My Early Midlife Crisis: Bear, Manoeuvre or Heal

Sometimes beauty is sad

I’m wondering if I’ve experienced an early midlife crisis. A mid-career or midlife crisis is characterised by feelings of dissatisfaction, disappointment and a lack of gratitude that tend to appear in the middle of one’s life. As I reflect on my thoughts over the last 5 or 6 years, I cannot help seeing some resemblance with such a crisis. I want to explore this.

A recent HBR article, ‘Why So Many of Us Experience a Midlife Crisis‘ by Dr. Hannes Schwandt poses that on average,

‘Life satisfaction is high when people are young, then starts to decline in the early 30s, bottoming out between the mid-40s and mid-50s before increasing again to levels as high as during young adulthood.

Does this explain the decline in satisfaction, my worries about change and being average? I confess that I panicked early in my 30s when I started to feel less satisfied about where I was in my career and I felt guilty that I was whiny. The research outlined by Dr Hannes Schwandt resonates with me because it explains – to some extent – a natural development process driven by biology. Simply put, this feeling of dissatisfaction can happen to anyone – not necessarily everyone but it’s pretty common. He notes that it affects childless couples, parents of four, stay-at-home parents, single people and senior-level executives alike. However, it is not clear to me how personality, spirituality and environment affect the progress of this. I might have seen the onset of this in my life, perhaps too soon for whatever reason. I’ve handled it in a number of ways.

If I bear it, will you think I’m tough?

My 20s were filled with optimism. In fact, some of that optimism may have come off as over-confidence. I was going to get to the top of my game. I would stay up as long as necessary to get the job done. I was irritated with people that complained or wouldn’t move fast enough. If I was to describe my future status, I would have expressed high expectations of myself. It is unclear at what point exactly but there was certainly a time when I felt like I wasn’t meeting my own expectations of myself. The few people I told looked at me like I had suddenly grown horns. They were incredulous and would say, ‘What is wrong with you??’

Jonathan Rauch in his cover story, ‘The Real Roots of Midlife Crisis‘ in the Atlantic magazine describes a similar experience. He notes that he was a published author, wrote for top outlets, had won prestigious prizes and so on. If it was someone else’s career, he would have been impressed. But still he woke up disappointed morning after morning.

In the beginning, I decided that the best thing to do was to shut up and work. I did what I needed to do and tried to ignore all the negative images that would often remind me that I hadn’t achieved much. I became pretty tough in that time. I even coined a concept to describe how I was getting through. I recently described it to a close friend,

‘I go underwater. I hold my breath and just get it done. The breathlessness doesn’t last forever. When it’s done, I can come up for air at the other end.’

The data from Dr Schwandt’s research suggests that one can wait out a crisis like this and that things look up later in life so my approach may have some merit. There are coping mechanisms such as mentoring and acknowledgement of what it is. I’m just not convinced that is sufficient to manage the shear exhaustion of bearing a midlife crisis, particularly an early one.

Will a good manoeuvre fix this?

I planned a manoeuvre to get out of my exhaustion. It manifested in real terms when I applied for and accepted an offer to undertake a doctorate degree then took time off corporate life. But the seeds of change loomed for longer than that. For instance, I actively paid off all my credit card debt over a period of 3 years in anticipation of following a dream that required a low-maintenance budget – at least initially. I built up a network of contacts from different backgrounds, targeted and engaged potential mentors in order to get a taste of the other side. The nurturing of the seeds also involved continuous (and sometimes chronic) personal reflection. I asked myself questions like,

‘When have I been happiest?’

‘What do I love doing?’

‘How can I make changes without leaving a vacuum?’

‘Where will I get support if I need it?’

Dr Schwandt acknowledges that a mid-career crisis could be painful but it could be an opportunity for self-reflection, a reevaluation of personal strengths and weaknesses. I don’t know yet if I’ve stalled a midlife or mid-career crisis. Is it something that is still coming to ‘get me’ later in life? My recent manoeuvre might not hamper the natural process. In fact, Dr Schwandt adds,

‘Whether you choose to wait out the discontent, or make a drastic change in the hopes of a brighter tomorrow, rest assured this too shall pass.’

It sounds comforting and could even be true.  In his cover story, Jonathan Rauch wrote about emerging from a passage of midlife crisis with a returned gratitude aged 54. Dr Schwandt and Jonathan Rauch both write about the happiness U-curve. According to the U-curve, there’s hope and even a chance to heal.

If time heals, does aging heal too?

Brookings scholars Carol Graham and Milena Nikolova show a clear relationship between age and well-being in the United States. Rating life satisfaction relative to the “best possible life” for them, with 0 being worst and 10 being best, respondents to the survey provided evidence of a U-curve depicted below:

happiness u-curve

According to Jonathan Rauch’s cover story, age brings the onset of wisdom which favours more emotional regulation, more tolerance of diversity , more insight, lower expectations and overall, less regret. From the graph, I have more crisis ahead because I’m 36 – not 39 or 47 or 54. I’d need to wait till my mid-50s to acquire the wisdom to help me heal. Well, I don’t accept this. An early midlife crisis surely deserves an early acquisition of aged wisdom, right? I feel like my life satisfaction is actually beginning to increase. Perhaps I’m more easily satisfied….perhaps I just know better. If this U curve represents me, then satisfaction may dip later and put a ‘hump’ at the bottom left of this U curve.

