How to Cope With a Mid-Career Crisis

Kieran Setiya, a philosophy professor at MIT, says many people experience a mid-career crisis. Some have regrets about paths not taken or serious professional missteps; others feel a sense of boredom or futility in their ongoing streams of work. The answer isn’t always to find a new job or lobby for a promotion. Motivated by his own crisis, Setiya started looking for ways to cope and discovered several strategies that can help all of us shift our perspective on our careers and get out of the slump without jumping ship. He is the author of the HBR article “Facing Your Mid-Career Crisis.”


ALISON BEARD: Welcome to the HBR IdeaCast from Harvard Business Review. I’m Alison Beard. You may have heard me on the show before, but this is my first as an official co-host, joining the amazing Curt Nickisch and producer Mary Dooe, and I’m really happy to be here.

We want to bring you the best ideas in management from the world’s leading thinkers, and help you connect them to your own lives, so you can run your business more effectively, and better navigate the world of work.

Today I’ll be talking about mid-career crises with Kieran Setiya. He’s a philosophy professor at MIT who wrote a book called Mid-life, and the HBR article, “Facing your Mid-Career Crisis.” I’ll admit that I tracked him down partly for personal reasons.

I spent my entire career in journalism: a year at a local newspaper in Virginia, a decade at the Financial Times, and for the past nine years, as an editor at HBR, which is a terrific place to work. But a few years ago, around the time I turned 40, I started to ask myself if I was really doing the right thing with my life. Had I advanced far and fast enough? Was I happy in my job? Did I want to do something different?

Of course, it’s common to feel this way at midlife. Just listen to Billy Crystal describe it in the movie City Slickers.

BILLY CRYSTAL: When you’re a teenager, you think you can do anything, and you do. Your 20s are a blur. 30s, you raise your family, you make a little money, and you think to yourself, What happened to my 20s? 40s, you grow a little pot belly. You grow another chin. The music starts to get too loud. One of your old girlfriends from high school becomes a grandmother. 50s, you have a minor surgery. You’ll call it a procedure. But it’s a surgery.

ALISON BEARD: Now, I wouldn’t normally turn to a philosopher for help, but when I read Kieran’s book, I found it really helpful. That’s why I wanted him to be my first guest. Kieran, thanks so much for coming on the show.

KIERAN SETIYA: Thank you for having me.

ALISON BEARD: So what evidence do we have that lots of people suffer, not just from a midlife crisis, but a mid-career crisis? Are they two different things, or linked?

KIERAN SETIYA: I think they’re linked, and they run in parallel. So the most recent reliable research on people’s life satisfaction by age comes from economists David Blanchflower and Andrew Oswald. And it suggests that, in general, life satisfaction has this gentle “U” shape. It starts high in youth, it bottoms out in your 40s, and then it picks up again in older age. But some of their earlier studies were specifically on work satisfaction. And it also has the same shape. So it bottoms out, I think, in the work satisfaction studies, it bottoms out a little earlier around 40, exactly the right time for you. So I think these two do run in parallel and probably have some of the same kinds of causes and explanations and maybe treatments.

ALISON BEARD: What are some of those specific things that start to get in our heads when we hit middle age?

KIERAN SETIYA: I think it’s a cluster of different things. I think talking about the midlife crisis, or the midlife malaise is a little bit misleading. There’s really many midlife crises. You know, there’s plenty to go around. And I think some of it has to do with a sense of sort of backward-looking regret or missing out or things you haven’t done, or mistakes and misfortunes — parts of your past that you now have to come to terms with that constrain what options you have and what your life can be like.

And some of it is more focused on what you’re doing in the present, and often midlife — at work and in one’s personal life — is a time of feeling like it’s project after project. There’s so much that has to be done just to keep your family or your business running. And that can feel very oppressive.

ALISON BEARD: Yeah. And we do spend so much of our lives at work, so it seems natural that this sort of backward-looking regrets about the past, a lot of that does center not on our relationships or sort of our social life our in the real world, but you know, in the office.

KIERAN SETIYA: Yeah, certainly for me, that was the initial and main focus of things, was the sense that I had spent 25 years working on a career with a fairly linear trajectory and had been incredibly fortunate to end up with a job as a philosophy professor, and this is something I ought to have been grateful for.

