This has been a story that’s been (again) simmering in me for a while. Although I’ve shared it with close friends over the last year, I haven’t done so publicly.
I’m doing so today because many others I’ve talked with have shared the same or similar experiences (hitting 40 and going through midlife transitions) and I want you to know …
“You’re not alone.”
It’s my Underneath the Iceberg story for the last two years and it’s called “I Hit Midlife And It Body-Slammed Me.”
When I Remember It Starting …
I was in my late 30s and inching closer to the big FOUR O, when I started feeling the phenomenon I now know as “Midlife.”
Maybe I can sum up the feeling by what I was saying inside like this:
“Everything is great. But everything feels empty.”
And a huge part of that came with a hefty portion of guilt of course.
I kept asking myself: “How could I feel so empty, when I have everything I ever wanted?”
Almost in one day it hit me in the face …. I had accomplished everything I ever wanted to do in life since I was a kid …
- An awesome, loving, supportive partner in my wife Lindsey
- Two happy and healthy children
- A business that was doing great, with work I loved and people I enjoy working with (and partners I consider dear friends)
- Great relationships with my parents and brothers
- Friendships with incredible people who I respect, respected me, loved me and I loved them
- Materially, I wanted for nothing
- And so much more that I am so incredibly grateful for
But I came to realize after desperately wanting to flush these emotions … that they were also very real and I couldn’t ignore them. I couldn’t bury them, although I tried. I couldn’t run from them either. I was feeling this way for a reason. And I wanted to know why and what I could do to change them. Fast.
So I went on a determined quest to find answers. I dove headfirst straight into it.
I was very very motivated …. I didn’t like these feelings, I wanted them simply to go away and to “fix” the problem right now.
And I just knew I would find the answers. I’m a voracious reader, I have a counselor, I have great friends and mentors to talk to. I just knew I got this.
But along the exhausting search with no meaningful answers, I gave up, at least for a time.
I did everything I know to do when faced with these life’s issues, but still came up empty.
I read books, I talked to people. I thought, I journaled. And for a time, a time long enough to be embarrassed to admit now, I wallowed in it and resigned myself to think, “There are no answers to this. This is just life and my life. Just face it and move on, Cory.”
It wasn’t that I didn’t desperately want to figure it out … I was just lost, starting over completely, in a land I didn’t know and without a compass.
I had no clue what to do. And it was jarring.
Life still felt empty for me despite so many things I was (and still am) intensely grateful for.
And yeah, for a time, I leaned on coping mechanisms that sucked. I felt empty and wanted to numb them.
Compounded with what was going on inside me, the physical realities of getting older (and living a rather unhealthy lifestyle) set in for me.
My weight ballooned. My back was constantly hurting. I wasn’t sleeping well for a number of reasons. I had to get glasses for the first time in my life. (Yeah, I realize so many others have had glasses for forever, but for someone with great eyesight for most of their life, having your vision impaired, seemingly overnight, was and still is a major adjustment for me). I found out I had high blood pressure and other things I’ve recently shared.
I told a friend the other day in reflection that my body kind of went on strike and revolted against me in the last couple of years and screamed at me, “Hey dude, all that crap you ate or did when you were age 18 to 35 ain’t cutting it now. At all!”
With each new problem, I’d find myself saying:
“Is this as good as it gets?”
“Have I reached my summit and now I am on the descent?”
And then more guilt.
Turning 40 was an weird milestone in all of this.
I kept referring to it, as others have, as “halftime.” Only I didn’t have any sort of a gameplan for the second half and felt like I was stuck in the locker room with nothing to do.
It was as if I was looking out at the next 40 years of my life and going, “What the hell am I going to do with it?”
I knew traditional retirement wasn’t ever going to work for me. I love working and I love my work. I always have. Lindsey is well aware I don’t have any intention of ever stopping some kind of “work.” And I hated thinking I’d work for the next 25 years, then, what? Sit for another 10 or 20 years and die?
I had no hobbies. What would I do with that time that was meaningful and invigorating beyond what I was doing already? Despite feeling this emptiness, I felt I still had plenty of energy, experience and expertise to give, as well as a lot more to learn and grow and improve on.