In any event, I feel strangely comforted by these research. Whether or not I’m in a midlife crisis, when things feel sunken, I’ll know that it’s unlikely to mean I’m crazy or ungrateful. I can choose to bear, manoeuvre or wait for the healing to begin.

Is anyone else on the U curve?

Image from flickr user: ella larose – sometimes beauty is sad

3 Real Reasons Why Engineers Don’t Want To Be Managers

You may have read similar-titled articles by top execs or by practitioners claiming to know something about how the minds of engineers’ work. Well, this here is my own opinion, fuelled by my experiences so far. To set the scene, you need to know that I’m a black woman approaching my mid 30s and armed with 2 engineering qualifications. I’ve recently dipped my toes in the waters of business and management i.e. taking on non-engineering roles. I’m also completing an MBA degree. Now that we’ve gotten that “stiff” intro out of the way, let’s get down to my reasoning.

You should have seen the faces of my friends and colleagues when I opted to try a non-engineering role. They didn’t understand my motives and I didn’t understand why they didn’t understand. Over the past 18 months. I’ve enjoyed getting in touch with my creative (and sometimes “fluffy”) side. For most engineers, that’s the problem right there. And now, even I am beginning to understand why…

1. Take job descriptions for instance. An ad for an engineer is often clear. The recruiter is looking for X number of years experience in this tool or that tool. They will require sound understanding of key principles e.g. fluid mechanics or production engineering or operations research and so on. You either have these or you don’t. Ads for managers are a little less straight-forward. Requirements like “Demonstrated leadership qualities” or “Ability to manage people” are not so obvious. I mean, does the annual school play with 30 children that I direct every Christmas count? I manage people all day every day – including my 2 children and 1 husband and numerous in-laws – does this count? You get the idea.

2. Let’s look at “managing people” more closely. Most engineers I know don’t really like people (I mean that in a good way!). There’s perhaps a valid concern that managing people requires counseling skills or the likes meaning suddenly, the standard chair in your new office marked “General Manager” may be exchanged for a 3-seater sofa. You do need to tolerate people (you don’t have to like them) and you need to be willing to listen actively. Still, with all the best management skills nothing can prepare you for that employee who comes into your office on a Monday morning saying, “look! I’ve grown a horn!” There’s never a dull moment…

3. Then there’s the basic fluffiness of it all. It’s unclear what you actually do…so don’t be surprised if the word along the corridors is that you do “nothing”. Don’t take it personally. You’re probably trying to ensure positive business impact by implementing printed strategies but this is rarely obvious. You may even be forced to implement a strategy you don’t agree with, or that you think lacks logic (shhhh!). Engineers despise the illogical so forgive them if they opted out of that “game show”.

In the end, there are significant advantages to both career paths. If you are comfortable with being a specialist at what you do – and you’re bloody good at it, then I can see how that can be profoundly rewarding. But having skills that are not always clearly defined; and having to deal with people as well as finding a balance between the logical and your instincts is what makes a great manager. And let’s face it – someone has to manage the engineers. Not an easy task I would imagine.

Making the switch has come with its challenges. I recently sat in a marketing course and watched as 52.5% and 63.5% added up to 100% on a PowerPoint slide. I didn’t dare say a word…

Wish me luck as I cross over…

On Sept 1st, I start a new role at work. I admit that I’m nervous, mainly because I’m leaving a group of people who I have known and worked with for over 5 years. I now join the headquarters team who have a slightly different culture and group dynamics. My current team knows my ability but I have to prove it all over again. It’s a great opportunity that I’m very grateful for and SUPER excited about. These tips written by Dawn Barclay will come in handy:

1. You can prepare yourself mentally of how you want to be in your new role…you can think about your attitude, image, and communication skills. Yet you obviously can’t prepare others.
2. Be who you are. You were hired on the value you can bring.
3. If you were to start a new role ‘pretending’ (because you want people to like and love you) you will probably not be able to maintain that behaviour very long.
4. Read and understand more on social groups, the way groups form and social roles.
5. Time – even a new member of staff starting work (to the existing staff) is CHANGE and not a lot of people like change. It’s not personal.
6. You are ‘fresh’ remember, like a new-born baby you are not clouded or have any preconceived notions or ideas. So allow time to get to know everyone, make up your own mind instead of listening to the ‘this is what they are like’ stories from other people.
7. Being the newbie – just because the label is on you, it doesn’t mean to say you have to ‘shut up and go along with everything’ and it doesn’t mean you don’t have to say anything at all.
8. Praise yourself – this may seem a little wacko, but here’s what I mean. You may be a person that needs to ‘hear’ you are doing a good job – you need it. However, you may not get it in your new workplace. I’m not saying you need all the compliments under the sun, you just need to know if what you are doing is the right thing. Your new workplace might not be like that…one of unspoken ‘rules’ of the group might be ‘we just get on with it’. Learn how to compliment yourself – don’t wait for the external world to tell you.
9. If you are nervous, it will pass. As you entering a new situation you may feel uncomfortable I mean it’s not just a new job it’s: new people, policies, environment, politics, community – go with the flow. A good team will help with your transition (and yes there may be the odd bugger who does nothing to help you ) each moment will be come easier.
10. Ask for support and supervision. What if they don’t offer it? Suggest it?. In fact (it’s probably too late), it’s a very good interview question. Work is a place for forming friendships and long-lasting relationships (most couples meet through a working environment) yet at the end of the day it is work…you don’t have to sell your soul and divulge your deepest darkest secrets (you do that with friends).