And yet, that was the point when the rush of needing to get tenure and get promoted sort of calmed down, and I thought, What about all the other things I haven’t done and now I’m not going to do? My life is sort of relatively constrained. There was a puzzling sense that even though it was worth doing, the thought of just doing it over and over again for another 20, 30, 40 years felt dispiriting.

ALISON BEARD: Yeah. And so unlike most people, you turned to philosophy for help, which makes sense, given your background. But it’s not something most of us would do. Most of us would go to career coaches. We might read HBR. A lot of the advice is about how to make changes at that stage. But you took a different approach and focused more on how one could manage it in place. Tell me a little bit more about what you found out in your research.

KIERAN SETIYA: In a way, this came out of my personal experience. It was pretty clear to me that I wasn’t going to make a dramatic change. I wasn’t going to give up tenure and leave my job. And at the same time, I thought, well, this is a kind of ethical problem. It’s a problem about how to live, how to think about the shape of a human life. It ought to be the kind of thing that a philosopher like me — who works on how to live and what’s a good human life — would have something to say about it.

And so I did turn to philosophy. I was surprised in a way that, on the one hand, philosophers had rarely, explicitly talked about midlife. On the other hand, I found a lot of resources in philosophy for thinking about the kinds of errors or confusions about value or about the passage of time that underlies some of the negative feelings we have around midlife.

So, in effect, what I was beginning to do was a kind of abstract cognitive therapy, trying to unearth philosophical mistakes that might underlie negative feelings and see if there was room for a philosophical therapy for the midlife malaise.

ALISON BEARD: What particular strategies did you find most therapeutic for you when you were trying to figure out how to still be happy as a philosophy professor?

KIERAN SETIYA: I mean, for me, a starting point that I found very simple, but in a way very helpful, was just to think about what philosophers call incommensurability, or the incommensurability of value, or the plurality of values. So in a way, there are decisions in which you take a better option, and you have no regrets. If I say to you, do you want $50 or $100, you’ll take $100. You will not feel conflicted about it. But that’s actually a comparatively rare case.

Most decisions that we make, even when we make the right decision, involve different kinds of values, and so involve a kind of loss. So I might have tickets to see a concert and then get a sudden offer of tickets to the first game of the World Series. And for me, baseball fan, I’m going to go to the World Series. But there is a kind of small-scale loss there. I won’t get to hear that concert.

So there’s a way in which regret is compatible, some kind of loss is compatible with even having made the right decisions. And I think a phenomenon people often experience when they reflect on their lives in mid-career is a version of that writ large. It’s thinking, Now that I’ve spent 25 years doing this, it’s pretty clear I’m never going to be a medical doctor, which my father wanted me to be. And I look back and think, Yeah, there’s a real loss there. There are all kinds of ways my life would have gone, and things that would have been really valuable that I have missed out on and will miss out on.

So the thing that I think is therapeutic here is to realize that a certain kind of regret or loss around midlife is not a symptom of anything going wrong. It’s a symptom of basically your ability to appreciate many different kinds of values, and that in fact, that’s a good thing. It would be terrible if you were so narrow in your focus that there was really only one thing that you could see value in.

ALISON BEARD: But what about when you think back and actually it was a mistake? You know, you decided to be a corporate lawyer instead of pursuing your dream of dance.

KIERAN SETIYA: Yeah, so that is a much more difficult case.

ALISON BEARD: I’m sure you made a lot of money as a lawyer, but maybe you could have been an amazingly successful ballerina.

KIERAN SETIYA: Yeah, so the harder case, in a way, for thinking about your past and coming to terms with it is a case where you think, I’m really not sure I made the right decision. Or even, I’m pretty sure I didn’t. I just really, I just made a mistake.

And it needn’t even be a decision. It could just be something that happened to you and a misfortune that you went through that you look back on and think, at the time I knew that was a terrible thing, and I was right.

ALISON BEARD: Or a situation that’s been forced upon you. You know, you’ve lost a job, or been pushed into a function that actually you don’t enjoy as much as you would have another.

KIERAN SETIYA: Exactly. So, I think the starting point for sort of rethinking this philosophically is to draw a distinction between mistakes, misfortunes, failures on the one hand, and regret on the other hand. And those things can seem inseparable. But actually, you can see that they come up even just thinking about simple cases like, I make a stupid investment — bad mistake. Through sheer luck, it turns out that I make a huge profit. So I don’t regret the mistake.