I just didn’t have thoughts on where to go but to maintain what I have or did (in all areas of my life). And for someone who prides himself on always learning and growing, the weight of a potential plateau, or what I’ve always referred to as the flatline of life really ate at me.
From what I’ve read …. this is called the U-Shaped of Happiness ….
“If happiness over the life span looks like a U-curve — and researchers suggest that it does — then people in their forties and fifties occupy the bottom of the curve,” writes Barbara Bradley Hagerty.
But after giving up on my search for a time, I had a couple of lightbulb moments that set me in a totally new direction for my life.
I wouldn’t say I have it all figured out. I don’t. Not at all. But I have enough for me, for now. To have hope and direction.
I have so much more to learn and grow … but I at least found more clarity in the fog I was in on how to spend that second half, where/how to focus my time, talent and treasure, and what things I needed to work on. And I’m excited again. Very excited.
I’d like to share some of those lightbulb moments here (mostly in chronological order).
1. Old Metrics Had to Be Reset and Recalibarted
I found what did it for me in my 20s and 30s … doesn’t always do it for me now in my 40s. Not in the same exact way at least.
Those metrics still matter to me … but my focus and perspective on them is different. They still mean things to me, but the old way metrics don’t give me the fullest expression of the meaning I want in my life now, today.
Yes, I want to win. Yes, I want to make money. Yes, I want to help people. Yes, I want to meet new challenges head on and conquer them.
The motivation is different. It’s not building for myself, it’s more helping others build for themselves. (More on that later.)
But for some of the lightbulb moments I’ll share below, my perspective on all of them changed a bit because I’m standing now in a new place and stage in life.
2. Physical Pain as My Sign of Bottled Up Emotional Pain
In my mid to late 30s, I increasingly struggled with nagging back pain. No matter what I did, I’d still have back pain. I tried everything. I tried sleeping differently. I started standing more at work. Going to a chiropractor, getting massages, etc.
Nothing I did gave me long-term relief from my back pain.
Then over Christmas in 2016, my friend Jenny Beaumont, after meeting me at WordCamp US earlier that month, dropped a simple message to me in Facebook Messenger, with a link to her email newsletter and saying it might be something of interest to me …. and it was!
Beyond telling her incredible story of her own back pain, she mentioned a book titled “Healing Back Pain: The Mind-Body Connection” by Dr. John Sarno.
Compelled by her own story, I devoured that book and started implementing many of the practices in it …. specifically, the key point of being mindful that when my back hurt I started asking myself if there was some stress, anxiety, or emotional pain in my life I wasn’t attending to.
That was in late December 2016.
Today is October 13, 2017 … and I haven’t suffered from the type of chronic back pain since that time. Honest truth.
I’m not a doctor, a scientist, a researcher or a psychologist …. but I attribute my own chronic back pain largely to the emotional pain I was going through during this time, specifically around midlife.
For months, I didn’t tell anyone about it, fearing a placebo effect, or being called kooky.
Call me a hippie or weirdo now, I don’t care. It made total sense to me and it’s changed my life. (More on mindfulness later.)
Once I simply started being mindful of my back pain and then questioning myself to see if I was burying or harboring any emotional pain, I’ve been back pain free since.
I never thought about physical pain and how it *could* be associated with emotional pain. But it made sense to me. And now I look at it as ONE WAY my body is telling me I’m not dealing with things adequately.
(By the way, it should be noted that I did not have any major structural problems with my back. No discs out of place. No fractures or anything like that for old car accidents. No diseases, no car accidents or physical trauma. And I’m not in any way discounting chronic back pain for others. I’m recounting my own personal experience and journey.)
3. Mindfulness As a Way Of Life
I’ve used meditation on and off nearly all my life. But I never quite understood the value of mindfulness when I started practicing it with my own back pain.
But it’s seeped into more and more of my life since.
Sherry in one of our ZenTribes meetings over the summer talked at length about mindfulness and I took good notes. She said:
“Mindfulness is attention. It’s checking our automated actions to ensure they are what we want. And it’s the secret sauce for wellness.”
Mindfulness is awareness.
She added, “Mindfulness is four things: notice, observe, reflect, respond.”
So so good.
