midlifedude

Man at midlife making second half matter

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Minimalism: More Freedom, Less Crap – Material and Otherwise

Minimalism is a tool that can assist you in finding freedom. Freedom from fear. Freedom from worry. Freedom from overwhelm. Freedom from guilt. Freedom from depression. Freedom from the trappings of the consumer culture we’ve built our lives around… Minimalists search for happiness not through things, but through life itself.

— The Minimalists, Joshua Fields Millburn and Ryan Nicodemus

In a medical office waiting room, I stumbled across a reference to a book that piqued my interest, Everything That Remains, a memoir by two Dayton, Ohio young men with working class upbringings and early adulthood, ladder-climbing, wealth-accumulating ambitions, about their gravitation from the timeworn path toward an illusory standard of The American Dream to something more introspective and streamlined called Minimalism.

I found it at the library and read it. You might think the rest of this essay will be a screed about the evils and vacuousness of materialism and consumerism, and the beauty and simplicity of deprivation and Idealism, and a door-to-door-Bible-salesman-like proselytization aimed at convincing you to chuck the former’s wanderings through a vast commercial wasteland in favor of a holier life spent in the latter’s pure Garden of Eden. Breathe a sigh of relief; it won’t be.

The book did put a name to the broad ideas about how I’d prefer to live, though. And I believe I’m largely putting those ideas into practice.

When people hear the term “Minimalism” applied to a lifestyle, it does seem to conjure the image of someone just barely better off than Fed Ex plane crash survivor Tom Hanks’ character stranded on an uninhabited island in Castaway, fashioning shoes from palm fronds, feverishly twirling a stick on a rock to start a fire, and squeezing meager marine nourishment out of a shellfish speared with a homespun, sharpened bamboo pole. They think Minimalism means living a Spartan, monk-like, stripped-down existence: doing without, possessing no things, having no fun, staring at four bare walls from a lonely chair, living in a quixotic commune, scraping by on the minimum, spending no money – hell, making no money! It doesn’t.

What Minimalism means to me, as The Minimalists describe it, is eliminating the clutterFightClub_2 from my life – figuratively and literally – so that all I have left and all that I focus my attention and physical, mental and emotional energy upon are things that add value and meaning to my life. The Minimalists love the book/movie Fight Club, about an underground, subversive group of men breaking free from the soul-numbing shackles imposed by societal, cultural and corporate expectations, citing this quote from Fight Club’s charismatic leader Tyler Durden: “The things you own end up owning you.”

Eliminating oppressive, useless clutter that bogs you down applies to relationships, careers, meaningless pursuits and time-consuming obligations – real or imagined – as well as physical objects. That’s the freedom to which The Minimalists refer.

Minimalism is about breaking free from corporate and cultural influences that tell you who you should be, how you should act, what you should believe and how you should define success. It’s about the freedom to define your own path toward happiness and fulfillment, regardless of the disapproval and negativity you may receive from friends, family, colleagues and acquaintances. It’s about the freedom to take risks, the freedom to make choices, the freedom to make mistakes and fail, and the freedom to take full responsibility for all of that in service of living a more courageous, authentic, satisfying and inspiring life.

It so happens that my recent movement toward Minimalism – a transition to a new career in mental health counseling from public relations, a move to a smaller area with a simpler lifestyle – has coincided with a more Spartan lifestyle, more out of necessity than by design. I have moved from a 3-bedroom, 4-bathroom townhouse to a 1-bed, 1-bath apartment. I am earning a salary that is less than half of my last full-time job salary, the result of the career change and starting on a bottom rung in a region with lower wages. I am not “livin’ large” – I’m driving a 15-year-old economy car; watching the smallest-possible, decade-old flat-screen TV, donated to me by a friend, on a no-frills cable TV package; and sleeping on a real bed only after weeks on a constantly-deflating air mattress, because I had no bed to take on my move – but I’m livin’ free and livin’ well.

I have no debt, save for my mortgage, the house I moved from but still own, and which still adds value to my life. I feel a greater sense of meaning and purpose in my new career than my former, so much so that retirement holds no allure for me at age 54, which I consider a good thing. I am pursuing activities and relationships that enhance my life.

I am a proponent of Minimalism, not because I want to latch on to the latest fad or lifestyle trend that may be featured on the Today show or in chic lifestyle magazines, but because my  re-evaluation of the course of my life during the reflective midlife phase was pointing me in the direction of Minimalism before I realized the philosophy had been assigned a pithy label. I am striving to be a Minimalist – not impoverished, deprived, lonely, isolated, rigid, overly austere, Utopian, cultist, weird, eccentric, anti-social, anti-consumerist, or anti-technologist (think Unabomber) – but free to embrace and fully pursue the things I value.

