Why midlife can be the time of your life

From Afternoons, 3:10 pm on 13 February 2024

Life delivers many challenges in your 40s and 50s but it's also when wisdom meets fresh opportunities for growth and change, says writer Chip Conley.

He tells Jesse Mulligan how a period of life associated with 'crisis' can actually be a time of transformation.

Chip Conley

Chip Conley Photo: Lisa Keating

The idea of a 'midlife crisis' – typically experienced by a mid-40s man who feels "sort of irrelevant" and seeks to relive his adolescence via a red sports car and a racy affair – has been with us since around 1965, Conley says.

Although that's not the experience of most people, the 40s is when many of us have to face the reality that expectations and hopes we've been carrying around for decades will not be fulfilled.

In the years between 35 and 75, which Conley defines as the midlife period, we find ourselves at a crossroads where we must unravel these earlier expectations in a process his friend Brene Brown calls 'midlife unravelling'.

If physical attractiveness has been the "playing field" of your life, it's a losing game as you get older, Conley says. Better off to be part of a game which values "your heart and your soul and your curiosity and your mind and your relationships with others".

Also on the rise, as we get older, is what Conley calls our "spiritual curiosity".

"The primary operating system for us in the first half of our life is our ego. It helps individuate us define who we are, etc. Then around midlife, the primary operating system shifts from the ego to the soul. 

"Many people in their 50s start to feel a little bit of a curiosity about life, about the meaning of life, about the purpose of life, about things that are beyond themselves. If they were not religious or spiritual previously, they start to feel a little bit of that."

Although our short-term memory and problem-solving skills are not as strong in midlife, crystallised intelligence – "the ability to see holistically and systemically and connect the dots" – improves until the early to mid-70s, Conley says.

We are also spending more years at this elevated vantage point than ever before.

If the average life expectancy is 78 and you're 65, it's not correct to assume you only have 13 years left to live, he says.

"The truth is you actually have a lot more than 13 years left because if you've gotten to 65, you probably have a 50-50 chance of getting the 90. If you are in certain socio-economic groups that actually do even better. You might even live further than that.

"When people shift their mindset on ageing from a negative to a positive, they gain 7.5 years of additional life, which is more additional years than if they stop smoking, or they start exercising at 50."

Although our IQ doesn't improve with age, Conley says, our EQ (emotional intelligence) does strengthen over time.

"We are more emotionally moderate, meaning we are not so reactive. We don't take things quite so personally. We learn how to get clear on what's important and what's not. So emotionally we are more adept at handling the circumstances in our lives when we're in our 50s, 60s or beyond.

"Let's just like to call a spade a spade here. If our painful life lessons are the raw material for our future wisdom, the longer we've been on the planet the more raw material we have, we have life lessons."

We are moving into an era when wisdom – which relates to a deepened sense of creativity, ingenuity, intuition, humanity and compassion ,Conley says – is scarce but essential.

"Knowledge is about accumulating knowledge, wisdom is about distilling all of the complications down to what's truly essential. We're in a very complicated era and therefore distilling all of that noise and all that information, all that knowledge. into something that's usable and more bite-sized is really essential. And that's what wisdom is about.'

That said, a 30-year-old can be wiser than a 70-year-old if the older person is not "metabolising or digesting their life experiences".

"In order for wisdom to work, you better be actually working your life experience to understand what you've learned along the way."

Learning to Love Midlife by Chip Conley - book cover

Photo: Supplied

Conley was forced to change his own life in his mid-40s after a period when he says everything that could go wrong went wrong.

Desperate to get out of his struggling hospitality company, he had a foster son going to prison, wrongfully, lost five friends to suicide, and then nearly died from an allergic reaction to an antibiotic.

"That's when I woke up and I'm like 'I'm a hotelier and I'm having my hotelier wake-up call'.

Ahead of his 50th birthday, Conley spent the next couple of years making changes to his life and he says the 50s were his favourite decade ever.

Making clear commitments about how he wants to live – which he recommends we all do – is a big part of his personal process.

"I commit to living a life more focused on my eventual eulogy than my current resume. I show up with a passionate engagement in life because that way people will notice my energy more than my wrinkles. I assume the best intentions in people unless they've proven untrustworthy. And I don't chase happiness. I practice gratitude and happiness is the natural result."

Chip Conley is an entrepreneur and the author of seven books, most recently Learning to Love Midlife: 12 Reasons Why Life Gets Better with Age. He co-founded the Modern Elder Academy, which describes itself as the world's first midlife wisdom school.