From Misery To Fulfillment: How To Successfully Navigate Midlife Transitions

Dr. Ron Young, Founder and Board Chair of Trove, Inc. Ron specializes in psychological coaching & transition consulting.

For some, transitioning from early adulthood to midlife is a smooth transition. For others, the transition is miserable. They often feel stuck, stalled and in a rut. They become disengaged with life. They have lost their sense of identity, purpose and connection within the larger community.

Developmental psychologist Erik Erikson’s life stages model provides valuable insights into why some people are miserable when they face midlife crises and ways to help them move from misery to fulfillment. 

Young adulthood (age 19 to 35-plus) and midlife (age 35 to 55-plus) are two of Erik Erikson’s eight stages of development. Those who complete earlier stage-specific developmental tasks enter midlife with solid building blocks of trust, autonomy, initiative, industry, identity and intimacy. They know who they are and how they fit into an adult world. They know how to develop close, sustainable relationships and make career commitments.

Our task at midlife is to be generative, passing on lessons learned and knowledge gained from the accumulated years of our lives and leaving something behind that is more significant than ourselves. Our hardwired need to leave something behind for future generations emerges. We find fulfillment by caring for, committing to, guiding and mentoring the next generation. We do so with no expectation of getting anything in return. We celebrate the successes of the young. Seth Godin’s statement that “Life is too short not to do something that matters” applies to this stage.

Failure to complete these tasks results in mistrust, doubt, shame, guilt, inferiority, identity confusion, isolation and an unstable foundation of building blocks. The result is a shaky foundation that interferes with a smooth transition into midlife and contributes to midlife crises and misery. People stuck in midlife misery say things like, “I do not know who I am; I feel isolated and alone; my life has not counted for anything; life is meaningless, and my presence is irrelevant.”

Focusing on self rather than others impairs social relationships. Healthy relationships are an essential component of healthy aging. Stagnation may result in diminished health. Rather than feeling satisfied with life, there may be feelings of regret and overall dissatisfaction. Our life may become like a stagnant and polluted pond that does not nourish us or anyone else.

Fortunately, you can make adjustments and choose to walk away from stagnation by developing generativity. We can also go back and complete tasks from earlier developmental stages. Last month I started to work with a new client. He entered coaching for help with his midlife misery. He reported feeling unfulfilled in his job and personal life and said, “I feel like I am living a watered-down, pointless life.”

Even as an adult in midlife, he was still in a state of role confusion. He was unable to sustain or create intimate relationships. He felt isolated because his true self was unknown to him and, therefore, not present in relationships. He became the person others wanted him to be rather than who he truly is. His identity was determined by what his father, employers and others wanted him to be. He said, “I meet what they want, but they don’t meet what I want.” But he was unaware of what he wanted. He had awakened to the fact that rather than living his life, he was living a life others had conferred on him.

We started by exploring his adolescent and young adult years to determine if he had acquired the necessary building blocks from those stages. He had not, so we developed a plan to help him discover his values, gifts, confidence, what he enjoys doing and the kind of people he enjoys being around. I supported and encouraged him as he gathered solid building blocks from previous stages and began to self-construct his true identity.

We talked about his parents and their parenting style, education and occupations. Were they involved in his education? Did they encourage or discourage thinking about and exploring various college and career directions? We discussed his years in high school and college, the classes he liked and those he did not, extracurricular and after-school activities and relationships.

We explored how he had arrived at his college degree and career choice. He realized that his father had determined that his college and career choice would be corporate finance. He had not been encouraged to explore the right choice for himself. Armed with insights from his discovery process, we completed incomplete tasks from earlier stages and gathered new, more solid building blocks.

Being gifted in corporate finance, he had many career successes but had become aware that he was unfilled. He said that when he thought about it, he had never enjoyed corporate finance.

Using his newly acquired building blocks, he now knows who he is and where he fits in the world. He has developed new relationships, and the connection between him and his family is more intimate. He joined a bowling league and the Rotary Club. He and his wife started attending a neighborhood group that meets in each other’s homes once a month. He is mentoring young men and women who are in the young adult stage. He shares what he learned through his midlife misery and believes he is helping others to have a smoother transition than he did. He said that guiding and teaching the next generation makes him believe that he has a purpose and his life is counts.

Gathering the building blocks at each turning point of our psychosocial development sets the stage for success at each subsequent stage. Resolution of the adolescent and young adult stages is crucial to success at midlife. Knowing who we are, where we fit in society and how to develop intimate relationships creates the foundation for generativity and avoids midlife misery.

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1. Combine Gifts, Passions And Innovation

Know who you are today by doing a fresh analysis of your gifts and passions. Use the results of your analysis as your lens for identifying unmet needs in the business world. Think outside the box by breaking away from conventional wisdom. Combining your gifts and passions with innovative ideas is foundational to a successful business that meets your and your consumers’ needs. – Ron Young, Trove, Inc.