This quote from Minimalism’s emblematic movie, Fight Club, captures the undercurrent stimulating the Ohio natives’ cum Montana entrepreneurs’ lifestyle movement:

Man, I see in Fight Club the strongest and smartest men who’ve ever lived. I see all this potential, and I see squandering. Goddammit, an entire generation pumping gas, waiting tables—slaves with white collars. Advertising has us chasing cars and clothes, working jobs we hate so we can buy shit we don’t need. We’re the middle children of history, man: No purpose or place. We have no Great War. No Great Depression. Our Great War’s a spiritual war; our Great Depression is our lives. We’ve all been raised on television to believe that one day we’d all be millionaires, and movie gods, and rock stars. But we won’t. And we’re slowly learning that fact. And we’re very, very pissed off.

The Bailout

In my short time as a counselor, I’ve encountered parents who profess virtual powerlessness in the face of the behavior and choices of their young adult and mature adult children, from their late teens to late 20s.

The child rules the roost, while the parents, frayed, demoralized and depressed, submit to the child’s willful and controlling ways. I feel for the parents and their conundrum. It must be a weighty burden to worry ceaselessly about your child, indulge the illusion BailoutStampthat one can control their child’s fate, bail out the child at every turn, and feel eternally responsible for the child’s life choices and outcomes.

At the core of this feeling of parental helplessness is confusion over protecting a child – from danger, failure, mistakes, homelessness or even projected death – versus enabling behavior that avoids individual responsibility and experiencing consequences. Intentions may be good; results are not. Such smothering and shielding behavior on the part of parents contributes to the arresting of the child’s growth and development. Twenty-five-year-olds essentially are frozen at 15, having learned how to game one or both parents to their advantage and escape accountability. The longer the pattern continues and the parent remains the bailer, the less motivation the child has to change.

Sometimes, one parent contends, their spouse is to blame for their own helplessness, because the spouse is over-protective and unable to let go. One parent claims to try endlessly to set their stunted child free, but the other parent overrules them, shuts them down and continues down the same corrosive path, as the spurned parent becomes relegated to anemic bystander, tilting at windmills. But this is just an excuse to forgive the method the child uses to manipulate the parents to get what they want, just like the child learned as a little kid. While the parents will blame the child – “He just refuses to get a job, what can you do?!” “I can’t believe how she talks to her mother! She has no respect!” – the parents are the ones who fail to unite themselves and stick to any set of boundaries, rules or principles that would render their child’s behavior ineffective and counterproductive.

Fear, guilt and a desire to control immobilize the parent from allowing their child to make their own choices, accept responsibility, experience consequences, learn from mistakes and live their own lives. The result is a pattern of co-dependency that is difficult to break. The child never breaks away from at least one parent, while the other parent may become a spare part, suffering in self-imposed silence or virtual exile. The child depends on the parent to coddle and protect, providing safe haven from having to grow up and contend with an uncertain and uncaring world, from taking a risk, from self-determination. The parent depends on the child’s feigned incompetence and irresponsibility to feel needed, helpful and good about himself/herself, to validate their duty as a parent by doing “anything” for their child, to fulfill the role of protector and savior.

Adults in their 20s who are capable of living independently are essentially rewarded for their “failure to launch.” They don’t need a job because their basic financial needs – shelter, food, electricity, water, health care – are provided, as are wants such as cable TV and a car. So they don’t bother to seek one; holding a job would require taking individual responsibility. They don’t attend school because they have no motivation to set goals. They live at their parents’ home because it’s a safer bet – all the accountability is heaped on the parents — and easier. The unavoidable hassles and conflicts with the parents and turmoil in the household are just part of the bargain. They bum money as needed, claiming it is for one purpose while in some cases the parents providing the money know all along it is for drugs or alcohol, and resent giving in, but give in they ultimately do to maintain the dependent relationship.

Young adults living with their parents is a prevalent U.S. social trend: The U.S. Census Bureau found that more than one-third of people aged 18 to 34 lived under their parents’ roof in 2015; 10 years earlier, the percentage was about one-fourth. Nearly 9 of 10 who had lived with their parents in 2014 still did a year later. Indicating a rise in parental bailouts, the survey ominously found that 1 in 4 young adults aged 25 to 34 living in their parents’ home neither attended school nor worked.

I am grateful and proud that my kids are heading toward independent lives, on schedule. My 22-year-old daughter graduated college and is teaching in France. My 19-year-old son is attending college, majoring in computer science, and working part-time for UPS in logistics. If one of them holed up in my basement and refused to crawl out into their own life, I can’t be sure what I would do. I would hope I wouldn’t cave in and cater to dysfunction, irresponsibility and manipulation, but until you walk in someone else’s shoes…Thankfully, I don’t think my kids will give me the chance to wear those shoes.