So conceptually, at least, there’s two phenomena here: how you should have felt the and how you should feel later. The interesting point is that they seem to come apart even more dramatically than just unexpected good fortune. Philosopher Derek Parfit talks about a case in which someone decides to have a child as a teenager, and they never lose that sense that it was a rash decision.

But later, looking back on that decision, holding their child in their arms, they might well completely reasonably think, I don’t regret it. And I think when you start to think through the ways in which your life course has been determined by things that at the time were mistakes or misfortunes, many of the kinds of attachments you form later — the people you meet, who you marry, whether you have kids, whether you have these kids or would have had some other kids — those kinds of attachments are highly contingent on your past.

And looking back and thinking, well, I wouldn’t have met my husband, or I wouldn’t have my daughter if I hadn’t made that mistake or if I hadn’t lost my job and had to seek this other career, is the beginning of a way or reframing one’s history and providing a narrative that makes it reasonable, I think, to feel differently about things that at the time you recoiled from.

ALISON BEARD: Yeah, and I think a point you make in the article and the book is this idea that it’s so easy to dream of an alternate reality that ended up perfectly, with no mistakes, because there’s no granularity to that life. The line you use is: “It’s the specifics that count against the grand cartoon of lives unlived.” You know, the relationships you have with colleagues at work, the people that you’ve mentored, the work you’ve actually produced and put out — none of that would have happened without you making the decision you did.

KIERAN SETIYA: Yeah, I think that’s exactly right. I think it’s very easy to slip into a kind of abstraction where you just compare how good this life is and think, well, I could have had a better life. When you compare it in terms of better and worse, it can seem like it would be irrational not to just want the better life.

There’s a kind of counterweight to that in our attachment to the specifics of our lives. And so I think one strategy for evincing that, that you are pointing to, is to think about all the particular things you’ve done at work, the particular connections you’ve made, the people you know, the interactions you value, and to think about all of those details vanishing, replaced by something that in principle might be better, but it is completely unknown and to which you have no emotional connection.

ALISON BEARD: So the thing that really resonated for me was this idea of ennui in the present: you know, I’ve done everything I needed to do to get to where I am, and now I’m just going to keep doing that thing over and over again, and I don’t frankly want to blow my life up and do something completely different. But how do I get excited about the work again? Talk to me a little bit about the advice that you would give me. I’ve read the book, so I’ve already done it, but what advice would you give anyone who’s in that position?

KIERAN SETIYA: So there’s a couple of things I think are really helpful in trying to think through this experience, which I think is both emotionally and intellectually puzzling. And, to me as a philosopher, part of the puzzle was, it’s compatible. This feeling of ennui is compatible with thinking that what you’re doing is worth doing. It’s not that it seems completely pointless.

And there’s a kind of question: well, how can you be doing things that seem worthwhile, and yet think, something is missing? And there’s two ways that can happen. One of the ways in which I think that it commonly happens around midlife depends on this distinction I draw between ameliorative and existential values. So ameliorative value is the value of amelioration: taking something bad and making it better, or not bad, sort of neutralizing a problem. You know, colleagues having an argument at work, or there’s a glitch in a rollout of a product, or —

ALISON BEARD: Or editing a terrible draft.

KIERAN SETIYA: Exactly, yes. And you have to, there’s this problem you’d rather not be dealing with. And then you fix it. And then that’s worth doing. But, in a way, if too much of your life is occupied with amelioration — neutralizing problems — the best you’re doing is making things neutral. You don’t have a kind of vision of what’s positively good or of positive value in your life.

So the idea of existential value is the idea of value that’s not ameliorative: things that are worth doing but not because they solve a problem you’d rather not be dealing with, but are positively worth doing. And I think one kind of strategy around mid-career is to look at your life and try and classify how much of what you’re doing is merely ameliorative and how much space there is in your life, both at home with your family, and at work, for activities with existential value.

I mean, are there sort of “blue sky” problems you’ve been putting off for years that would have existential value? Maybe now is the time to think about them. Around midlife so much of our time is in demand. So much of what we do that’s worthwhile consists of things that we have to do in order to solve problems — with our kids, with our parents and at work — and that isn’t enough to make up a satisfying life.