2. Gain Clarity And Choose Metrics For Success

I’ve had numerous pro-service clients do this, and most of them have considered it. The most important thing is to have clarity about why you want to start a business. The second thing is to very carefully choose the metrics that will indicate to yourself that you are succeeding. Your “why” and your metrics will keep you grounded when the going gets tough—and it will. – Randy Shattuck, The Shattuck Group

3. Leverage Your Experience And Do A SWOT Analysis

Know your strengths, be clear on your personal motivation and leverage your current experience and insights that you have developed over the years in your industry. Think about the pains and gains your clients have experienced and gaps that have not been filled. I also recommend doing a SWOT analysis to gain clarity and alignment and to determine the value proposition. – Breshana Miller, Kairos Coaching & Consulting, LLC

4. Brainstorm With Close Friends

You can’t hesitate or keep your new business too close to your chest. You need to brainstorm with your closest friends, your professional network and those whom you trust. Bounce your ideas off of others and see if they resonate. What do they think your new business is worth? Who do they think the customers would be? Do they know someone who would buy? Have that conversation 100 times and get to work. – Jacob Warwick, ThinkWarwick

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5. Match The Commercial Proposition With The Value You Offer

It is important to match the commercial proposition with the value that you are offering. Before leaving, start researching the potential market to ensure there is a real need. When you are clear on the commercial viability, you can reverse-engineer the process to ensure the proposition fits with your personal drive and passion. – Claudine Reid, PJ’s Community Service

6. Have A Strong Support System In Place

Being an entrepreneur and working for a corporation require different mindsets. To sustain the personal drive and passion, it helps to have a strong support system in place—people who are just as passionate and driven as you and believe in the success of the new business, such as friends, a mastermind group or an experienced coach who can ensure there is a balance between work and personal well-being. – Masha Malka, The One Minute Coach

7. Don’t Follow Your Passion—Bring It To An Opportunity

Don’t follow your passion. I’d rather you bring your passion and drive to an opportunity. The first step is finding a way to improve lives in exchange for profit, then apply your natural passion and drive to improve as many of those lives as possible as efficiently as possible. Because when you do that really well, vision, momentum, growth and, eventually, profit are the results. – David Robertson, Growthpoint Coaching Co.

8. Leverage What Makes You Irreplaceable

You need to clarify the market need for what you do via research, interviews and more. In regard to fulfilling your own needs, a reflective, holistic approach is required to uncover your own personal wants, needs and values to be successful. And above all else, you must uncover something that makes you irreplaceable in the market that you serve. Get all those right and then go for it! – Linda Martin, Linda Martin Results

9. Connect With Your Four Selves

First connect with your four selves—intellectual, emotional, spiritual and physical—and be crystal clear about your purpose and commitment to it. Launching a new venture requires all your energy and commitment. Sometimes, it’s rough. Second, get deep input and feedback from those around you—both your trusted network and your more fearless critics. The wider the scope, the richer the insights. – Luis Costa, Luis Costa – coach · facilitator · speaker

10. Enroll Clients To Help Craft Your Company Vision

Get connected to your purpose, build a business plan around your core values and enroll the customers you want to serve to help craft the company vision. In doing this, you will likely find that your needs and the needs of your future customers are very aligned. Trust that a successful launch will follow and that you will have a tribe of allies ready to offer guidance and support when needed. – Emily Rogers, Emily Rogers Consulting + Coaching

11. Outline The Customer Journey And Your Sales Funnel

First, outline the customer journey to define the scope of their need. Second, outline your marketing and sales funnel. If you are not excited to do that, hire someone who is or don’t launch. If the idea of selling and marketing for hours every week does not excite you, pursue a hobby instead. Third, if you don’t have the drive or passion to build a business, get a dog. The dog will love you back every day. – Kelly Tyler Byrnes, Voyage Consulting Group

12. Experiment With A Minimum Viable Product

Take small steps. Too many people get sucked into the entrepreneurial dream without realizing how tough it can be. I would suggest experimenting with the product—take a minimum viable product (MVP) to the market and get feedback. Leaning on your personal drive, experiment with your own business identity. Too many people overestimate their passion and drive and underestimate the challenge. – Devika Das, CORE Executive Presence

13. Take An Inside-Out Approach

Start with your mission and vision. I believe, as a coach, taking an inside-out approach where executives can start exploring their passion as well as what they would see as success for this new endeavor is key. Then, we can explore the marketplace and how this would be sustained as a successful business by developing a strategic business plan. Allow your personal drive to set the tone for success. – Bryan Powell, Executive Coaching Space

14. Build A Business Around Your Retirement Dreams

Start by thinking about your retirement. If you grew your business and sold it for a killing, what would you then be doing in life? At that point, when you wouldn’t have to think about money and profits, what would you be doing with your time? That’s what you should build your business around. It’s bound to be an area where a strong customer or market need is coupled with your own passion and drive. – Vinesh Sukumaran, Vinesh Sukumaran Consulting

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