On the spaghetti monster of midlife.
How do you make sense of what you do with your life when more of it is behind you than in front of you, and everything that used to feel certain now feels like it was built on sand?
[Just briefly: Zero Drama Leadership is a three-month programme for people who want to cut through the noise and get to the heart of what matters in any situation. It starts in March and there are a few places left. Get in touch if you’re interested in joining via email@example.com]
It’s Thursday morning and I’m sitting on a bench outside a church in Exeter in the Winter morning sun. Yep, that one in the picture.
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Next week I’ll be 45.
My back is sore and I’ve got a nagging pain in my side.
Passing a shop window on the walk between the cafe and this bench, I was reminded how my face is looking more creased every time I see my reflection.
I feel worn out.
A familiar feeling sits in my belly and my mind starts its work of making sense of these physical feelings by turning them into a story.
I can hear it coming, like you would a truck that’s entered the other end of a tunnel.
I know how it goes before it’s even arrived.
It’s something along the lines of “What the f**k am I doing…?”
I catch it before it goes any further and refocus on being on the bench, sitting quietly in the winter sun.
I’m not surprised I feel a bit tired.
This week I started out with a day at the forge of a local blacksmith who I’ve been working with since the beginning of the year. I’m there two days a week, supporting him with with various forging and fabrication jobs for his clients.
I was working on some big metal balustrades for a new mansion, up the road. Once I was finished and had collected my son, I came home and posted up some knives for sale on Instagram that I've been working on for a few months in my home workshop.
Tuesday I was at home drawing up a plan for a supervision role I'm starting with a very interesting organisation, providing emotional and psychological support for their team members.
After that I talked to a few people about the Zero Drama Leadership programme kicking off in a month's time.
Wednesday, back to blacksmithing - I drove up to the mansion to install the work I produced on Monday.
It was satisfying but, as always, quite weird suddenly hopping from talking to leaders, founders and facilitators about conflict and communication into working on a building site as an apprentice with all the dust, noise and banter.
Thursday, I went into Exeter to pick up again on my conflict and leadership work, planning out a series of conflict skills online workshops for another client.
When tomorrow comes around I'll be ending the week running forest school sessions for the local primary, just being in the woods with a bunch of kids of differing needs, letting them find a bit of space to be themselves, together, and get back to nature.
It’s a typical week for me and each individual component plays to something I love doing.
Deep down there's a clear thread that runs through it all but from a modern, career perspective, it's very hard to see where this weird mix is all heading.
And, sitting on my bench, I find that the desire to have a clear answer to the gnawing question of ‘Where am I going with this?’ is an old habit that’s hard to let go of.
People often told me I have a 'squiggly career' but to me that’s still a very simplistic and linear idea. Personally, it feels more like a plate of wriggly spaghetti.
But... on the way back from a Brazilian Jiu Jitsu on Tuesday night, feeling bruised and battered after a session on Gi chokes (if you know, you know and if you don't, don't ask), I switched on a podcast conversation between Tami Simon and Chip Conley
Chip runs the Midlife Elder Academy - helping people find their way through middle age into something different and better.
Hearing him talk about his concept of the 'Midlife Chrysalis' helped to make sense of something I’d been sitting with for some time.
As I mentioned, it’s my birthday next week and I’m aware that I am almost certainly more than halfway through my life. I might have a lot less time ahead of me than behind me.
This idea has led me to look at the past few years and where I am now with interest and curiosity (and sometimes a tiny bit of panic).
In 2020 I took a very clear and decisive step away from a career as a leadership trainer and consultant that I’d spent a long time building up.
Deep in the first onslaught of the Covid frenzy, I’d finished a big contract which left me with some big questions about what I was doing.
I had already got fed up with having to constantly market myself and had a growing sense that this identity I’d been so focused on cultivating was starting to feel a bit ill-fitting, like a jumper I once loved but had come out the dryer a couple of sizes too small.