Dawn Barclay is the owner of Potential Developments and publishes her newsletter for individuals seeking tools, resources and support to develop and realise their personal and professional potential. You can visit the main Potential Development site at:

Wish me luck, everyone!

Prequel to my last post for confused jobists

It is a light-hearted post but there was some seriousness behind it and the question I raise. Now that I’ve pretty much got my act together, I thought I would share this post from last November. Enjoy!


‘If I wasn’t an engineer, what would I be?’ I found myself wondering the other day. Sometimes, I skim through job ads in the local papers and its amazing how many exciting professions there are out there. Growing up in an oil-rich country in Africa, there seemed to be just a handful of “profitable” occupations. They included engineering, banking and perhaps government! But as I have met people from all works of life, I have subconsciously taken stock of what other jobs may be out there for a gal like me. What jobs activate my “buzz” button? What else can I do if for some reason, engineering doesn’t continue to work out ? Let’s have a look at my top 5 things to be when I grow up (in no particular order):

1. Talk show host: Maybe an over-rated job but I love it, love Oprah! I’d probably interview people trying to make a difference in the world. This job will give me a real opportunity to brand myself. I would be no good at the Jerry Springer stuff (I lack the ability to keep a straight face).

Keeping my boss on the straight and narrow, Awesome!

2. Executive Secretary/PA: It uses my very best strength. Organisation. I would love organising other people’s lives for a handsome fee! Also, the idea of being the right-hand person of a CEO or MD is very very attractive to an attention junkie like me 🙂

I can do wonders with make up

3. Make-up artist: About 3 years ago, I actually started to research schools for this. There were a handful of them in the London area but they cost an arm and a leg. I remember one particular one was about £4000 for a 3-week course!!! That amount of money could pay some kid’s way through university. But still, it is my fantasy to make-up models for the London or Milan fashion week. I can do wonders with some mascara and eye-shadow.

4. Motivational Speaker: Yeah, I know it’s similar to the talk show host but the main difference is that you have to motivate people. You can’t just say pointless things. I absolutely admire motivational speakers with favourites like Joel Osteen and Joyce Meyer. It would be a gift to be able to motivate people with the words of my mouth. After buying a book on on the world’s greatest speeches, I started to think that I can practice everyday, with every word I say bringing people up not tearing them down. In progress…


Having to hold a mic for a living would be great!

5. Singer: Last but by no means the least. But I can’t really sing so this is a long shot. When I hear amazing singing, I am sometimes moved to tears as my skin becomes riddled with goosebumps. The absolute best moments I’ve had is sitting in the audience as someone sang their heart out, causing my eyes to well up. This may have to do for now.  Fair enough.

All photo credits to

Tips for the confused jobist

It’s taken ages to decide what I want to be when I grow up. I read engineering at school but never quite fit in. At the same time, I never really knew what I wanted to do instead. When people asked me, ‘So what do you want to do?’,  it was always answered with a silly, confused expression.

But that’s changed in the past year. After starting my MBA (something I knew I wanted to do), I continuously made mental notes of areas that I found particularly interesting. Then I went off and did my research, which was something like:

  1. Identify area of interest e.g. marketing, web design, personnel management e.t.c.
  2. Act as a job seeker and SEARCH for roles in that area (the internet, job boards and social networking sites like LinkedIn are great for this).
  3. Take note of the JOB DESCRIPTION (what you’d be expected to do and be responsible for) Is it still of interest? If yes,
  4. Note the SKILLS employers expect from a potential candidate. Do you have them? If no, what can you do to get them? Can you get it in your current role? Should you consider personal development e.g. self-study, taught courses or perhaps a new role that provides such skills?
  5. Consider SALARY expectations. Is it what you thought it was? Is it reasonable such that you can live comfortably on it?
  6. And finally, give yourself a timeline. How long will it take you to get where you want to go? 6 months, 5 years?

Note that it’s okay to take a temporary hit on salary if  long-term, the role provides skills that will get you to the ‘Promise Land’. Money isn’t everything… And remember you are not applying for the roles now. You are just  discovering what opportunities are out there and subsequently setting out a personal plan to be the perfect candidate for the role in X numbers of years.

Now I have a good idea where I want to go and roughly how to get there. It’s made me happier and more confident. And it’s wiped that silly, confused look off my face :).

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