One school of therapy posits that all human motivation is intentional, that all behavior is purposeful. Human behavior seeks to shape the world to satisfy at least one human need. For adults who have failed to launch, that need often is self-preservation. The anxiety and doubt of relying on oneself breeds dependence and escape from responsibility. Their behavior sends the message that the world is a scary place that expects something from us; the goal is to remain safe and preserve ego. If you don’t attempt, you can’t fail. Parents who are too willing to satisfy the need become the enablers, the practitioners of the bailout, who perpetuate their adult children’s prolonged adolescence.

Career Change at 50 ‘Can Be a Perilous Thing’

Altering a career course at fifty can be a perilous thing, and many people, if not most, do not traipse merrily down that path. The luckiest among us find their work fulfilling, and cannot imagine why they would leave. Others would follow their passions if they could, but college tuition, the mortgage, and the care of parents or children or both buckle them into their present work…Still others are simply scared – with good reason, because the job market does not necessarily embrace mid-career transitions.

— Barbara Bradley Hagerty, Life Reimagined

I embarked on a path to a new career at 48. It was more like entering a maze – I couldn’t see what was around the next corner, let alone envision arriving at the destination. I had doubts about whether I would have the fortitude to finish, and whether I actually even wanted to make a dramatic change and start over so late in my professional life.

I had established several decades of skills and experience as a journalist and public relations professional – fields that wouldn’t earn me a cup of coffee in the new career I was pursuing. I wasn’t just transferring and adjusting skills, as I did when I made the leap from journalism to PR. I was doing a total makeover, learning a new way of being.

“The brain likes its habits…and hates change,” Bradley Hagerty quotes a Harvard Medical School professor. “The brain despises conflict: It reasons that I may be happier over there, CareerChange_TwoPathsbut I am earning a good paycheck here, and in general it resolves this cognitive dissonance in favor of the familiar. At the bottom of every dilemma is fear.”

To make the change I sought – becoming a mental health counselor/therapist – I had no choice but to return to school for a marathon master’s degree venture, and ultimately confront the fear of the unfamiliar and the insecurity of the lower earnings commensurate with starting anew.

At first, I merely dipped my toe in the water by applying to a program and enrolling in the first of 22 required courses. I nearly dropped out after breaking my leg before completing my first course and losing motivation, feeling overwhelmed by the long road ahead. I overcame ambivalence and registered for a second course a few days before the next semester began. From there, it was a step-by-step progression that would have registered in the hundreds on a Fitbit.

After 5 ½ years of classes and internships and another five months of bureaucratic license- application process, I have been hired for my first professional job as a licensed counselor at age 54. As Bradley Hagerty writes in her book about midlife, it has not been a merry traipse, though it has been rewarding nonetheless – the sense of striving and accomplishment, the satisfaction of learning and growing, the excitement of pursuing something new and meaningful that will contribute toward others.

“The role of people in their second half of life is not to build up for themselves, but to begin to give away their time, energy and talents,” Bradley Hagerty writes.

There have been costs accompanying the benefits. I left my job two years ago, largely because it was incompatible with the latter stages of the master’s degree program, where I had to serve internships for four semesters. That plunged me from making a comfortable living to pay for a mortgage, two college tuitions and care of children – just as Bradley Hagerty identified – to an itinerant work life in the Gig Economy, working lower-paying temporary, part-time and seasonal jobs. Breaking even on the monthly household budget, much less saving for retirement, went out the window.

Psychologically and emotionally, I felt unmoored. After all, what kind of responsible, mature man in his 50s would be working the same summer job alongside college students as a tennis teacher? Wasn’t I supposed to be at the peak of my earning power – indeed, the job I left provided me the highest salary I had ever made – instead of making the same hourly wages I earned in my 20s? All this so I could enter a new career at the bottom rung in a profession where beginning pay is notoriously low. Just to drive home the point that I’m a rookie, my license for my first two years identifies me as “Licensed Professional Counselor-Intern.”

Was I scared, as Bradley Hagerty suggests many midlife career deliberators rightly are, “because the job market does not necessarily embrace mid-career transitions?”

No…at least not so much to be deterred. I was more scared about looking back in a decade still with a yearning to try something new and realizing with regret that I missed my window. Once midlife careens on the backside toward older age, it becomes even harder to reinvent the self.

I also was entering a job market where there is a growing need, where men are relatively scarce and therefore actually valued for their gender perspective and traits, and where the accumulation of life experience and wisdom that comes with age is an advantage in helping other people with their problems – unlike some other professions, where older workers become dinosaurs because they can’t keep up with technology, trends, new methods and the requisite energy to stay on top. Or they are paid at the high end of the salary range, making them expendable in favor of hungry and more footloose up-and-comers.

Altering a career course at 50 certainly can be a perilous thing. There’s no guarantee the job market will unfurl a welcome mat for a midlife career changer or that the changer will be successful, however success is measured. I’ve managed to get through the front door; now I’ll find out for myself whether the new house I’m entering truly is my dream home.

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