I was also left with this nagging doubt about whether I was doing any good - or if I was part of a system that kept us from collectively making progress, and instead driving forward a set of individual and very personal agendas.
And I wasn’t sure what my personal agenda was any more.
So, I made a decision. My wife was just about to take on a new role which meant she would be less available at home and we’d decided to home educate our eldest.
I banked my last invoice, we cut our costs and I became a ‘stay-at-home dad’.
It seemed like a great idea at the time. I’ve always been a 50/50 parent, very focused on my kids education and wellbeing. So it didn’t feel like a stretch to step into the role.
At the same time, I’d also just started exploring blacksmithing, from a hunch that I’d like to learn how to make things out of metal.
I learned how to make knives, popped my first one up on Instagram and someone asked me to make one for their partner. A picture of that one led to request for another.
In a small way, things snowballed from there and I was able to slowly continue to pursue this interest while simultaneously knee deep in packed lunches, school runs and emotional support for small children.
The whole package was joyful at times, regularly humbling and - for some long periods - deeply unsettling and isolating.
I could write volumes on the issues around masculinity and the shift from being a ‘breadwinner’ to the main carer - and perhaps my first steps in blacksmithing were some kind of effort to compensate.
On paper, shifting from the pressures of modern working life to being the parent who makes everything happen at home might sound like an upgrade or an easier life.
But on paper it can be much harder and start to erode your sense of self.
And while we might idolise craftspeople in an age where everyone lives ephemeral, digital lives, I found that making even a bit of your living from turning out beautiful things that take you weeks to make is almost impossible.
So in the middle of all this I found myself filled with self-doubt, discomfort and - I don’t like to admit it - resentment.
Despite it being an active choice on my part, when my needs weren’t being met I could find myself playing the victim, thinking that everyone was getting what they want except poor old me.
But I had just enough awareness to see all of this going on and rather than switch back to what I knew or try to find a way to neutralise the feelings, I felt I had to ‘trust the process' and see where it went.
I’d love to say that everything resolved itself over a few months through a regime of patience and self-care but that’s not how life works.
Instead, I sat with all the difficulty and gently forged ahead (excuse the pun). Riding out the days where I felt useless and hopeless, and trying my best not to let that spill out on to my family or influence my choices.
And now, after this long and tricky time in the psychological trenches, can I see how the incredibly varied life that’s emerged out the other side makes at least *some* sense.
Chip Conley presents this idea of moving from the model of a 'midlife crisis' to a 'midlife chrysalis'.
Yes, it’s a little cheesy, but personally I like it all the more for that. And it offers a reframing that I find very helpful.
It’s about recognising the need to let go of the identities and accumulations you build up in the previous decades of your life and instead finding direction with the skills and experiences that still serve you.
He leans on some familiar models from ritual and transition work (William Bridges, Joseph Campbell etc), which you may already be familiar with - I’ve used it alot in my participatory leadership practice.
When we step over a threshold, we make an active choice to let go of the old. We move from something that was certain and comfortable (perhaps comfortably uncomfortable) into a ‘liminal space’.
These liminal spaces are full of uncertainty - the idea that anything could happen (or worse: perhaps nothing) is unsettling for us humans.
But the longer we can stay in that transitional murk, the more creative and generative the outcome may be.
And somewhere along the way we step over a new threshold into something different and new.
In early adult life we are trying to prove ourselves having been spat out of the strict and oppressive frameworks of school and other institutions.
Suddenly free to explore and build a sense of who we are, we set out to prove that we have value, worth and perhaps status, driven by the unconscious lessons absorbed from our parents, teachers, peers and consumer society.
My first big driver was about status and money. My first proper job was in the world’s biggest media company, just after the dot com bubble burst. My goal was to get as far up the ladder, as quickly as possible.
In a later phase of life, my driver was about impact and being seen to do good. As a leadership trainer and consultant, I wanted to change the world and - without realising it - I wanted everyone else to know.
