Making The Most Of Midlife Crises

Carl Jung said, “One cannot live the afternoon of life according to the program of life’s morning; for what was great in the morning will be of little importance in the evening, and what in the morning was true will at evening have become a lie.”

It was actually physician and psychoanalyst, Elliot Jaques, who invented the phrase “midlife crisis” in an address in 1957. The notion, later found to be semi-autobiographical, that people could be expected to experience a depressive period of several years in midlife, landed with a thud at a gathering of the British Psycho-Analytical Society. Perhaps this was because it was associated with a heightened risk of death, or because it hit home so hard for the audience, or both.

But it was many years earlier, in 1931, that Carl Jung shared the notion of living “the two halves of life,” a concept that was more instructive than cautionary. Indeed, philosopher and friar, Richard Rohr, dedicated an entire volume, called “Falling Upward,” to a redemptive view of the two halves of life, and especially the second.

Falling Upward


“The first half of life is spent building our sense of identity, importance, and security,” Rohr says. It’s when we learn to achieve, accomplish, and demonstrate visible success, especially in our Western culture. “In the second half of life,” he continues, “we discover that it is no longer sufficient to find meaning in being successful or healthy. We need a deeper source of purpose.”

OK, deeper source of purpose. I’m in. So, how do we get it? It is “more encountered than sought,” Rohr says. And it looks more like falling and failing, pain and purgatory, than “preplanning, purpose, or passion.”

Ah, there’s the catch. We grow “much more by doing it wrong than by doing it right.”

But here’s the good news: While we may not be able to seek and find the wellspring of wisdom common in the second half of life, we are guaranteed to encounter its many catalysts, through painful events, big and small. We just need to make the most of our crises—at any phase of life.

Yes, that’s the even better news: While some never submit to life’s lessons, only hardening and embittering through old age, some of us experience more pain, sooner, and through it are gifted a hard-won wisdom and its uncommon accompanying peace.

As a financial advisor, I’ve had a first-row seat to observe this phenomenon for more than 20 years. Perhaps this is especially because there’s such a natural similarity in cadence. While people tend to be accumulating their educations, careers, assets, relationships, and reputations, they are also in the first half of life, both literally and figuratively; then, in the second half, they begin decumulating, dispelling, when appropriate, and disseminating.

I’ve seen some resist reality and others insist on maintaining their grip on first half of life ambitions indefinitely. But I’ve thankfully seen more people accept and acknowledge life’s challenges, allowing those moments and seasons to soften their responses to disappointment and refine their approaches to life, work, and money.

Ironically, the most common challenge I’ve seen in working with the wealthy has been the realization that the tangible success they’d achieved—the fulfillment of “Plan A,” professional dominance, and financial independence—was vastly less satisfying than they’d anticipated. The collective “That’s it!?” has been resounding.

As Thomas Merton put it, “People may spend their whole lives climbing the ladder of success only to find, once they reach the top, that the ladder is leaning against the wrong wall.”

Ladder of Success


Yet there is also no more rewarding work than creating the space for someone to momentarily descend the ladder, step back, and survey the wall they’ve been scaling. None of the work they’ve done has been wasted. That which they have learned—often from loss—has accrued, and can now be even more effectively applied, in pursuit of that deeper source of purpose, and on behalf of those they love and work with and in the communities they serve.

That, I believe, is the greatest work we can do as financial advisors. Yes, there is value in the first half of life work—the task of accumulation, or as Richard Rohr puts it, “to create a proper container for one’s life.” But how much more meaningful is it to create the space for others “to find the actual contents that this container was meant to hold and deliver”?