from the decision, strip away the emotional aspects, and get to my core.

Literally, my gut.

Our gut is the place of our enteric brain, the neural network that decides what we take from our environment, or allow to pass through our bodies, which literally makes us what we are. The enteric brain and the guttural ecosystem select what we keep to sustain our bodies, and what we let go and return to the environment. It’s one of the first neural systems created during embryonic development and when fully formed has the neural mass approximately equal to that of a cat’s brain.

From a mechanistic perspective of the body (which is an old and frankly dangerous perspective) one might mistakenly believe the gut’s function is simply to perform the act of digestion. But what we know from a growing body of research and many esoteric wisdom lineages, is that the gut, with its enteric brain, is a powerful place of protection, a source of wisdom, and information.

For example, over 80 percent of the cells in our bodies that help to regulate immune function are located in the gut … protection lies therein.

The gut’s prime functions are around self-protection, core identity, and motivation. I learned a lot this cool stuff from an excellent book by Grant Soosalu and Marvin Oka, called “mBraining – Using Your Multiple Brains to do Cool Stuff” Check it out.

Back to my story.

I got sick with a head cold and I could no longer “think clearly.”

And actually, getting sick was exactly what needed to happen because part of my challenge was that I was trying to logically figure out something that was not inherently a logic-based problem. I couldn’t “think” my way to a solution and thinking about it was just causing me to get stressed out because there were no real answers using the brain in my head. Sure I could do cost/benefit scenarios using logic-based decision-making processes, but that would only arrive at part of the answer.

Part of that was the challenge of quieting the ego, which was calling me a complete idiot for even thinking of saying “No thank you.” And we all know how well things turn out when we allow our egos to make important decisions.

And lastly, there was the potential complication of a relationship, a good friend who I wanted to work with and deepen relationship. Saying “No thank you” might have a negative impact, which I didn’t want. My heart brain (yes, there’s a neural network and center of intelligence there too!) was feeling conflicted. But I was clear that making this decision purely based on relationship was not an intelligent thing to do.

You see, there was still a disquieting in my gut.

So that’s where I found myself last night. Focused on my gut. And what getting sick was forcing me to do was slow down and listen.

When I am having a challenge I often go and take a steaming hot bath in what I call my Water Temple. I put on some quiet contemplative music, light a candle, and quiet the mind(s). And that’s exactly what I did, shut everything else out and focused on just my gut, that center of core identity and motivation.

And here’s what I got in touch with. What was proposed wasn’t in alignment with who I am at my core. It wasn’t in alignment with how I want to be as a transformational leader in my work with men. It wasn’t setting up the conditions under which I believe that I’d be successful in the long-term.

It would be an excellent opportunity for some men, but not for me.

I had to say “No thank you.” And so I did.

That was the core identity piece.

Another piece that I connected with in my guttural conversation was about motivation. I still felt compelled to DO something. I am a man after all, and we are typically action oriented.

If I said “No thank you” to one opportunity, then what would I say “Yes” to?

Stay tuned.

Waking Up at Midlife – It Could Happen to You Too

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I spent much of my adult life living under the spell of a deceit. I thought that I was being myself, living my truth, living life on my terms …

The adventure begins

When I was in my mid-twenties I packed all of my worldly possessions into the back of a Toyota pickup truck and headed to Alaska in search of my fortune. I didn’t have a job and I only knew two people who lived there, but I had $800 to my name and all the time in the world. I was a free agent making my own decisions and carving out a life for myself through adventure and a trust that things would work out because the Universe always provides. It was intended to be a journey of discovery of self as much as exploration of wild new lands. And initially it was …

Fast-forward 15 years and I’m married with two kids, an Associate Vice-President rising up the ladder at a high-ranking national engineering firm, making a six-figure salary, and sharing time between a lovely home and two modest remote vacation properties. For the most part I was content with life. And why shouldn’t I be? I was creating the American Dream, my way.

