No longer living someone else’s life

Midlife crisis is such a cliche. The countdown to my 5oth birthday started at 48 when I quit my job, bought a camper and roamed around the US national parks with my camera. By 49 I was nearly in a panic. Not because I was about to turn 50, but because I still felt like I was living someone else’s life. I couldn’t bear the thought of dragging the same old patterns and baggage past this important midlife milestone.

I sold everything in the US and boarded a plane to Europe a mere five days before my 50th birthday. Over the next four months, through France, Geneva, Morocco and Israel, the decision to continue working in business strategy remained unquestioned. Networking isn’t easy as a nomad, so I tried staying in Tel Aviv for a couple months to find a way, unsuccessfully, to ramp up a business.

The perils of should

That business success has eluded me while on the road is no surprise; it’s been something I had to make myself do, not out of passion but out of duty. Fact is, consulting fits me like an off-the-rack suit; while I’m good at it and occasionally enjoy it, the profession was designed with someone else in mind. I knew it. I’ve known it for years, in that way that we might know our lover is cheating or that our best friend has betrayed us. We think that if we don’t make a big deal out of noticing, it might just go away.

I couldn’t imagine what else I could do to earn a living. When my coach asked me last year, “what do you love to do?” I’d shrug my shoulders. Nothing came to mind that I could map to a real career. Even worse, I’d bought into the idea that it didn’t really matter what we love; grownups should do what need to be done when it comes to paying the bills and not chase silly notions.

There’s that “should” word again; I was a master at using it for self-flagellation when I failed to live up to expectations. But whose expectations? Well, that’s a good question. Now that I’m older and a tiny bit wiser, I recognize should as a flashing warning sign that I’m going the wrong way, or worse, that I’m actively rejecting part of who I am. The should applied to my career has been the last one standing; a barrier set up for safety, without which I might plummet over the cliff of irresponsible choices.

Our 8-year-old life coach

It’s so easy to get nudged, bit by bit, by our family, culture, media and friends onto a road that isn’t ours to travel. Until one day, some of us wake up, blink, and wonder where the heck we are. Hello midlife crisis! At this point, the only person who understands how far we’ve strayed is our inner 8-year olds.

Maybe you’re the lucky one who never banished your 8-year-old self to the children’s table. I suspect you’d be an exception rather than the rule. It’s easy to rationalize why there’s no room with the grownups; what does an 8-year old know, anyway? A lot, actually… not about business or mortgages or global politics, but about everything that really matters to our souls. The meaning and purpose of life. What brings us joy. Secret hopes. Play.

To banish our inner 8-year old is like a best friend’s betrayal. When we’re the ones doing the betraying, it’s easy to not make a big deal out of noticing. But it doesn’t go away, no matter how much we wish it would. This need for reconciliation with our younger, truer self is the incessant itch that wakes us up, or the narcotic that sinks us into a deeper sleep.

I think back now to my childhood, when all I wanted to do was write and draw and create. Even today, decades later, I’m a compulsive journaller. It’s not something I choose to do; it’s something I must do, whether in the quiet of home or in a busy cafe or bar. I write to understand myself and the world. To translate the swirling chaos of intuition and emotion into something my logical brain can comprehend. To problem-solve and make unexpected connections. To plumb the depths of the meaning of life in general, and mine in particular.

If writing is a compulsion, the visual arts are my medicine: my escape from an overly active left brain. Photography gets me out into the world and away from my computer; I’ll walk for hours in a new place with my camera, or sit patiently in a nature preserve waiting for the sunrise or a hawk in flight. And painting is visual problem-solving, something that sucks me into that third dimension called flow where I can stay for hours.

My 8-year-old coach, delighted that I finally asked her opinion, counseled me to get back to what feeds my soul. She reminded me that 20 years ago I journalled about my desire to move overseas, travel the world, and be a photographer and writer. Yeah, that desire, the one I buried in the name of impracticality, believing that path was for other people… surely not for me.

But hey, wait just a stinkin’ minute…. I’M DOING IT ALREADY! I’m traveling the world with my camera, and not even paying attention because I’m so damned distracted by this insistence on working at something I don’t even really like. How does this happen?

The heart is the source of our power

This was my big realization as I immersed myself in the charming port town of Limassol, Cyprus, last year. “When the student is ready, the teacher appears.” The people I met there — writers, artists, musicians, journalists, coaches — are rebels: authentic human beings in touch with their inner 8-year olds, unpressured to conform to some idea of what success looks like. They find that balance between leisure and hustle, focusing more on quality and realness of life that had thus far eluded me. I felt welcomed here like I was already a local… like I was already one of them.

And let’s face it: I am one of them. This is the truth I tried to avoid my entire adult life. It’s not a tragedy to fail at something we don’t really want to do. But when we’re betting the farm on something we love — no, that we are, at our essence — the risk is real. We’re vulnerable.

But as my new Cypriot artist friend Paris said to me, “the heart is the source of our power.” I’ve lived most of my life from my head; logic is safe. Logic is where “should” lives, our life choices calculated, pros and cons weighed. Living from the heart… well that’s crazy, right? I questioned my sanity as my 8-year old coach clapped her hands with delight. Yes, this feels right.

Be wild and crazy and drunk with love

If you’re too careful, love won’t find you.

Rumi

Which brings me to my new life based (for now) in T’bilisi, Republic of Georgia. I’m doing what lights me up. Every day I spend hours writing, interspersed with soul-reviving coaching calls. When I’m feeling a little stuck or down, I grab my camera and walk the old town or rent a car to explore the countryside. It doesn’t feel like work, but it is. My low-level stress, like the ever-present hum of the refrigerator, is gone. I have full faith that when we combine hustle with our 8-year-old coach’s advice, the money will follow.

Was it scary to drop everything I knew to embark on a truer path? Hell yes. But it’s worth it.

What about you?

What has your inner 8-year old been asking for? What’s keeping you from listening? Let’s start a conversation in the comments section. Your comments and feedback help me focus on future topics and questions you find meaningful and interesting.