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How to Make the Most of Midlife Malaise

A professional change in midlife can provide a much-needed reset—at least when you’re looking for a career that more closely aligns with your passion. But finding what you love, especially once you’ve gone down an entirely different path, can feel impossible. How do we redirect our efforts away from what we’re used to and toward what we want to do?

In this episode of How to Start Over, we explore what impacts our decision making in midlife, whether midlife malaise explains our need for change, and how to know if a professional change is worth it. Conversations with novelist Angie Kim and professor of human development and social policy Hannes Schwandt help us think through whether it’s ever too late to do what you really love.

This episode was produced by Rebecca Rashid and is hosted by Olga Khazan. Editing by A.C. Valdez and Claudine Ebeid. Fact-check by Ena Alvarado. Engineering by Matthew Simonson. Special thanks to Adrienne LaFrance, executive editor of The Atlantic.

Be part of How to Start Over. Write to us at howtopodcast@theatlantic.com. To support this podcast, and get unlimited access to all of The Atlantic’s journalism, become a subscriber.

Music by Matt Large (“Value Every Moment,” “The Marathon Will Continue [For Nipsey]”), FLYIN (“Being Nostalgic”), and Blue Steel (“Jaded”).

Rebecca Rashid: What’s your knee-jerk reaction to people telling you “You can change at any age; there’s hope!” How does that make you feel?

Olga Khazan: I mean, I think, the optimistic side of me wants to believe that you can make a change at any age, and I definitely have tried to make lots of changes in my life, even though I’m not really a “young person” anymore.

Rashid: You’re not old. Why do we want to explore midlife career changes specifically?

Khazan: First of all, it’s the thing that you can change. You can’t change your kids. You can’t—I mean you can change your spouse, but it involves lawyers, and suing each other and money and tears. And you spend almost all of your time doing your career—I specifically spend all my time doing my job.

Khazan: Hi, I’m Olga Khazan, staff writer at The Atlantic. This is How to Start Over.

Today, my producer Rebecca Rashid and I wanted to explore what it means to start over in midlife and how to decide if a professional change is worth it.

First, we’re going to talk to someone who dared to take a professional leap later in life.

<< Angie Kim: One day when I was actually reading a book during a vacation by myself in an empty restaurant, it was that day that I sort of closed the book and thought, I need to find something that makes me happy on a day-to-day basis. >>

Khazan: Angie Kim is the author of the novel Miracle Creek. Her novel was a bestseller, but her path to writing was a long and unexpected one. For much of her career, Angie did the jobs she felt obligated to do, rather than do what she loved—which was writing.

Kim: I think it’s ironically because I was older. I felt a little more like: Okay, from a savings and financial perspective, I feel better about where I am in my life that I felt like I could just go ahead and leave everything else and try to find something that didn’t necessarily give me a paycheck. Novel writing is my fifth career, and I didn’t actually start writing until I was in my 40s.

So I was in my early 20s by the time that I graduated from law school and did a clerkship with a federal judge. And then from the one-year clerkship, I went straight to a law firm in D.C., and I became a litigator.

Unfortunately, it wasn’t until after I went through this long process that I realized that this part that I enjoy is like 5 percent of the career of being a litigator, and I absolutely couldn’t stand the rest of it.

Kim: And then when my first child was born, I actually became a stay-at-home mom. Some of my kids had medical issues, so I was at home dealing with that for a long time. And then writing sort of grew out of that—that experience of being at home and wanting to explore some of these emotions that I was feeling. And so it was sort of a very winding journey to go from one thing to the last thing that I did, which was actually writing a novel that was based in the courtroom: a courtroom drama.

Khazan: How many years went by between when you were reading that book and you were like, This is a great day—I’ve read a book and I feel relaxed, to when you actually wrote your first book?

Kim: It was probably 15 years, something like that.

Khazan: Wow.

Kim: What I was trying to do for the longest time was trying to be as practical as possible. I think I became a litigator because I wanted to have that performative aspect of being in the courtroom and telling a story to the judge or to the jury, which was something that I loved as a teenager. I was in acting—I was a theater major.

And I didn’t think that that was a practical thing, especially for an Asian-American woman to go into at that time. I went into the law thinking that, well, at least in the courtroom, I can sort of act in a way that can be sort of my stage.

Khazan: You’ve mentioned practicality several times. Why was practicality so important to you?

Kim: It’s funny, because a lot of people ask me now—did your parents sort of push you to be more academic or more practical? I think my parents actually would have been pretty understanding, but I do think that there was something to this idea of they sacrificed a lot to send me to this private college—I went to Stanford, which is very expensive—and same thing with law school. And I think that I felt this guilt; this sense of I owe it to my parents to make back what they put in from a financial perspective.

And then once I started writing, that’s when I fell in love with it. My first novel, Miracle Creek, has seven different point-of-view characters that tell the story in a Rashomon kind of way. Once I realized that I loved it, I sort of thought, This is what I’ve been looking for my whole life. I’ve been going from, you know, career to career, job to job. And I finally found it, this thing that I love.