I used it recently one morning with my daughter, Lillian. As typical, she came into our room at 6:30 a.m. bright eyed and wanting attention and snacks and whatever else the “redhead” demands.
She climbed up in bed with me and sat on me and just looked me in the eyes for several moments. My first instinct was to jump out of bed and start my day by attending to her requests and hopefully getting a shower.
But instead, I noticed and observed how beautiful she looked in the morning light. All of her. Her face, her eyes, her crazy curly red hair. How her eyes looked at me with innocent deep love. How good it felt for my child to be close to me. And I reflected on that moment … and how incredibly thankful I was to have this priceless sweetheart next to me that was real and not a dream … and for the opportunity to have a daughter such as her, perfectly crafted as she was.
And because she hates wearing clothes and only had panties on (oh my), I responded to all this by gently covering her with a blanket, then hugging her when she let me, sneaking kisses on her cheeks, and being entirely enchanted in the moment by my two-year-old little girl who will one day be a woman and perhaps not have this chance again, every morning, to snuggle with her like I do now.
That’s the gift of mindfulness. Of paying attention to life in all its fullness (light and dark). Of being aware of it all.
I am always the guy that looks to the future. Dreams and dwells and basks in the future and what could be. I’m the guy who is always thinking and thinking and thinking.
And most of the time … I totally miss the present. Life’s little moments.
I want mindfulness and attention in all areas of my life. Seeing and experience life in real High Definition, in the present.
So many times in the past year as I’ve started to make sense of this life stage, when asked how I was doing, or to give a one-word expression of my current state, I’d simply say: Present.
Very hard to explain, but it’s frequently how I’m feeling now — just present in my own life. Because for so much of it, I’ve been absent from it.
Today, I’m more present in my life than I have ever been and so thankful for it. Because I’m paying a lot more attention to it now and its worth and value, success and struggle, joy and pain. It’s given me new and fresh experiences and more meaning and purpose and joy.
4. 10X Generativity.
Another huge lightbulb moment that filled me with purpose and passion was stumbling upon the word “Generativity” via Erikson’s Life Stage theory.
Erikson said generatively denotes “a concern for establishing and guiding the next generation.”
I guess you could call it giving back or paying it forward, whatever, but I love the word “generativity” so much more.
Erikson’s model suggested that in each stage, there is a crisis of choice.
In midlife, between roughly ages 40-65, Erikson’s theory suggests it is “Generativity versus Stagnation.”
Stagnation was a great description of what I was feeling and have felt.
There was so much more I felt I could give and offer yet I felt stagnate for the first time in my life.
So I read everything I could about the opposite choice — generativity. And it’s become my word for 2017 and the second half.
If the first half was focused on building up myself and accomplishing my goals (for the most part) … the second half would be focused on helping others even more so.
Of course I’ve always tried to help others whenever I can.
But this refocus and double down brought such new clarity and passion to my life. It felt more other focused. It felt more energizing that I could give back by helping someone working on their first 40 (and after 40 too).
Instead of just a lightbulb … it was turning on the stadium lights.
First, for my children (and family). They deserve the best of me, and are my first priority. If I do nothing else than help raise happy, healthy, loving humans, it’ll all be worth it.
Second, for those closest to me and then, on and on to the people I can touch in the world.
In reflection, the greatest joy of my career and business has been seeing young people blossom and bloom. For 6 years we’ve funded and ran a nonprofit to help children learn technology in Oklahoma.
Our mission at iThemes is “Make People’s Lives Awesome.” And it’s my personal mission as well.
I want more of that and more I haven’t even imagined. 10x more.
That’s impact. And increasingly I’ve been more focused on ensuring that whatever I do has maximum people-focused impact.
How can I apply my time, talents and treasure to generativity?
5. The Four Pillars of Meaning
Reading Emily Smith’s book “The Power of Meaning” this year was a life-changing moment for me. (And I can’t recommend the book enough.)
Throughout my life, I’ve always been focused on purpose and meaning in my life, but this defined it in a way I’d never imagined.
It gave me direction to look for and more clarity to find more meaning in my life, and the second half.
According to Smith and her research, the “four pillars of meaning: belonging, purpose, storytelling, and transcendence.”
I wrote a bigger review of it here.
