TEDxUCLA 2018: Waves
Midlife crisis needs a rebrand
I’m a brand strategist and a designer. I’m also a white guy in his 40s with receding salt-and-pepper hair who drives a fast car.
The very first time that I ever felt the painful grip of midlife crisis was in 1984. I was thirteen, sitting in my room, listening to a Doors record, and it dawned on me that Jim Morrison, one of my heroes, had died at age 27. In fact, a lot of my artist heroes had died at 27. This was not good because I was 13-and-a-half and I realized that if I were to only live to 27 I was already halfway there! For a couple of weeks this put me into a real slump.
My next mid-life crisis came when I was a couple years out of college. I guess I was halfway to 50 at this point which, by the way, is an age at which a lot of other heroes had died young, but 50 is not what bothered me at this time. It was thirty-five! Because that was only ten years away, and I knew that once I hit 35, I was over the hill. So that put me into a funk again for a short time.
My next mid-life crisis though came at 40-and-a-half. I had successfully crossed the threshold to 40 with very little drama or chaos. I was proud of this. But then, one beautiful December morning, my dad died suddenly and unexpectedly.
There’s my dad. 66 and in great health and then he was just gone. And that was that was so tough because now one of my greatest heroes, if not my greatest hero, was gone. But also I was, for the first time, really looking death in the face and seeing it stare right back at me.
Okay. So if you’re thinking to yourself, “This guy sounds a little confused about what a midlife crisis is,” you’re right. But so are you! Because midlife crisis doesn’t mean what you think it means.
By definition, a midlife crisis is a dip in a person’s satisfaction with their life and in their self-confidence. This dip happens about halfway through our life expectancy.
That is not what the term midlife crisis has come to mean in our contemporary culture. Most of the time that term is used, we’re talking about someone, a person who’s engaged in irresponsible, immature, sometimes even destructive behavior.
Example: “I can’t believe your husband’s leaving you for a 25-year-old yoga instructor. How does that happen?” “Well clearly he’s going through a midlife crisis.” Right?
Now to a brand strategist like me, when there is such a disconnect between what something is and what something is perceived as, that is a branding problem! And it’s a problem worth trying to solve.
Now most of the people that I’ve worked with on brand identity, they actually don’t really know what their problem is. Like they might know that something’s a little bit off with their business, but they can’t quite put a finger on it.
I have two theories about businesses and identity crises. The first is that, whether they realize it or not, they’re probably going through one right now. The second is that even if they are, it can be the best thing that ever happened to them.
So what do we do when we rebrand? Well, we start by having the company ask themselves a series of questions, questions like “Who are we and what do we stand for? What is it that makes us unique? Who do we need to be talking to, and what do we need to say?”
Companies who rebrand and go about it the right way come out stronger and more successful on the other side. Think about Target when they had their impressive “rebirth,” if you will. They asked themselves those same kinds of questions, right? And dialed into exactly who they wanted to be, and then they just focused everything on communicating that clearly and effectively.
My big problem with the term “midlife crisis” is that it’s communicating the wrong thing. And as a result it is a conversation-ender, like, every time it’s used, which sucks because it should be a conversation starter.
So how did we get here? Well the term was coined in 1965 by a psychoanalyst who was obsessed with creative geniuses like these guys. And he was specifically obsessed with why so many of them seemed to flame out creatively, really young, sometimes before they were even 30, which is crazy because that’s not what midlife crisis means at all now.
You know, it’s very possible that this term is just a misnomer, which is an inaccurate or inappropriate name. But hey, lots of things are misnomers. Chinese checkers are not checkers. They’re also not from China. Koala bears are not bears. Coconuts are not nuts. French fries are from Belgium. French horns are from Germany. But these terms, they stick.
We get used to them and the literal meaning of these words tends to fall away most of the time. And if there’s no problem, it’s not causing any distress, then there’s really no point in changing them. I mean, we don’t need to rebrand French fries, right?
But what about killer whales? Aha! There’s a misnomer that’s actually doing some harm. First, they’re not whales. Second, they’re one of the gentlest of all sea creatures. But the negativity in their name has created a stigma which is perpetuating all kinds of negative feeling towards them.
These guys I would love to help, but later. Right now I want to help us. Those of us who’ve been similarly stigmatized with this awful “midlife crisis” term. Or, more importantly, those of us who occasionally experience a dip in our satisfaction with our lives and self-confidence, because I know a lot of people like that.
But interestingly I kind of feel like I know more millennials that fit that description than people around my own age, right? But that’s the thing about this kind of dip. I mean it happens to teenagers when psychology will label that an identity crisis. It happens to 46-year-olds, it happens to 66-year-olds, it happens to 27-year-olds.
Remember when I said that the term was coined in 1965? Well it didn’t start being used by people really until later, about 1980, after a respected Yale psychologist named Daniel Levinson used it in his book, The Seasons of a Man’s Life, which was a groundbreaking treatise on the different life phases that we go through as humans and the dips that accompany each of those phases.
But here’s the thing: it’s not just humans. A 2012 study on hundreds of great apes found that they experience these life dips too. So it’s a natural expected phenomenon, not just a factor of our crazy lives and our environment, probably of our biology.
My question is, “Why does it have to be a crisis?” I mean, we know what a crisis is, right? Does this have to be so extreme?
I mean look, we’re all different, right? We’re unique. Every one of us. The dips that we experience are going to be different too. For some people, maybe it’s just a phase where perhaps you’re a little bit more reflective than normal but otherwise fairly normal. Some people do go off the rails, as noted, but most people, of course, are going to fall somewhere in between.
Okay, one last thing that nearly every study in this area has shown is that this kind of dip ends. Assuming there’s no mental illness present, the dip eventually corrects itself and a person’s life satisfaction and self-confidence is almost always higher on the other side of this dip.
So for that reason most of the people in the scientific world are starting to think about these dips as more of a wave, which makes sense because that’s what our lives are. We sail across these oceans of waves, right? There’s highs, there’s dips, some are bigger than others, and at any point we are just on the trajectory of a wave.
Look, maybe when we are in a dip, that’s a good time for us to ask ourselves a series of questions. Questions like, “Who are we, and what do we stand for? Can we embrace what makes us unique?” And maybe most importantly, “Who do we need to be talking to, and what do we need to say to them?”
Because now I’m developing a couple of theories about people. The first is that, whether you realize it or not, you could be going through a midlife crisis right now. The second is that, even if you are, it could be the best thing that ever happened to you.
Killer whales are not whales, they’re dolphins. Your funny bone is not a bone, it’s a nerve. A midlife crisis is not a reason to end a conversation. It’s a reason to start one. Thank you.