Khazan: Did you have any concerns or worries about what people would say or think about someone who’s had this very different career trying to become a novelist? Or did you face any other kind of mental barriers as you were working through all of that?

Kim: Well, definitely mental barriers for sure. I remember telling my agent I was like, “Do you think that I should get an MFA?” And she was like, “What is the matter with you? Why are you asking?” It’s this whole imposter syndrome, and I think it’s this sense of, Do I have the right to be doing this?

It took a really long time for me to say—when people ask me, “What do you do?”—to say “I’m a writer” or “I’m an author.” I think I was like, “Well, I’m kind of, I don’t know. I’m a stay-at-home mom, and I used to be a lawyer, and I, you know, and I uh, I kind of write. Yeah, okay. And I have a novel, and it might be published.” Or “It is being published.” But it wasn’t until it was actually out in the bookstore that I was like, Okay, maybe I can actually say I’m a writer.

Khazan: To the extent you’re willing to share, I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about the economic situation that you were in or what some of the economic concerns that your family had to make adjustments toward. I think a lot of people would say, “I would love to write a novel and quit my job too, but I really can’t afford to do that.”

Kim: Unfortunately, that is one of the practical realities that you just have to face up to. I think I was really lucky in that my husband and I both—we met in law school, we’re both ex-lawyers, former lawyers. I consider him to have made the sacrifice. We were able to save a lot of money and have that sort of comfort cushion, so that when we wanted to do other things, we felt like, okay, we actually have the ability to do that. We had sort of worked out financially very early on—like when we were in our 30s—how much money we needed to spend and what our budgeting would be, and we were very, very careful about that.

Khazan: What advice would you have for people who feel like they’re on the wrong professional path, aren’t really passionate about what they’re doing, have some idea of what that would be, but are scared to take the leap? Do you have any words of wisdom for folks in that situation?

Kim: I think that one thing that you can do is start with something that is smaller. So, for example, try writing a short story, learn about it, read literary magazines—making sure that you actually love the process of it. And it’s not just the idea of having written something that you’re sort of imagining that you’re liking.

Khazan: I’m from an immigrant family—I think a lot of them struggle with that tension between pursuing their dreams and doing exactly what it is they want to do and feeling ungrateful or they wasted their parents’ investment. Or maybe unlike you, maybe they are facing a lot of family pressure to do a certain kind of practical thing. Is there any kind of takeaway advice on how to balance those two pressures?

Kim: I felt that so acutely. I felt that sort of guilt and this sense, this fear, that I was wasting what they had invested in me. And I’m an immigrant, too. But of course, I came here when I was 11, so I’m that in-between generation. Now, having published a book, it was just in the last month or so that my book was published in Korea. And so my parents are now hearing from my relatives back home and newspaper articles in Seoul and things like that, that are coming out.

And I can’t tell you how proud they are that I did leave the law and that I did write about an immigrant family that’s similar to ours, and so sort of telling our story in this fictionalized lens. People are really seeing that sometimes when you do the sort of more unconventional thing—that that can lead to these moments that are very cool for the whole community and for the whole family.

And I guess from a mom’s perspective, I would hate to feel that my kids wanted to do something and because I paid for their college that they would feel like their obligation to me, that they didn’t do something that they were passionate about.

We have three boys. All three are incredibly talented musically, and I really hope that one of them, at least, does actually go and sort of says, “I want to try to join bands, and I want to compose music, and I want to try to make a go of it. And not wait until I’m 50, like mom and dad did.”

Khazan: Angie’s roundabout career trajectory made me realize how circumstance and a sense of obligation to our families can hold us back from following our passion. But her story only provides one explanation for why it takes many of us so long to find a job we love. Her story did leave me wondering—why and when do we feel compelled to make career changes?

<< Hannes Schwandt: I try to avoid the term midlife crisis, because I think “crisis” is really this idea that it’s a dramatic thing that has to stop immediately. It has to be short, and we have to get rid of it, right? >>

Khazan: Hannes Schwandt is an assistant professor of human development and social policy at Northwestern University. One of his many areas of research is the concept of the “midlife crisis.” He helped me understand how midlife dissatisfaction might be one cause of big career changes—and why “midlife crisis” isn’t always the right way to think about it.

Schwandt: One fact that has been observed in a lot of big data sets across a lot of different countries in different time periods is that life satisfaction and other measures of subjective well-being—they tend to decline during adulthood and then bottom out in middle age between like the mid-40s to the mid-50s, and then afterwards they increase again. So we have this U-shape in life satisfaction.

Then the question comes up: What’s driving this pattern? And what’s particularly interesting is you find this pattern across all of society. So you’ll find it for men and for women; you’ll find it for people with high-paying jobs, with low-paying jobs, people with kids, without kids. So we don’t see any significant differences in these, like forecast errors—so it’s very, very stable across all kinds of cuts in the dataset.