But as I was rounding the bend of 40, something inside wasn’t quite right. I had a lot of freedom in my work. I was managing multi-million-dollar projects for multi-national clients and was considered an expert in my chosen field. I was continually given the keys to the kingdom and could have kept right on climbing as high as I wanted, but something wasn’t sitting well.

The midlife dip really sets in

On the cusp of midlife it was like there was an internal burr or a disquieting feeling that just wouldn’t go away. Sometimes it was an irritant and sometimes just a sense of emptiness or a hole.

When I’d ask myself the question, “Who AM I?” I couldn’t really answer. And worse, when I looked up the ladder at who I would need to be at the top, the single question that crossed my lips was, “Who IS that?”

I had noticed that my life was taking on a life of its own. I began not recognizing myself and noticed that much of my life was spent just going through the motions of what a life could be, not what it should be for me. It was as though I had become a character in someone else’s story.

It was someone else’s story: my wife’s, my boss’, my clients’, my banks, and the list went on.

Where once there had been desire for adventure and exploration, a settling for safety and consistency had slowly crept in.

Where once there had been desire to know myself and to live at my growth edge, a settling for stagnation and living up to others’ expectations had slowly crept in.

It wasn’t as though my work sucked or my marriage was in shambles or that my health was in the toilet. But clearly something wasn’t right and I sensed that if I didn’t attend to it I would have major regrets later in life. If I didn’t course correct, then one or all of those aspects of my life would unravel in the coming years.

Enough is enough

One day while on my commute I realized I’d had enough.

Enough of the settling
Enough of living someone else’s blue print for a life
Enough of being inauthentic with myself and with others
Enough of not living at MY growth edge and living MY purpose in the world.

Even though I didn’t have a clear idea of WHAT my purpose was, I knew that I wasn’t living it and so set out once again to carve out a life for myself through adventure and a trust that things would work out because the Universe always provides.

It would likely not be easy, most things of real value rarely are. It would not be as simple as packing up all my belongings into the back of a pickup truck and hitting the road.

Reality was that living someone else’s life wasn’t easy either. In fact, it was really freaking hard and it took a lot of energy to maintain the façade.

Seven years later after much internal and external exploration, and hard work, I am clear on my values, clear on my life’s purpose, and I am doing work that I absolutely love.

My relationship with my wife is stronger than it’s ever been in our 17 years of marriage.
I’m as fit and healthy in my late 40s as I was in my late 20s.
I have also created an incredible network of relationships that feed my soul, keep me connected, and continually push me to my growth edge.

How did I do all this?

Slowly and thoughtfully,
With care for myself and for others,
By changing paths without burning bridges,
By keeping the long-term vision without holding the outcome of that vision too tightly.

Can I get some answers please?

There were four things I learned in the process that were critical to my success.

Be curious about YOU – Know thyself. You need to be an expert on YOU. If you want freedom you have to understand your intrinsic motivators, what makes you tick and gets your juices flowing. It’s critical to identify what has real value and what is a must-have and cannot be compromised. Also, get crystal clear on what is ego and what is soul and don’t confuse the two.

Be bold – Leap and the net will appear. You have to get to know your shadows and what scares the crap out of you and head in that direction. Be ready for changes within you to be uncomfortable and get really comfortable with that change. It’s a learning edge for a reason; growth occurs where the known and unknown intersect. Learn to trust your inner voice of “Know thyself.”

Get good at relationships – Treat others as you would have them treat you. Acquire tools to help you communicate clear boundaries and what you need, without making what others want wrong for them. Getting good at relationships requires that you get good at being compassionate and to practice the rarely used art of forgiveness – on yourself and with others.

Be relentless – Show up every day. If it’s hard, show up. If it’s uncomfortable, show up. If it’s joyous, show up. If it’s boring as hell, show up. It’s only a battle if you want it to be; your mindset determines your experience. It’s your life, show up every day willing to take the next step, and then the next, into the life that’s waiting for you to simply show up.

