Wisdom, clarity, and joy. We can only hope for this much in our lives as we age, but sometimes those things seem unavailable or even unattainable when midlife questions present themselves, often manifesting as the infamous “midlife crisis.” Reframe. Midlife crisis is so very “out.”
Midlife transitions, during which we make choices that support ourselves and those we love, are so very “in.” This approach honors that we can make choices to shift with life’s stages.
Chip Conley is the founder of the Modern Elder Academy, the world’s first midlife wisdom school. He’s a longtime Esalen faculty member (you might also notice his name on the wall of the Esalen book store). His recent guest appearance on our social media talk show, Esalen Live!, with Christine Chen, focused on tackling your midlife transitions — not crises.
Observing National Healthy Aging Month in September, we’ve gathered some of Conley’s guidance from the interview to emphasize how we can navigate the stages of our lives. Did you know that midlife might actually start in our 30s?
Whether it’s time to start steering yourself toward wisdom, discovering clarity, or cultivating joy without guilt, we’re confident Conley’s insights will resonate with you.
Christine Chen: What’s the difference between midlife crisis and midlife transition?
Chip Conley: Midlife crisis as a term comes from 1965. There is evidence that people go through an awful lot of transitions between age 40 and age 70. You’re letting go of some things. No one ever schooled us on transitions.
Christine: When do we start to feel midlife transitions?
Chip: Change is situational and circumstantial. Transition is psychological and maybe even spiritual. When you’re going through transition you’re doing something fundamentally inside. You’re actually going through an emotional process of how you operate in the world — whether that’s your physical body, your career, your relationships, your connection to spirituality or religion.
Christine: Why is it important to cultivate wisdom and acknowledge this is happening?
Chip: What is wisdom… it’s just the pattern recognition you build up with experience. If you get better at understanding the experiences, and see, wow, I just learned a lesson there, that is the process of harvesting wisdom. It means you can see the future and your own patterns a little better and build your intuition — there’s a lot of evidence that wisdom and intuition have a lot in common.
Christine: When exactly does midlife begin?
Chip: Great question! In the past, midlife was perceived as 45 to 65. Today, many sociologists say it starts earlier — around 35 — because in some industries, you feel over the hill at 35. And then, people are living longer and working longer… and so some people feel like they’re still in midlife at 75. So, it’s possible that midlife has become a marathon from 35 to 75.
Christine: What transitional wisdom should we cultivate in our 30s?
Chip: I’m going to give suggestions for each of the decades, but what I say is relevant to all the decades. If you haven’t learned it before, 30s is when you want to learn something about mindfulness. It’s a door unlocking, allowing you to capture your wisdom and tap into it better. Nature, meditating, doing yoga, saying prayers, a gratitude journal… this is a good time to do it. The 30s is a time when your mind goes racing, and you get “monkey mind.” Slow your mind down and start observing yourself.
Christine: What do you suggest for the 40s?
Chip: For many people the 40s are their most difficult decade. It can be a really rough period, because you often feel like you’re carrying a big load. This is a decade to focus on “emotional insurance.” Surround yourself with people who create a “resilience circle” around you — like a peer-to-peer support. This is your crew, the people you consider your family. It could be a collection of people to help you build confidence in your career.
Christine: Let’s move onto the 50s.
Chip: You need to do your great “midlife edit.” It’s around your 50s you start to say, what is it I am ready to let go of… what are the mindsets, roles, obligations, archetypes I live out that I need to let go of? This is the time where we let go of the things we just don’t need anymore.
Christine: How about the 60s?
Chip: By your 60s, you’ve developed some amazing principles, wisdom, and learning along the way, but you also want to be someone with a beginners’ mind again. I became a mutual mentor with people half my age. At AirBnB, where I worked full-time for a few years, I taught them something and they taught me something. Often I would teach them something about EQ — emotional intelligence — and they would teach me something about DQ — digital intelligence. What a profound opportunity in our 60s to become mutual mentors with those younger than us.
Christine: Wisdom for the 70s?
Chip: It’s our 70s when we start to look at legacy. You’re generating things often for other generations. We move more into — how do I leave something to the world, whether it’s a memoir, or some way I’m going to volunteer for a cause, or how I create wisdom for grandchildren. They want to serve.
Christine: Is there anything different about midlife transitions in the pandemic?
Chip: Sometimes you could be going through transitions — career change, menopause, the sandwich generation (taking care of your parents while taking care of your kids) — and you feel you’re alone, like you’re doing the game of life wrong. You’re not doing it wrong. A lot of us are going through many transitions at once, and there are more transitions in midlife than any other life stage.
More insights in the full interview — watch here.