ALISON BEARD: Yeah. I mean, it really is a mindset shift, right, in terms of how you think about work? You know, thinking about different ways that your work is valuable. You know, is my editing a bad draft ameliorative because I’m just fixing this problem? Or does it have existential value because, when it’s readable, someone can improve their work life because of it?

KIERAN SETIYA: Yeah, that’s true. So sometimes you’ll find that what you’re doing has value of both kinds and that you were just too focused on the ameliorative, and not enough of your time was spent focusing on the existential value.

I think that contrast shows up even more in this second distinction that I think is useful here, which is the distinction between two kinds of activity that I personally found most useful in trying to think about what was going wrong with my own relationship to work and philosophy and teaching.

This is a distinction between what I call telic and atelic activity. So the terminology comes from the Greek word telos, meaning end or goal. And the idea is that telic activities are ones that are directed at a sort of specific, completable goal, like finishing a draft of an article.

There’s something kind of structurally problematic about investing too much in products of that kind, activities of that kind. One way to see it is that if what you care about is completing some goal, satisfaction is always in the future, because it’s not done yet. And then as soon as it’s done, well, it’s archived in the past. So there is a way in which the present is sort of going to feel a little bit empty.

And it’s also true that by engaging with activities that have that shape, what you’re doing is finishing them. So you’re taking something meaningful, and what you’re basically doing is engaging with it in a way that’s going to expel it from your life.

ALISON BEARD: And then the moment you do, you just sort of think, eh.

KIERAN SETIYA: Right, then it’s like, that’s done.

ALISON BEARD: On to the next one.

KIERAN SETIYA: Now I’m onto the next project. And so I think it’s really important to recognize that not all activities are like that. Not all activities have this telic structure. So take a simple example: as well as walking home, there’s just walking without any particular destination. Or, as well as getting the kids to bed, there’s the ongoing activity of parenting. Or, instead of writing this report, there’s the ongoing project of building the company.

And those ongoing projects, those what I call atelic, non-goal-directed projects I think don’t generate the same kind of self-defeat that you see in projects, telic activities. Because they’re not exhaustible in the same way. It’s not that they’re going to be finished at any point or archived in the past. And you’re not sort of deferring their realization.

If you want to be building the company or you want to be going for a walk, and that’s what you’re doing, well, you have what you want right now. There’s no more that those activities can be realized than they’re being realized right now in the present. And so a useful reframing in mid-career, in midlife of what one’s doing is to think about whether you’re too invested in and excessively valuing telic activities, too focused on projects and completable activities and not sufficiently focused on the value of the ongoing atelic thread that runs through all of those completable projects.

ALISON BEARD: Practically, though, and as someone who’s tried to implement all this advice, it’s hard to shift your mindset sometimes. So how do you do it? How do I make sure that I’m focusing on the atelic instead of the telic?

KIERAN SETIYA: I do think it’s hard. For me, in some of these cases I think the cognitive therapy worked for me as cognitive therapy. Like, I recognized that I was making a mistake, and that was enough to make a real difference. So some of the things that I’m missing out or regret for me were like that.

I think the case of shifting from the telic to the atelic was one where the recognition that I needed to do that came relatively quickly, and then actually doing it was much, much harder than I’d anticipated, in part I think because I’d spent 20, 30 years being sort of trained to focus on the next project.

So a thing that has been helpful for me and that I would certainly recommend people look into is a kind of mindfulness meditation. And everyone is into mindfulness these days. And I think it’s clear that there’s something value about it. And the question that’s interesting to me and puzzling to me is: what is the value of it? Like, why is it? What is it doing for us?

And I think at least one thing that mindfulness meditation can do for us is get us out of the mental orientation in which we’re always, we’re just looking forward to the next completion, the next project, to focus on what’s happening right now and learning to sort of recenter our minds on the value of, to begin with, very simple atelic activities, like just breathing and sitting and listening. And the hope is that that kind of capacity to refocus on what’s happening now, not the satisfaction of a project in the future, is something that we can carry into the rest of our lives and into our work lives.