Khazan: So you start out life: Everything’s great, you’re excited, you’re happy, you’re in your early 20s, you’re going clubbing, you don’t get hangovers. You’re just loving life. And then there’s like a dip, and you have what is known as a midlife crisis. And then it sounds like toward the end of your life, after you become a senior citizen, it actually recovers a little bit, and you start to feel pretty good again. Am I getting that right?

Schwandt:  Exactly. You know, it’s not really just a crisis of like, a few months or so. It is really this trend that happens over the whole life course, essentially.

Khazan: So it happens in your 40s, basically. Is it like your entire 40s, or is there a certain start and end date?

Schwandt: It depends a little bit, from countries that you look at the exact time period. Let’s say there’s a crisis happening to a certain cohort in a certain period; then this can mess up the whole pattern. One question I found in a large German data set where people are followed over time is not only people’s current life satisfaction, but also their expectations for the future, like in five years’ time. And what’s happening is that when people are young, they are not anticipating the decline in their life satisfaction. They actually expect an increase, right? So they are optimistic about their future; they think that things are actually becoming even better.

So what you see in the data is that in midlife, people on the one hand have accumulated a whole bunch of disappointments over the past because they thought things would be better than they are. At the same time, because people adjust their expectations, they also lose the rosy outlook for the future.

Khazan: So if you know this intellectually, these unmet expectations are setting you up for disappointment—is there a way to combat that? You could say, “Well, just have lower expectations,” but that’s really hard to do! High expectations are why we get married and have kids and go to job interviews. It’s really hard to just tell people, “Don’t have expectations.”

Schwandt: So the really fascinating thing is that this midlife dissatisfaction is often really unrelated to successes or lack of successes in different domains of life. It just seems to be something much more general and something that is maybe more related to biology. It might be something more like a second puberty rather than just something that is driven by people’s specific circumstances.

Khazan: What are some recommendations for getting out of that valley if you happen to find yourself in it?

Schwandt: One really important aspect is just to tell people that this phenomenon of midlife dissatisfaction is not something exceptional. It’s not something that is happening as a personal crisis. It might be just a normal developmental stage.

I try to avoid the term midlife crisis, because I think “crisis” is really this idea that it’s a dramatic thing that has to stop immediately. It has to be short, and we have to get rid of it, right? If you would tell your teenagers who are going through puberty that this is, “the crisis,” that would certainly not be helpful, right? And to the same extent, it might not be helpful to tell people in their midlife nadir or their midlife valley to tell them that it’s a crisis.

The only important thing that one should probably avoid is just to say, Gosh, there’s a crisis. Let’s throw everything away that I have grown over time and just do something completely different, just for the sake of doing something different.

So, for example, if you studied law and you’re a lawyer, moving to Indonesia and starting a surf shop is maybe not the best, most productive thing for you to do, right? But maybe you’ll find a different field of expertise within law that you can grow in a different area that might be more interesting. The general idea here is that changes are always good.

Khazan: As with everything in the social sciences, there’s some conflicting evidence here. The U-shaped happiness curve isn’t endorsed by all researchers, and it kind of depends on the way you ask the survey question, and on the population being studied. Some studies found that when older people are asked to reflect on their lives, they actually thought of midlife as one of the more positive times. So when Hannes is characterizing these disappointments and expectations we experience in midlife, he’s referring to general trends. Your mileage may vary. But the U-shaped curve is still an interesting way of explaining why so many of us do face a midlife slump (or at least a period of some serious re-evaluating).

Rashid: What specific factors would you have to take into consideration? I know Angie had a lot of the unspoken guilt and sense of obligation; what would that look like for you?

Khazan: Well, if I started to get that feeling—as Hannes said—if what happens in our 40s is actually like a second puberty, then I would probably try to not be too hard on myself, because I’d realize it’s just a natural part of life.

<< Schwandt: It’s not something that is happening just as a personal crisis. It might be just a normal developmental stage. >>

Khazan: I would try to make small changes in my day-to-day work that might help—and then evaluate if a bigger change might be in order.

<< Kim: Try writing a short story, learn about it, read literary magazines—making sure that you actually love the process of it. And it’s not just the idea of having written something that you’re sort of imagining that you’re liking. >>

Khazan: I think a lot of people romanticize other types of jobs, but it really helps to get a sense of what you would actually be doing day-to-day, and whether those are things that you actually enjoy doing rather than whether you’re attached to the identity of that thing.

Rashid: How would you advise people to feel a little more confident in the current industry that they’re in?

Khazan: You kind of don’t want to throw everything away just for the sake of temporarily managing this midlife malaise.

<< Schwandt: If you studied law and you’re a lawyer, you know, moving to Indonesia and starting a surf shop is maybe not the best most productive thing for you to do, right? But maybe you find a different field of expertise within law that you can grow in a different area that might be more interesting. >>

<< Kim: It really didn’t dawn on me until after I started writing fiction how much of a connection there is to acting, which was sort of what I always wanted to do and was my dream from the outset. >>



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