These days, all of this is exacerbated by social media and how it encourages us to project and protect these identities we build both in our personal and professional lives (just look at how LinkedIn now resembles Instagram).
We can know that we our identities are being seen and approved of through the likes, shares and comments that we do or don’t get. And whether we get them or not, we most likely strive to get more.
However, at some point, for some reason, both our attachment to our identities and desire to be liked or respected starts to feel increasingly less helpful.
Perhaps we just get tired of the game but, more likely, we probably start to get real about the finite-ness of our lives and begin asking: What the hell have I been doing all this time? What really matters?
Moving into midlife, part of this questioning seems to lead to a letting go of the need to identify.
To stop leaning on the externalised ideas of being a thing - something special that makes us stand out or fit in, plugging the holes that education and consumer culture put in us.
Having been thoroughly tested, falling over and getting back up again over and over, we might find that it’s not the identity and the approval that got you back on your feet or drove you forward after a crisis.
There’s just no longer quite the same security or satisfaction in trying to be that thing.
And although the ideas of identity and identifying run deep, we then might find ourselves still pursuing them with diminishing psychological returns or moving into that liminal space of letting go that feels scary and lonely.
As I look over the spaghetti monster of my current working (and wider) life through the lens of Chip’s ‘midlife chrysalis’, I can see how the discomfort and sense of messiness of the past few years has been very much like the caterpillar dissolving it’s own guts.
And, like the caterpillar, I think the role of trust, patience and listening carefully - especially when things are at their worst - is that of knowing that there’s a pattern beneath all the noise and posturing of my previous decades.
The caterpillar was always going to be a butterfly, even though it never knew and especially because it never tried.
I don’t for a moment think I’m about to turn into a butterfly.
I’ve got too many scars to pull that off - but all joking aside, the model from ritual work that goes: [old → liminal space→ new] just doesn’t really work like that in reality.
Instead, I get the feeling it’s a long process of many transitions, all with their own journey but leading to a potential wider, psychological consolidation.
As I listened to Chip and Tami talk, they also describe moving from ‘proving myself’ to ‘improving myself’.
Although this is neat and familiar, I have a sense that midlife also offers us an opportunity to get increasingly comfortable just *being* yourself.
Looking at my work, now, there’s a lot that has started falling into place.
I’ve moved from being a leadership trainer and facilitator that wants to change the world to doubling down on very specific areas of being with conflict and difficulty that are critical to good leadership, but are not about my desire to be seen or an attachment to changing anything. I just know that I’m good at this bit, I enjoy sharing it and people find it useful.
And my metalwork has gone from a frustrated desire to distance myself from the digital consumerist world I no longer identified with to just pursuing craft where I lovingly create beautiful things for other people. Also, it’s become a journey that I can never really finish, where I’m simultaneously working on my teaching skills others and learning from all the more experienced smiths I come into contact with.
I do it out of a sort of quiet joyful pleasure that’s also about the need to graft and a need to connect to my own cultural heritage.
Like all aspects of being human, I can still feel the pulls and pushes of the old patterns and outside influences, the need to have goals and the need to be more.
Maybe I’ll never totally be free of these ghostly voices but there influence is waning.
And I’m not suggesting for a second that there’s this neat linear path through the thorny hedgerow of midlife into an enlightened second half.
But sitting on a bench in the Winter sun this morning, I felt those stories start to come out of the familiar rumble in my gut and the self-doubt begin to rise.
In the past, I might have let that grow and spiral into something more solid, leading to that question “What the f**k am I doing?”
Instead I just sat with the physical feeling, reminded myself I was tired, with a lot going on and just stayed with a more gentle thought:
“I wonder where this might be heading…”
[Thanks for reading. If you’d like to learn and put into practice some of the skills required to navigate transitions as a leader of any kind, you might be interested in the Zero Drama Leadership programme, starting in March. Get in touch if you’d like to explore joining the course.]
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