John Friary was always a good science and math student. Throughout his childhood and adolescence, he thought about going into medicine, but working with sick people seemed too stressful, so he became a biostatistician instead. That was a good fit – for a while. His math skills were put to the test, and he felt like he was helping the community at large.
But once Friary was well into his 30s, the now 44-year-old started craving the precise type of contact with patients that he had avoided at a younger age. “Things were coming together in my life where I was better equipped to handle the emotional stress,” Friary says. Friends of his had gone to medical school, and he’d had some experience working with animals at a veterinary school. So when Friary applied to medical school at age 40, he had some idea of what he was getting himself into
Was it a midlife crisis that prompted Friary’s leap of faith into the career he’d book-shelved? Not really, he says. Instead, he describes the transition as the coming together of his life goals and the realization of an inner growth spurt.
“I wanted more direct contact with people,” he says. “I wanted to help as many people as much as I can.”
“We start to see the world shift,” says Kerry Hannon, a District of Columbia-based journalist and author and an expert in career transitions. “It’s not just about your personal happiness but [it becomes about] giving back.”
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Some people have faced personal losses and are confronting their own mortality and making changes based on that, too, Hannon adds. “I’m 53 and all of a sudden, my friends are getting cancer. This used to happen to my parents’ friends,” she says. “It makes us do an MRI of ourselves. You say to yourself, ‘I want to get out of bed to really do something.’”
Turning a Rut Into Joy: Midlife Bliss
For many people, this turning point does start from a real feeling of crisis. Inertia sets in at the workplace, and you’re fired from your job, or you lose it, or your marriage falls apart. Whatever the case, some trigger of loss usually leads you down a path of renewal. “Once you hit that point, there’s a sense of excitement,” Hannon says. “You think, ‘I’m only 58, but I could do something else for the next 15 to 20 years. [My job] doesn’t have to be just a placeholder. I can really dig my teeth into it.’”
Friary, who is now in his first year of medical school at the University of Florida, also thought that rather than stay a research scientist, “I’d rather be a doctor for 25 years.” That he is studying with people whose medical careers will span twice his own does not bother him. In fact, with age comes a certain wisdom that is turning out to be useful, Friary says. “The professors encourage us to try everything. But at 44, I know that I don’t want to be in the ER or perform surgery.” He intends to pursue endocrinology and expects to start practicing medicine around age 50.
Saskia Jennings, a midlife coach and motivational speaker based in Canada, coined the term “midlife bliss” to describe her own process of getting back to the bliss she knew as a child. “I grew up in a very positive family, but I lost it all,” Jennings says. At age 40, the Dutch native lost her job in the Netherlands, then moved to Canada and married a man whom she divorced a few years later. “I knew that I was totally neglecting myself,” she says. “I found myself in a big black hole. On Jan. 1, I said, ‘What is this? Let’s get back to bliss.’” That was a few years ago, and she has since expanded her coaching business to focus on helping women out of their midlife ruts and get on track for positive change.
She focuses on women, not only because she can most relate to them, but also because they tend to neglect themselves, she says. “Women rarely put themselves first. We never take the time to discover who we are.”
“What I hear often is, ‘I don’t have the time or money.’ There’s such an underlying fear of change, but the magic happens when you are pushed outside your comfort zone,” she says.
Jennings has helped facilitate that process for hundreds of women. Women start businesses, go back to school or leave unhealthy relationships. Whatever the outcome, what ultimately changes is their own view of themselves, she says, and that is the catalyst for other changes: “Their confidence goes up, and they trust in themselves,” she says.
Tips for Embracing Midlife Change
The dictionary definition of midlife crisis is “emotional turmoil characterized by a strong desire for change.”
When it strikes is unpredictable, but traditionally around age 40 or 45, give or take a few years. But the “crisis” doesn’t have to linger; it can be the momentary jumping off point for a more fulfilling life. Hannon says there are some things that people, job-changers especially, can do to better prepare themselves to have a happy transition.
- Take baby steps. If you think you want to be a chocolatier, “go make chocolate,” Hannon says. “If you go and do the job, you realize it might not be that romantic.” Or if you think you want to go do something big, like medical school, take an anatomy class before you invest the time and money the career would require. Friary, who is married, adds that having a settled personal life and an understanding partner are also key to making such an all-consuming change.
- Be nimble. “Flexibility is the key to finding that bliss,” Hannon says. “Stay open because it’s not like your first career where you just do that.” You may have to juggle several jobs to pay the bills, or reroute if things don’t work out as planned. When Hannon went back to talk to the people she had interviewed for her book, “What’s Next? Follow Your Passion and Find Your Dream Job,” one-third of the people who had started businesses ended up selling them.
- Be real. Your life change doesn’t have to be about saving the world as much as your own soul. “One guy ran away with the circus” that was also a nonprofit, Hannon says. “He felt like a little kid under the big top every night.” Sometimes the zap of fulfillment you need can come from volunteer work, too, she adds.
- Get fit. The key to successful midlife change is enthusiasm, Hannon says. “I tell people to be spiritually fit, financially fit and physically fit,” she says. That last piece often gets overlooked, she continues, but is critical to exuding a natural source of positive energy. “Any time you make a life shift, it’s stressful, and you need everything to do it,” Hannon says. “If you’re going to start a B&B or a nonprofit, that requires a lot of energy.”