Midlife Crisis?

“What has been interesting is seeing how much easier it is to work on a project once how it’s going is divorced from how I’m doing. It frees me up to experience all the ups and downs and swings and roundabouts of my emotional life while continuing to move forward step by step and day by day on my goals and projects.

And because attempting to control my own state of mind is no longer at the forefront of my thinking, the innate well-being of my essential nature rises to the surface more and more of the time. I’m doing better than ever, regardless of how things are going; things are going better than ever, regardless of how I am doing.”
– Michael Neill

I am in Athens licking my wounds and talking about chess. Friday-Sunday we had a three day training seminar, where we focused on Candidates (seeing what you do not see automatically) and The Three Questions (Where are the weaknesses? What is the opponent’s idea? Which is the worst placed piece?). Tonight I will talk for a few hours about the work with Boris Gelfand and the coming book.

Recent events in my private life have made me think a lot about who I am. At 41 years of age, this is a classic thing to do of course. 2014 was a very hard year for me in many ways. Not the least of it being that I was struggling a lot – and I really mean a lot – to get serious work done. I am truly blessed to have good friends like John and Boris and Nikos morally supporting me and understanding that this is a transitional phase that we all go through. I also think it is coming to an end, even though the beginning of 2015 has been as challenging as 2014 was.

I have learned a lot of things from this process, not all of which I have fully digested, but I wanted to share a few of them here.

1. I am a good person that means well. I have my insecurities and problems with communicating things clearly, but I really am happy with who I am.
2. I do not express enough how grateful I am for people’s company and friendship. I will try to rectify this in the future.
3. If there is a big problem in your life, you really need to address it. It will only grow and grow. Churchill said that if you refused to fight a battle when you could win easily, you would have to fight it later when you were fighting for your survival. I believe this is true. I just have not followed this advice as often as I should…
4. I really care about the work I do and this is a good thing.
5. I need to be kinder and more forgiving of my mistakes. Laugh at them, rather than judge myself. I was doing this already, but I am better at it now.
6. I needed to take better care of myself. I have started doing this and it has been a part of the solution to the midlife crisis.
7. Start following your own advice more!
8. When you are tired, go to sleep. Do not talk to people about important things.
9. My social skills are heavily impaired by my gender.
10. You are an adult once you have figured out that you need to give it your best shot and see where it lands. Everything else is just a waste of time…

33 thoughts on “Midlife Crisis?”

  1. Actually, I do not feel lost. I know exactly where I am, what I want and in which direction I am going. I have used the midlife crisis to get some energy into various parts of my life. But what I have suffered from is lack of discipline. I have just been very weak.

    I do not think it is a primarily psychological thing, though it is for a lot of people, I actually think it is physical. Our bodies stop renewing themselves in the 30s. By 40-41 we are lacking this for the first time as far as I understand it. Of course it is also mental, but it is probably many factors at once.

  2. I’m 38 and I also feel weak and a huge lack of discipline. But unlike you, it is because I feel a little lost. Mainly as you go through life happily and then something cataclysmic happens and it is hard to adjust. The economy (living paycheck to paycheck thanks to absurd inflation) and the bleak winter has also added to it.

  3. Believe me. I’m 61yo and worked 28 years as a psychotherapeut. Your social skills are not impaired by your gender. This is, pardon me, bullshit. Read Deborah Tannen’s books about this. “You just don’t understand” is a good start. Maybe you don’t need more to get it. But if you need more input, you can ask me.

  4. If the physical side is getting you down, consider joining up at Crossfit Glasgow (just half a mile from the quality chess offices). I’m also in my early 40’s, and have found that training under the eye of good coaches is amazingly helpful for improving quality of life. (No promises on quality of chess.) Echoing one of your earlier posts, the key is to make it a system rather than a goal — show up and do what you’re told, 3 or 4 days a week, and let the consistent small gains add up.

  5. @d.
    We can talk about physical training another time. This is really not my problem, though it maybe was half a year ago. Crossfit does seem to be a very interesting sport. I have been thinking about trying it out for some time. But at the moment I am focusing on tennis. I will probably get a game in the first team this year, which is quite good, as I was in the third team last year…

  6. @jupp53
    A good friend of mine who is a psychotherapist tells me that it is. There is a lot of new research on it. I would prefer to say like you, but probably this is already a sign that we have some lacking skills :-).
    I will check out the book. Why not.

  7. Hitting 40 can be quite a shock to the system! You realise that, barring an accident, half of your life is gone, and that for the half that’s left, your body slows down, becomes weaker etc.