How losing track of your values can screw up midlife, and how reclaiming them will give you control

By | Masculinity, Mission, Relationships, Work | No Comments

midlife manBefore I became a coach for men in midlife I never gave much thought to my values. Don’t worry, my internal conscience, Jiminy Cricket, has kept me morally on the straight and narrow. By values I don’t mean morals or virtues. I’m speaking here about the deep-seated motivators that make us unique and who we are at our core as men.

For me, the simple process of clarifying and understanding core values has given a greater sense of freedom, personal well-being, and deeper relationships. I would also argue that a closer connection to one’s values can give men in midlife greater choice and freedom than options sometimes sought through the stereotypically poor decisions associated with the midlife crisis.

Values vs. virtues

Looking back on my life I always thought of values as understanding the difference between right and wrong. You know, the basic moral compass stuff that most parents try to pass along like don’t lie, cheat, or steal; always keep your word; treat others as you’d like to be treated. Or perhaps values were those moral and intellectual virtues like courage, temperance, liberality, understanding, and wisdom received as part of one’s spiritual or philosophical upbringing.

So if we’re not talking about values as morals or virtues, what are we talking about?

I refer to values as the personal drivers, the core motivators, and deeply held beliefs that make us uniquely who we are. They are the words or terms we would use (as opposed to the external expectations or projections of others) to answer the question:

“Who am I and what’s most important to me?”

For many men in midlife this is THE question that heralds the primary midlife transitions: in our careers, in our marriage or significant relations, in our public personae, in our over commitment to pursuits that no longer bring contentment or a sense of satisfaction.

Our values inform all of our decisions. They are often working at a subconscious level, especially when we haven’t taken the time to identify and clarify what they are. These values, or intrinsic motivators, have been a core part of who we are since our teenage years.

I’m kind of needing an illustration of what the heck you’re talking about here …

Okay, here’s a quick example … early in my midlife quest I identified my top five values as Integrity, Community, Adventure, Impact, and Compassion. Actually, I identified over 40 and narrowed them down to a solid dozen. But these five were the primary values that motivated me and informed the decisions I made and significantly impacted my sense of who I was and how I showed up in the world.

The importance of clarifying values – especially in midlife

When aspects of our lives are out of alignment with our values, things just don’t feel right. We can experience a deep sense of dis-ease and internal or external conflict can show up. When we are living in alignment with our values we have a greater sense of contentment, engagement, and life satisfaction.

Why is understanding our personal values important? It’s important because if we don’t know what our personal values are we can feel adrift on the sea of unmet expectations, lost in midlife meanderings, and experience a hollowness inside suggesting that something is amiss.

Hmm, kind of sounds like my midlife malaise …

More importantly, when we don’t know what our personal values are we are unable to articulate, let alone begin to effectively address, those aspects of our lives that are out of alignment and keeping us from being content at a most basic level.

Once I articulated my values I began to examine aspects of my life through the lense of these values. For example when I looked at my then-career through the lenses of Integrity and Community, I found that the people I worked with and the company I worked for also had a strong commitment to Integrity (in part defined by doing the right things for the right reason) and Community (a robust network of outstanding professionals). The alignment with these values were strong reasons to stay in that career.

However, I was not able to fully realize my internal sense of Integrity (as I define it through my ability to express my full self) and also was not able to live into my value of Impact/Change (as I define it by the ability to push boundaries and unleash greater consciousness in the world). It was these two unexpressed values that were really at the heart of my growing discontent with that career.

My inability to live in alignment with my values of Integrity and Impact/Change began to shake the foundations of my previously enviable career path. Choosing to live through them more fully supported my conscious transition to leadership coaching. This career transition allowed me to live my primary values more fully and ultimately brought me greater professional freedom, engagement in a more fulfilling career, and significantly more life satisfaction.

Hey that’s great, but my midlife crisis isn’t about my career …

I then began to use my values to examine my marriage, my relationships with my two sons, my sense of being over committed in other areas of my life, sibling relations, you name it. While many are still a work in progress, being in alignment with my core values has consistently resulted in deeper connections and greater contentment.

