This column is inspired by a comment from Richard Tugwell last week, to the effect that I was too old to be suffering a midlife crisis. It got me thinking about age, directions, and sharp right turns in one's career.
Partly I suppose it's in how one defines the term. Is a midlife crisis something that is only allowed to happen in one's 40s (in which case I have long missed the boat) and must be accompanied by a red sports car (so not my style)? If so, I am most assuredly disqualified. But if you accept that it refers to a deep disquiet with one's direction or lot in life that occurs in middle age, well then I'd say I still could succumb. Middle-aged ain't what it used to be. When I was a kid, 63 was considered, and rightly so, to be "old." Nowadays, with the healthcare and quality of life available to a white middle-class American, I'm still in middle age. Pushing towards the high end of it, probably, but medically, physiologically, mentally, and lifestyle-wise, I'm still squarely in the middle. So there's still time for me to have a crisis.
Mind you, I've never had one. Doesn't seem likely I will. My career has gradually drifted and mutated over the years, but it's been an organic process driven mostly by trying to address the question, "How do I make a living doing what I like to do?" Rather than "I'm living in a way I despair," which seems to me to be at the core of a midlife crisis. My work has always been centered around photography and instructional writing, in some guise or another.
But, there's nothing saying that can't change. Just because I've been doing this for almost 40 years now doesn't mean I'll be doing it for the next 40. Heck, I might not even be doing it next year. Maybe tearing down the darkroom will be such a psychic shock that'll undergo a complete change of direction in my life. OK, that does seem unlikely, to say the least. But, life can be surprising.
Now, those of you who've been making sums are about to say, "Ctein, are you really counting on another 40 years? Isn't that rather, um, improbable?"
Well, no, I'm not counting on it. I'm a big believer in "eat dessert first; life is uncertain." Also in "live life like there's no tomorrow." But, you know, there are two ways to take that. One way is to think it means your life is going to end today. Another is to think it means your life is never going to end...at least not so long as you don't actually die today, because there is no tomorrow.
Therein lies the key to thinking about the future. Tactically, act as though your days are in short supply. Strategically, you might as well assume you'll live forever. You won't, of course, but why not? If you turn out to be wrong, it's not like anyone's going to be pointing fingers at you and going "ha ha, I told you so." Well, not within your earshot, anyway (assuming there's an earshot in your particular afterlife).
You're never too old to make that sharp right turn. Or even a shallow one. You can change careers, outlooks, or even pointless automotive vehicles, at any time in your life. Age is not a qualifier.
My favorite example of this is Bob Cameron. If the name isn't familiar, certainly this book is: Above San Francisco. When this book was published in 1969, I knew nothing about the photographer. Neither, really, did anybody else; he was a new star on the scene. So, plausibly, I figured he was of my generation, a 20-something photographer recently embarking on his life as a photographer and finding his niche, the thing that worked for him and that was going to make his life and his career.
The first and foremost problem with that bit of armchair psychology was that I was a little off on the age. Assuming you'd call three decades "a little." Bob was born in 1911. While he had done some professional photography in his youth, that was not his life's career. He spent most of it, up to that point, in marketing and imports. That was his business. When he decided he'd had enough of that, he retired and launched his second career, to become one of the all-time successful aerial photographers.
Keep in mind that this was over 40 years ago, when being your late 50s was leaving middle age and knocking at the door of elderly, when you were supposed to be looking to your retirement and your leisurely golden years. Well, Bob ran that clock out for another four decades. Up until his mid-90s, his health and eyesight were still good enough that he was still flying and photographing.
Could he have had any notion when he published the first book that he'd still have a vitally active 35 years ahead of him? Nah. But did he assume he didn't? Nah. He just ran with it.
Was that a midlife crisis? I doubt it. He just decided he'd finished one phase of his life and it was time to enter a new one. But it could've been. It most certainly was a radical change. You're never too old for one of those.
Or, as James Taylor put it...well, see this column's title.
Ctein's regular weekly column appears on TOP on Wednesdays.
Original contents copyright 2013 by Michael C. Johnston and/or the bylined author. All Rights Reserved. Links in this post may be to our affiliates; sales through affiliate links may benefit this site.
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Featured Comments from:
Mark: "Please don't take offense, but that was my favorite column of yours. Ah, midlife. I just turned 56. Just finished a five mile hike with my dogs. They say it's freezing here in New York. I was wearing a new down jacket by Outdoor Research, super light and very warm. I was lucky enough to have worked for the government for 32 years. My dad told me when I was a kid, work for the government. You won't get rich, but you'll have job security, benefits and a pension. He was spot on. Now I collect my pension, having retired two years ago, work freelance in the same line of work, make a great living, have three months a year off, and love life. Red sports car? That is so me."
Tom Robbins: "Ahhh, this is a breath of fresh air on a cloudy winter day. Totally cheered me up."
David Miller: "Amen to your column, Ctein!
"My first two right-angle turns—career changes—were not prompted by dissatisfaction with my life at the time, but rather by a greater passion to do something else. From acting I moved to building stringed instruments when my 'between engagements' hobby of instrument-making became more satisfying than my gainful (sort of) work on stage. From there (after caring for a dying relative) I moved into health care because I found the rewards (for my heart, if not initially to my wallet) were even greater. The third change will be a little different: after being dragged gradually 'upwards' into a position with more administrative and fewer patient-care duties, I found myself in yet another meeting last week, thinking, 'This isn't what I came here to do!' I gave notice at the end of the meeting. This time I'll have a modest pension, but there's still a new double career waiting in the wings: I plan to garden and learn to draw. (Why drawing? Because I can't achieve what I want to with photography alone.)
"There have been three common features in each of the changes: 1) The decision has been instantaneous and completely confident; there has been no drawn-out internal debate. 2) The decision has been triggered by passion; I have listened to my heart. And 3) I have shown absolutely no instinctive aptitude for the next career, but only a burning desire to do it and do it well. So far the system seems to be working very well for me.
"Have a great next 40 years, Ctein…but above all, have a great day today!"