But here’s some thoughts on how I’ve been thinking about them:
- Belonging — we all want to belong to something bigger than us. Beyond our business which I ascribe huge meaning and belonging to (whenever our team or customers wear our logo I feel connection and belonging and I hope vice versa), but I try to find that more and more in every group I can now. One recent way I’ve felt belonging while getting crucial support is by starting a physical health support group. Our little support group is going through the same or similar things, and on the same journey, together, and we “belong” to a group. I’m very proud to be a part, even if we don’t have a logo … yet. (Note: I’ve been reading Brene Brown’s new book on Braving the Wilderness, which goes much deeper into this subject and will be reporting on it in a later post.)
- Purpose — beyond loving and caring for my family and friends, one of the chief reasons I believe I exist is to be a champion of mental health and wellness. To help erase and eradicate the stigma of mental wellness on this planet. It’s the dent I want to make in the world. I started that journey in 2014 with this talk and it’s focused and energized my purpose in life.
- Storytelling — how we tell our life stories matters. Redemptive stories are the key. This one was bad for a long long time. But it has gone from bad (the place I was in) to good …. and great. And someday even better as I get more and more clarity on it and learn and grow. My second half story hasn’t been told in full yet.
- Transcendance — these are mountaintop moments for me … when I see something that puts me in awe of the world and its grandeur … alongside the people I love most. All about shared experiences. I want more transcendent experience with people.
6. Doubling Down, Then Doubling Down on People and Relationships
Barbara Bradley Hagerty in her awesome book “Life Reimagined” was another critical, life-changing read and compass for me. So much so I bought my business group in OKC a copy for each person. (Her post on the 8 ways to survive and thrive in midlife is EXCELLENT and short.)
Among the many things I learned from it, it’s the focus that second half people have on “people and relationships” which ties in with belonging.
Again, I’ve always valued people and relationships, but it’s a refocus and double down on the energy I want to spend developing epic relationships with incredible people in my second half.
People I love. People who love me.
People I care about. People who care about me.
And more and more shared experiences with them.
It’s all about people and relationships.
7. Beginning My Physical Health Journey
Faced with many of the physical health issues I mentioned earlier, in August, I finally said, “I have to get serious about my health.” And although I’ve worked on my mental wellness seriously for the last 7 years, I had woefully neglected my physical health.
This journey is about holistic health and the last piece … physical health.
You can read all about that here as I’ve been blogging actively about my physical health.
For the bulk of my life I never worried much about my physical health. I was just healthy, mostly.
Then right around 40 (probalby sooner) my body said, “Enough, bro. Time to get serious, or I’m bailing on you.”
Now I’m finding great value (and new hobbies) in my journey to a complete and sustainable healthy lifestyle.
Writing this post has made perfect sense where this would be the next obvious step in my life’s journey. I want to be here for the next 40 years and beyond, for myself and those I love.
8. Being The Opposite of a Cranky Old Fart
So many times, I’ve felt myself and my attitude be a cranky ogre. I’ve blamed it on everything I started sharing.
I’m thankful I’m married to a woman who pushes me, inspires me to not be one, and forgives me when I am.
For what I’ve read and also seen, and from Erikson’s model alone, we have chcoies to make about how we approach the second half.
So I thought about a chart of mindsets for my second half …. and some choices I can make.
On the left are the things, left unchecked, of how I could leave the second half (rather miserably) …. but on the right is what I desire to be and how I want to live.
The left side seems easier. But lonely and empty and a waste … and I’ve felt those too many times in my life already.
But the right side feels vibrant, passionate … and ALIVE. And right where I want to be even if it feels hard and exposed.
I want to maximize the life I have left …. and give it liberally to others.
It means being willing to learn and grow …. and fail.
It means being willing to try new things and be scared and out of my comfort run.
It means the willingness to embrace fear and run into it.
All focused on the expression of …. generativity.
So this is what I’ve learned … so far.
Midlife body slammed me. But I got up again, eventually, and learned from it, even if it took longer than I wanted.
Its gift has been clarity and passion and direction that I need for the second half.
I’m thankful for the struggle to get here. Now.
To be continued.
Books I’ve Read That Helped Me
By the way, I would be remiss now to share some books that helped me ….