ALISON BEARD: So I do want to push back a little bit because you hear tons of success stories about people who have hit these mid-career crises and jumped — you know, done something completely different. They have gone from being a corporate executive to working for a nonprofit, or they’re a journalist who’s decided to write a novel, just for instance. Why isn’t that a good strategy? Do you think that people should be doing that? Or should they try to stay in place?

KIERAN SETIYA: I think it definitely depends on your particular situation. I mean, it’s very hard to tell what is going wrong in mid-career. There’s a kind of diagnostic project to thinking: is this just the problem that everyone experiences of regret and missing out and the kind of grind of projects and what needs to be done? Or am I in the wrong job?

And so one kind of thing you can do is to try and use the strategies we’ve been talking about and see if they work, see if they make a difference. And if they don’t, well, that’s a bit of evidence that the problem is not how you’re relating to what you’re doing. It may really be that you’re doing the wrong thing. And, in that kind of case, yes, this might be the time to think about making a real change.

I mean, the one thing I would say is that, if you make that kind of change, these strategies for how to relate to your work and your life in general are not going to lose their usefulness. So, I think even if you ended up thinking, yeah, this just isn’t the job for me, I’m going to try something new at 40, it’s still going to be important to approach the new thing you’re doing and the new career you’re entering with a sense of mindfulness about the different kinds of value it has and the risks of becoming, entering the kind of malaise that we both have been in.

ALISON BEARD: Yeah. Now, you and I both had very traditional career paths. But not everyone has that nowadays. You know, people do move around. Has that changing world of work made this less of a problem? Do you think people in the future will have fewer midlife crises because of it?

KIERAN SETIYA: To be honest, I think there’s several factors there, most of which are think are likely to make it worse. So, in a way, the problem of missing out — this sort of sense of other options — that’s a problem that gets exacerbated really when you have more career possibilities. So, if there’s really only a few things you’re going to, or you’re going to follow the career that your parents followed in 19th century Britain, the sense of alternate possibilities will be less vivid to you.

Now, there are many bad things about not having those other options. But it does limit the scope for fear of missing out. So I think, in a way, the fact that people have a wider range of career options or the possibility of making more dramatic changes is likely to make it more salient that you could have done other things.

And I think that there are also changes, longer-term changes in how people relate to work that began in the late 19th, early 20th century that I think have made the kinds of malaise we’re talking about more prevalent. I think this sort of emphasis on efficiency at work, the increasing mechanization and automation of work makes people feel like they’re sort of out of touch and falling behind in mid-career. I think when I think about this in terms of my experience and the experience of people who are working in the corporate works, often it takes the form of realizing that you’re struggling at 45 to keep up with sort of IT innovations that the 25-year-olds relate to as natives. So I think those kinds of changes are likely to not make it easier for people to deal with the phase of their lives and, in fact, make the kinds of problems we’ve been discussing only more sort of troubling.

ALISON BEARD: So do you think that all of this thinking on your own behalf and helping friends will carry you through to retirement? Or are you worried there might be another crisis in the future?

KIERAN SETIYA: Well, I think it is true that it doesn’t feel to me like the issue in my own life is really resolved. It feels like the process of switching to this more atelic orientation is a long-term aspiration. It’s not something that happens overnight.

I also feel like the work I’ve done on this in the past, as I said, has been kind of conservative, focused on how to continue doing what we’re doing without making dramatic changes. And while I’m not planning to quit my job, I think my sense of the range of possible futures for me is wider now than it was a few years ago. It’s more likely now, having worked on this, that I will make changes in what I do and try to do new things than it was before I thought about it, even though most of what I’ve written about has been about how to be happy and satisfied, continuing to do what you’re already doing.

ALISON BEARD: Right. Well, I hope that we’re both on the upswing of the “U” curve now. Thank you so much for coming in.

KIERAN SETIYA: Thank you very much.

ALISON BEARD: That’s Kieran Setiya. He’s a professor of philosophy at MIT and the author of the HBR article “Facing Your Mid-Career Crisis.” You can find it in the March-April of Harvard Business Review.

This episode was produced by Mary Dooe. We get technical help from Rob Eckhardt. Adam Buchholz is our audio product manager.

Thanks for listening to the HBR IdeaCast. I’m Alison Beard.

This transcript has been edited to reflect the accurate title of Setiya’s HBR article.


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