Innovate or enable2innovate: Proven therapy for midlife crisis

posted by Ravi Arora October 13, 2017

Getting involved in innovations is a wonderful solution to avoid or resolve the midlife (or mid-career) crisis. The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines a midlife crisis as, “A period of emotional turmoil in middle age characterized especially by a strong desire for change.” Midlife crisis is not a medical condition but people going through a midlife crisis can experience anxiety and depression. The age at which people experience a midlife crisis can vary but typically occurs between the age of 35 and 50. I think this age is gradually reduces as the opportunities available to people increases – an emerging situation in India. After enjoying a string of promotions and pay rises, a manager finds his career stalled and is finds difficult to get newer jobs as employers prefer young managers who are less expensive. Some managers try to escape this crisis by starting their own company (startup) or jump jobs (sometimes take a backward step) only to find later that it was not a good decision.

Mid-life Crisis shouldn’t be ignored

Elliott Jacques coined this term of mid-life crisis in 1965. Jacques, a psychoanalyst, found that this midlife crisis is such critical that many great artists and thinkers don’t even survive it. He crunched the numbers with a “random sample” of 310 geniuses and, indeed, discovered that a considerable number of these formidable talents—including Mozart, Raphael, Chopin, Rimbaud, Purcell, and Baudelaire—succumbed to some kind of tragic fate or another and drew their last breaths between the ages of 35 and 39. “The closer one keeps to genius in the sample,” Jacques observes, “the more striking and clear-cut is this spiking of the death rate in midlife.” Jacques further argued that around the age of 35, a genius can go in one of three directions:

  • Could die literally or perish metaphorically, having exhausted most of the potential early on
  • Could reach full creative potential but under tremendous anxieties of middle age. A few examples are – (a) Before his 38th birthday, Bach was just an unusually talented church organist and music tutor; it was only in middle age that Bach’s “colossal achievements as a composer” really began in earnest. (b) Although Shakespeare produced Romeo and Juliet in his early thirties, he is thought to have penned Julius Caesar, Hamlet, Othello, King Lear and Macbeth all between the ages of 35 and 40.
  • Could change aesthetic or style dramatically at middle age, usually for the better. Such people become more prolific and accomplished even in their earlier years. They become more patient and refined. A classic example from India is that of Amitabh Bachchan.

Trigger and Symptoms

Midlife crisis is experienced as a result of getting older, but not everyone experiences a midlife crisis. Two types of people are most susceptible to mid-life career crises. One who are incredibly successful and well-travelled – who didn’t find time to develop a life outside their work and later feel – What have I done all this for? The other, those who played it too safe and did not want to take risks, and now go into a world of regret. They hit a certain age where they cannot take risks and feel that they are too late.

The crisis gets triggered by a significant life event, often one that reminds us of our age, and tells us that we’re “past our best”. A few main causes for midlife crisis could be:

  • A feeling of “going nowhere” in the career. Growing sense of uneasiness that this work was not what one wanted to do with the rest of life
  • A feeling of regret related to future goals and past achievements


Research shows that a sense of accomplishment of achieving something new is the best way to age and helps one transition into midlife without the crisis. Therefore best and perhaps the only solution for midlife crisis is to achieve something new all the time while favorably leveraging the attributes of getting older – Experience, Wisdom, Credibility, Respect and Network. In management language finding new is nothing but innovation. But can everyone be an innovator?

I agree that not everyone is an innovator or inventor. But everyone can be a supporter or enabler for innovations and be part of the team that is trying to find something new.

If a person is not an innovator/inventor himself he can still be part of innovation by enabling (drive and facilitate) the team to innovate – over and above their usual day job of doing more things more predictably. To drive innovation in the organisation, one needs experience and some authority which everyone gets before the onset of midlife crisis (10 years experience). To facilitate innovations, one needs experience, network, wisdom and most importantly the knowledge about the organisation’s antibodies through which the innovators have to navigate to become successful. Every manager after working for 7-10 years would belong to either of the two sets – (i) innovator himself or (ii) One who could actively enable innovations. In order to get used to play either of this role comfortably, it is important for managers to start playing this innovation sport early in their life.

In my close observation a large number of serial innovators who are in their mid-life, and I haven’t seen a single person who seem to be facing this crisis. On the contrary, they seem to have so much of energy and passion to solve problems and work on ideas that they feel they have very less time left to accomplish them.