The Real Roots of Midlife Crisis

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This summer, a friend calledin a state of unhappy perplexity. At age 47, after years of struggling to find security in academia, he had received tenure. Instead of feeling satisfied, however, he felt trapped. He fantasized about escape. His reaction had taken him by surprise. It made no sense. Was there something wrong with him? I gave him the best answer I know. I told him about the U-curve.

Not everyone goes through the U-curve. But many people do, and I did. In my 40s, I experienced a lot of success, objectively speaking. I was in a stable and happy relationship; I was healthy; I was financially secure, with a good career and marvelous colleagues; I published a book, wrote for top outlets, won a big journalism prize. If you had described my own career to me as someone else’s, or for that matter if you had offered it to me when I was just out of college, I would have said, “Wow, I want that!” Yet morning after morning (mornings were the worst), I would wake up feeling disappointed, my head buzzing with obsessive thoughts about my failures. I had accomplished too little professionally, had let life pass me by, needed some nameless kind of change or escape.

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