    But it can also be an opportunity to take stock, to see what’s really important to you. I feel that if we were immortal, nothing would ever get done, as we can always do it ‘later’. When you hit 40, you realise there isn’t a lot of ‘later’ left so it’s time to get stuck in.

    I hit 40 myself at the end of last year, so I decided that it was time I actually put some work into my chess, and see how far I can go, as opposed to ‘doing some work at some stage’. Whether it pays dividends or not, I don’t know, but at least I’ll have given it my best shot. If I can’t get better working through Yusupov’s books, then there’s no hope. Echoing d. above, I’ve turned working on his book into a system (2-3 times a week), as opposed to having a goal (2000 elo).

  8. Howard Goldowsky

    Tannen’s book is essential reading. The first time I heard about this book, believe it or not, was back in 1999 (or was it 2000 or 2001?) from Mig Greengard, while I interviewed him for ChessCafe. He swore by this book. So I read it, and it was awesome. Men and women are totally different and socialize accordingly. Same goes for introverts versus extroverts. Mig said he read this book once a year … I was going to do the same, but I haven’t read it in a while. It’s an excellent and thought-provoking book.

    I’m 43. Life doesn’t get easier as we get older, body slows down a bit, responsibilities pile up (kids, family, money issues); but as they say in chess, one’s got to give squares to take squares. A midlife crises is the way the “mourning” process we go through to give up squares. What we get in return is wisdom and experience, and a sense of urgency our younger self did not have.

  9. Just stick to points 5 and 10 and get over it. I just turned 50 last year and feel better than ever before. There´s a life after 40, good luck!

  10. I had a serious crisis due to a divorce some years ago. I was desperate. I read all the books. I talked to all the people I knew. It did not help and they got bored (I think). I cried a lot. I did the bouncing back girl thing. Bad idea. I went to a professional each week. That relieved me for, say, a day. First I increased the smoking habit to one package a day. Three years later I quit the smoking habit for good. I am nearly 2 years clean of tobacco now. In hindsight I think that was the turning point. I still think that that is one of the good things about the whole mess. One year later I felt strong enough to quit my job and find a new one. I understood there can be life after death. I picked up an old hobby which I had neglected (chess). Found this site 🙂 and the amazing books of quality chess. Life was good again.

    The wisest thing I was told was: “There is nothing you can do. You have to live through it and be happy that you still feel something. When enough time has passed, the wounds will heal, though scars will remain.” He was right.

    Another wise woman told me to not think so much but do more. One way to do that is to work out. Good idea, difficult to keep up.

    Best wishes. You are not alone.

  11. By the way: interesting to hear you accusing yourself of a lack of discipline – I have on the contrary always been impressed by your high output of books with consistently high quality. Maybe point 5 is the most important one – be a little less harsh on yourself and relax. And: just don’t lose your sense of humor by reading too many self-help books 🙂

  12. @Jacob Aagaard
    Crossfit is a reasonable and always popular suggestion. A better one is to remember that you have an IM/GM-equivalent kettlebell athlete in the office. If Andrew’s as introspective with his lifting as he is with chess, he’d be a phenomenal instructor.
    As an aside, you might notice a significant improvement in your tennis game, with an increase in both power production and work capacity.

  13. I think some people got the impression that I am somehow unhappy or something. This is very far from the case :-). I am really annoyed at not having finished the work I wanted to finish. I have struggled a lot with concentration. But things are turning and I am getting closer to the end of various projects, which is a really nice feeling.

  14. I’m 42 and have a busy enough life with work and a wife and two young kids who I really want to spend time with. however I also need “me time” where I do something non work-related for myself and stick to it no matter how tough the other things get. i’ve found commuting by bike has given me a lift. It is an hour door to door (but the true cost compared to other modes of transport is only 15 mins), I get exercise and a chance to clear my head of the kids whinging at home in the mornings and the kids whinging at work in the evenings. Always seem to arrive at my destination in a good mood and stress levels are way down.

    My wife is doing French lessons as “her time”, but if she is tired it is “because she is doing French” and not bacause ashe has spent (i.e. wasted) an hour tidying the kids rooms only for them to mess them up again 10 minutes later.

