I feel empty
My friend Jane’s father (let’s call him Sir Tony), in his 70s, should be on top of the world. He grew tenfold his parents’ retail business, now run by his children, including 40-something Jane.
I usually stay clear of friends’ requests, but Jane has long begged me to talk to her father, who did not want to see a psychiatrist (“I’m not crazy!”) but has consented to talk to me, since I helped the family a decade ago with succession issues.
“I worked hard and have everything,” says Sir Tony. “A good business, a good wife, good kids. My wife and I have visited China, my hometown, the Great Wall, the Three Gorges, Shanghai. I have done all I want. If I die tomorrow, I’ll be OK.”
“Don’t talk like that!” says Jane. “You’re still healthy, with so many things to do.”
“I have trained you and your brothers well,” says Sir Tony, “so succession is fine.”
“Are you leaving Sir Tony out of everyday things?” I ask Jane. “If forced to retire, he might become depressed.”
“No, he still comes in every week, advising us,” says Jane.
“They still ask for my help,” says Sir Tony. “I should not complain, but I have met all the goals I set out to do. I am not bored. I am not depressed. But I feel empty.”
“We told Dad to travel, to play golf now [that] he has the time,” Jane says. “But he doesn’t want to. A late midlife crisis!”
“Don’t be silly,” says Sir Tony. “Some friends my age have crises where they have affairs, buy jewelry and sports cars. That’s not me.”
I agree with Sir Tony. Their family is financially secure, but they disdain the lives of excess chronicled in photographer Lauren Greenfield’s book “Generation Wealth” which features up-close, stomach-churning photos of the unhappy rich in the West.
Sir Tony’s crisis is not the usual one where people do not meet their goals by late life and so go on a search for identity, harming loved ones in the process.
His situation is rarer, “one that tends to afflict overachievers,” says Jonathan Derbyshire of the Financial Times, in his review of philosopher Kieran Setiya’s book “Midlife.”
“Why should the achievement of what one most desires suddenly cease … to carry the ‘charm’ it once did?”
I quote from Setiya, who in turn quotes from the economist John Stuart Mill, who knows this dilemma firsthand. Mill, a child prodigy, achieved fame early. But in midlife, he asked himself, “suppose that all your objects in life were realized, that all … which you are looking forward to, could be completely effected at this very instant: would this be a great joy and happiness to you?”
His answer was no.
“That’s it!” Sir Tony says. “That’s exactly how I feel. Is there a cure?”
I ask Sir Tony and Jane to get a copy of Setiya’s book. At the risk of sounding New Age, Setiya advises overachievers like Sir Tony: live in the moment.
Mindfulness is now a buzzword, but Sir Tony will likely benefit from it.
Go-getters focus on “telic” activities, which have a goal: a new business, the next million, even training of the next generation. When these are accomplished, they either find a new goal, like many business founders, or else they feel empty, like Sir Tony.
Appreciate the “atelic” instead: the journey instead of the objective, the process instead of the goal. Instead of checking off sights on a trip, linger in spots that are especially meaningful. Instead of creating another business, observe how the next generation make you proud. Instead of finishing tops in golf, chat with friends and take in the view.
“I am too impatient,” says Sir Tony. “I am not sure I can enjoy the process. But what you say makes sense. I will try.”
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