So that’s a simple example of how unconsciously denied values, when explored and identified, led to a successful career transition. Had I not clarified and articulated my values I likely would have continued in my previous career, feeling okay but not truly satisfied … and that unanswered gnawing could have resulted in a serious midlife meltdown and ruined my life.

Are you interested in better understanding how your values may be unconsciously impacting you and how to shift to greater choice in midlife? Grab a spot on my calendar for a Midlife Meetup and let’s see what’s possible!

Midlife Crisis? Or Just Bottoming Out on the U-Curve of Happiness

By | Mission, Mortality | No Comments

detour-1646152The myth that is the midlife crisis may be mortally wounded by current research. However there’s ample evidence of a midlife dip that’s more than just a pothole in the road of life.

In my last post I explored the origin myth of the midlife crisis. Research suggests that a midlife crisis may be far less likely to occur than originally thought. In fact, only about 10 percent of men actually experience a full-blown midlife crisis. The midlife crisis may be on the mat, but research has also confirmed a slump in well-being at midlife.

The (nearly) universal U-shaped curve of happiness

A growing body of research over the past decade has confirmed that our sense of well-being through life forms a U-shaped curve. As men in our 20s and early 30s we focus on external achievement and goals (that successful career, the perfect family, the castle on the hill). In our 30s and 40s we start to get tangled up in the stresses and trials of the real world and the challenges of achieving the goals we set early in life. Perhaps because of this, or other factors, our happiness quotient in the first half of life trends downward, bottoming out in our mid 40s. But then in our mid 50s we begin a slow ascent and happiness (or our sense of well-being) increases again … thankfully!

ucurve

This general finding is so striking because it has been consistently found across many countries and cultures (and even in other primates!). While definitely not found in all countries and generations, in a recent study of 46 countries, 44 had a clearly defined U-shape when well-being was compared across age.

The lowest point of the curve differed between countries, but was generally between 40 and 60 years. The low-point for folks in the U.S. was found at about 46 years of age. A 2010 study found similar results, with well-being of U.S. males bottoming out in their early 50s.

So midlife is, statistically speaking, the rock-bottom of our happiness in life? Now there’s something to celebrate … no wonder I’m so depressed …

Reframing the midlife story

This midlife dip may be what’s been generalized through the myth of the midlife crisis, and could explain how the crisis myth has such a strong hold in our culture. Most of us can expect to bottom out somewhere and in our own unique way in midlife, but few of us will have a full-blown crisis.

This reframe of the midlife experience provides some measure of comfort in that:

1. we’re not alone

2. midlife doesn’t have to be cataclysmic

3. there’s the hopefulness of an upswing somewhere in our 50s

Right, how lovely that we have a new la-ti-da story, but I want resolution! Just give me answers on how to avoid it or minimize it would you, or at least a pill to help ease the pain!

Unfortunately there’s no silver bullet here. There are also potential challenges in medicating our way through midlife. Unfortunately there’s still no clear explanation of why our sense of well-being bottoms out in midlife and then rises throughout the rest of late adulthood. But where there’s a will, there’s a way, and we don’t have to reinvent the wheel. We just have to look to the survivors.

Following in the footsteps of the survivors – the climb up from midlife

So at this point you may be asking yourself, what do folks in their 60s and 70s have that those in the trough of midlife might be lacking? (I thought we weren’t supposed to trust anyone over 30 …)

In my next post I’ll dig into a few current ideas and observations that shed light on what might account for the bounce back in midlife. The focus is on the qualities and actions associated with people in later life, such as:

  • Creating a life of meaning (building and sustaining a sense of fulfillment or purpose)
  • Knowing ourselves and becoming what we are (understanding our deeply held values and living them)
  • Greater emotional intelligence (creating connection and communication by employing loyalty strategies vs exit strategies)
  • Reduction in perceived severity of stressors (drama management)
  • Increased capacity to self-regulate emotions (less likely to resort to anger or respond to anger with anger)
  • Ability to see situations positively (less likely to see other’s responses as negative or remember them as negative)
  • The perspective of time (that heals everything, right?!)
  • Reduced regret response (not mulling over or focusing on what’s beyond our control)
  • Increased wisdom (or more specifically the traits that come with it like compassion, empathy, respect for and tolerance of divergent beliefs, acceptance of ambiguity, ability to make decisions based on the good of the whole, levelheadedness)

I hope this post has provided some new insight on your midlife experience. I’ll look forward to see you again soon at the corner of Midlife and Thriving!