  15. It takes great courage to question oneself, and to admit that improvement and change are needed—SO half the battle has been won by being capable of that. (1) I would like to put a word in for serious/ non-charlatan psychotherapy. I had a kind of “nervous breakdown” years ago when I was living in Paris. I am adopted and my biological mother called me on the phone out of the blue even though I believed that I would never know who this person was—let alone hear from them. I thought of myself as a very strong person, and some French friends said: “wow that must be very emotional for you.” I said: “no, no I can handle this.” Within 48 hours I was having agoraphobia, panic attacks, asthma attacks (never ever had that in m life before). I was about 6 months away from doing a grad degree at Cambridge which was very important to me—SO I did not really have time for agoraphobia. Anyway—talking with a psychiatrist got me back to “normal” in a few months, and continuing with these conversations for several years, I think, really helped me in many ways. (2) It is OK to have something wrong or amiss with you (we all do). So, resisit the tempation to blame some external accident such as age, gender, the body, etc.—look to your choices and your thinking and feelings—this responsibility and self-forgiveness is a step in the right direction. (3) Don’t be too easy on yourself. None of us are good people unless we live a good life we can be proud of—and we won’t know we have done that successfully until it is too late (when we are dead we have run out of opportunities to succeed of fail ethically. And an allied point—yes take it easy on yourself, BUT often how we treat others reflects on how we will treat ourselves—so extend mercy, forgiveness, compassion to others. I am sure you do already. Often getting beyond self concern to concern for others is very therapeutic. (4) I agree that physical fitness leads to a sense of well being. I enjoyed and earned from all of the comments—especially wok 64 and Indra Polak, TY!

  16. I like cycling to work. And as I live only 5 minutes walk from Andrew, it is quite likely I will start cycling to the office together with him (unless he manages to lose me of course!).

    I do fully believe in taking 100% action for your own actions and so on. But I do not believe it is taking action to ignore things such as gender, race, nationality, social background and so on. These things influence everything and ignoring them is done at peril only.

    I am very good at forgiving myself for my flaws. Maybe too much so!

  17. Yes, all of them are important factors—I believe in the “social construction” of much of our lives—collectively and as individuals. I was just counseling against treating personal problems at an abstract distance such that you obfuscate responsibility and thereby any chance of healing. I am not accusing you of doing this—just pointing out the danger. As someone with a penchant for philosophy I did this often in therapy—talked about ideas and ethics at a distance rather than what I was feeling, or felt (say as a boy). I suppose I am very “unmale” in that I am uncompetitive, I don’t need to be admired, respected, or liked. I find men very foolish with their giant egos. I also oppose my race, my class, and my nation—who knows what this means. I suppose I think a certain amount of self-dislike is healthy, and realizing one’s fleeting unimportance in the scheme of things. In the face of this unimportance one should dance and allow the temporary happiness granted mortals to be enough aware that death and troubles are inevitable too—giving up all of those “male ego” demands which are really a sign of insecurity that you need some external sign of merit to feel comfortable in your own shoes.

  18. Shurlock Ventriloquist

    More critical than self-dislike is self deprecation and the ability to laugh at one self and allow others to laugh at our foibles and idiocies.

  19. Well, I was voted “class clown” always, and my sense of humor would be the characteristic that I suspect would spring to mind as my foremost trait to those who know me. My problem has been a lack of seriousness. So, I too, think I am fine on that front. I am also aware no one cares, BUT that is the downside of the virtual freedom to comment.

  20. Shurlock Ventriloquist

    @ Jacob: Our children force us to see parts of ourselves that we have well hidden. When we see those parts of ourselves (and our partners! ha!) that we really do not like manifested in our own progeny we tend to not be able to ignore it anymore.

    What we do after these epiphanies ultimately defines us and creates legacy, I believe more so than what we do in our earlier years.

    Chess is easy compared to life.

    Perhaps the best thing to be as a human being is to be a work in progress?

  21. @Jacob Aagaard
    The research is often heavily skewed. B.e. the research about verbal development does not account for differences in the active vocabulary of boys and girls. It uses the active vocabulary of girls for tests. At least this holds for german research. There was some work of Renate Faltin about it with some methodological flaws. So it is forgotten, because nobody had an interest to continue this branch of research.

    The main point of my view: There are sex differences and gender differences. Research to gender differences tends heavily to take over “female” values and stereotypes, especially when done by psychologists. The social worlds of males and females are different as we all know. It’s a hard task to evaluate this.

  22. @jupp53
    I have no doubt that this is true. I greatly enjoy male companionship as well, I am just totally aware that it is not as socially focused as female companionship is. For example, when I need to talk about my problems, I greatly prefer talking to a woman…

  23. I like this list – a sign that you are moving forward in life! Maybe I should make one of my own….and add no 5 to it 🙂 .

  24. @Louise
    I have to say that I find laughing at something just as cleansing as crying would have been. To see yourself as flawed and to laugh at it does not reduce your empathy for yourself, though I fear that feeling sorry for yourself might ;-).

  25. An Ordinary Chessplayer

    The title of that article does not describe the contents, but it did impel me to read it.

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