Successfully managing midlife? Which of the above strategies do you use to successfully navigate midlife challenges?  I’d love to hear from you in the comments below!

Is the Midlife Crisis Having a Midlife Crisis?

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Midlife Crisis ahead

For over 40 years midlife has been hailed as a time, especially for men, when anxiety over life’s lost opportunities and our impending death hits a max. This anxiety can result in radical life change and tumult like divorce, expensive red convertibles, and career changes: the dreaded midlife crisis.

Most men growing up in America in the 60’s, 70’s, and 80’s were led to believe that a midlife crisis was the inevitable and unavoidable initiatory right of passage into midlife. Many a movie and book has explored the extremes and subtleties of midlife transitions. But is crisis really a requirement? And if not, what’s really going on?

Origins of the Midlife Crisis

Elliot Jaques, a Canadian psychoanalyst, is credited for the “discovery” (okay, rather inception) of the midlife crisis in the mid 1960s. Jaques theoried that at about the age of 35, men begin to see that their youthful dreams will probably never be realized. Jaques’ theory was based largely on a historical review of world “geniuses” mixed with some experiences gleaned from his own clients.

Then, in the late 70’s, Jaques’ ideas were further developed by Daniel Levinson in his book The Season’s of a Man’s Life. Levinson built on Jaques’ midlife concept and concluded that 80% of men have a midlife crisis between the ages of 40 and 45.

Wow! Now those are some “good” odds! NOT!

Levinson would identify this period as the Mid-life Transition, a cross-era shift between early and middle adulthood. This period was typically marked by a “de-illusionment”, a grieving of the loss of possibilities, which acts as a catalyst for the midlife crisis.

What Levinson accomplished within the halls of academia, Gail Sheehy brought to the well of the cultural mainstream in her seminal book, Passages. Within her book Sheehy defines the predictable crises of adult life, including the “Age 40 Crucible.” This crucible is where dissatisfaction and unrest make for dramatic upheaval in midlife.

The primary challenge with these works, all of which ostensibly created the phenomena of the midlife crisis, is that they were done using research designs that are by today’s standards not considered good science. Levinson’s work was based on interviews of only 40 middle-class men in midlife, an extremely small sample size. And Sheehy reached her conclusions by supplementing Levinson’s work with interviews of folks that she selected. Neither used a rigorous research method to arrive at their conclusions.

In fact, when subsequent researchers have tried to replicate Levinson and Sheehy’s findings, no conclusive confirmation of the existence of a midlife crisis could be found. Adults are no more prone to leaving their jobs and spouses in their 40s as they are at any other age. Research conducted since the 70’s has found that a midlife crisis is only likely for about 10 percent of males in the U.S.

Oh my gosh, so why the hell have I created a website devoted to men in midlife?! I think I’m having a Men-in-Midlife crisis!

While your chances of having a midlife crisis are in actuality much lower than originally estimated by Levinson, the research is clear that there is something going on at midlife.

What’s really going on in midlife?

In her 2016 book, Life Reimagined, Barbara Bradley Hagerty does a great job of getting to the “bottom” of this midlife crisis dilemma, literally. She explores the research that has found that in our 40s and 50s we reach the bottom of the U-shaped curve of happiness. In conversation with researchers whose studies spanned over 72 countries and included more than 350,000 Americans, Hagerty shines the light on the existence of a midlife malaise common across the globe.

A future post will explore the U-curve in more detail and share ways to successfully make the midlife transition.  We’ll look at ways of creating a more meaningful life so that we can minimize our time at the bottom of the curve and begin the climb up.

What’s your experience of midlife and where are you on that U-shaped curve?   I’d love to hear from you in the comments below!