The necessity of the mid-life transition
Why a bend in the road later in life is essential for us all. And I should know...
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As the taxi crossed Queensborough Bridge, the driver went to turn up the radio.
‘You don’t mind, ma’am,’ he said.
It was more a statement than a question and so I smiled and shook my head, because that’s what I always do in a foreign country: over-compensate for being a foreigner.
The main news of the day appeared to be the fact that Krispy Kreme doughnuts were being sold in American McDonalds for the first time ever. I looked out of the window as Manhattan swam into view and rolled my eyes. When Krispy Kremes first arrived in the UK, I was 25 and they were being sold in Harrods, one of the most exclusive department stores in the world. My boyfriend and I headed out at the crack of dawn to get in line to be one of the first people in the country to try them. We bought one of every flavour, then sat down and took a bite out of each one whilst Japanese tourists giggled and took our picture.
For a short while back in the early 2000s, Krispy Kreme doughnuts were the coolest baked goods around. But as time passed, Krispy Kreme failed to keep it. The flavours became banal, the quality mediocre. I forgot about them for a while and then, some years later, I saw them being sold in greasy, plastic trays in service stations across the country. And it used to make me so sad, to have known where they had started and to see where they had ended up. McDonalds? It seemed like a weird reinvention too late in the day.
I had travelled to New York to spend a week with colleagues. It had been almost a year since I’d left my life as a magazine editor and jumped aboard an exciting tech start-up. (As long-time readers of this newsletter will know, I now work for Substack). Since much of the company live in different corners of the world - San Francisco, Seattle, Toronto, Mexico City, this was a bi-annual get-together of sorts. It was also my first time meeting most of the company.
I hadn’t been to New York in some time. Things had changed. Nordstrom, the once shiny, department store now appeared to have things called Nordstrom Racks everywhere- a sort of TK Maxx that sold racks of puffa jackets in sad colours and little else. The old bagel shop on east 19th street that I used to visit was now selling juices and Acai bowls. Reinvention it appeared, was everywhere.
I made my way to the office. It had been many years since I felt nervous going to work. But this was different. Once upon a time I was the boss. Now the boss was younger than me. I have never felt out of place walking into a magazine office or a fashion party. For years these had been my people. We shared a language, an aesthetic, a way of being. Suddenly I was the new kid. An interloper. A middle-age woman with a bunch of experience better suited to a time gone by.
I arrived for my first day dressed in a white shirt, black trousers and a pair of Celine boots- low-key by my standards. But as I walked through the door I realised I had got it horribly wrong. The dress code was more deep casual: trainers (preferably All Birds), jeans and T-shirts. There were lots of hooded tops too and transparent blue light spectacles. At a party the next evening, thrown in an East Village dive bar to celebrate the literary elite of New York, I turned up in a sweeping silk top that tied round my throat with a giant bow. I looked like I’d come to perform magic tricks.
My new colleagues came from places like Google, Facebook and hot tech companies that I had never heard of. I had spent 23 years working on print magazines. Paper, ink, giant printing presses- these had been my stock in trade for as long as I could remember. I had been a shaped by a world that largely no longer existed. My new colleagues however, were helping to shape the future. They spoke a strange new language too, one of codes, and systems and bugs. There were people whose job titles had the words data, engineer and growth in them. I didn’t have the heart to ask them what this actually meant.
The office was wildly diverse too. The media may bang on about diversity but here was an office that looked truly different to me. Different ethnicities, nationalities, brain types and gender. Which is to say men. I had spent my entire life in a female bubble. We would be lucky if we got three straight men on a team of 35 on a magazine- glossy magazines having always been the preserve of alpha women and gay men. Suddenly it felt like I was stepping out of the convent and into the rowdy ‘mixed’ sixth form college down the road.
And then there was the age thing. I am about to turn 44. It never felt old in magazines, probably because I was ageing at the same rate as the women who paid to read the publications I edited. I could tip up to an ELLE party and laugh about perimenopause with at least ten different women in the room. Whilst out on the fashion circuit, certainly at editor level, I felt almost a spring chick. The tech world however is different.
My new colleagues are largely millennials or Zoomers. Over drinks one evening, one younger colleague talked to me about his love of retro indie bands. I thought he meant Television and The Velvet Underground. He was talking about the bands I grew up with: Interpol, The Strokes, The Libertines.
In the office one day a male colleague came over and we made amusing small talk. That is until It was going so well, until he asked me what my favourite Google feature was.
I panicked. ‘Er…the phone? No wait..maps!’
He laughed kindly. ‘Google Maps is 25 years old.’*
As I walked back to my hotel, it occurred to me, that perhaps I had made a mistake. That at 43 perhaps I was too old to start something new. What was I thinking, believing I could tip up the tech world and slot right in? On 27th street I stumbled upon an old Soul Cycle studio I used to go to when I visited New York as an editor. Soul Cycle was the hottest fitness class around when I was editing Women’s Health back in 2012 and as such I was filled with a warm, comforting glow. I stepped inside. Nothing, it appeared had changed. They were still selling the same sort of merch out front. Still hustling the same classes, the same mantra-spouting instructors. I booked a block of three classes (realising that the only thing that had changed were the prices: £135 for THREE spin classes!). It felt like I had come home.
There is a reason people in their middle-years rarely change lanes. By your forties you have generally built a narrative around the sort of person you are. You realise your limitations. You understand that human potential has its end point. Your brain has been beavering away for decades making all sorts of neural connections, meaning you think and behave in a certain way. What’s more, as the body declines you make the assumption that your capabilities decline at the same rate too. It’s a sort of protection mechanism, I suppose, since the sting of humiliation is far greater at 45 than it is 25. Ballsing up in your twenties being a sign of brave experimentation. Ballsing up in your 40s? That’s just foolish.
Of course, there are some middle-age people who make a gigantic switch in their lives, but generally they’re the sort of Elizabeth Gilbert type folk who wake up one morning and realise their inner calling is to be a broom maker in the Apalachain Mountains. There are countless self-help books written for and about these types of middle-agers. But they labour under the misapprehension that we all have a second life within us. For most of us however, we’re the same person we always were. We just hanker after a bend in the road. But since bends come with unexpected new vistas,
far easier just to keep ploughing the same track we always have.
As for me, I didn’t have a calling. I simply decided my time with magazines had come to an end and so, aged 42, I wanted to try something new. I loved Substack as a product. I believed in its ethos. But I didn’t know much beyond that.
People think making the decision to switch lanes in mid life is the brave part. But they are wrong. The brave part is understanding that it takes time, patience and self-reflection to find your groove in a new life.
And so I decided to be brave. I made a beeline for those people in the company I reasoned I had the least amount in common with: engineers, data people, product developers. I walked around the block with a guy called Ari. We bonded over our shared appreciation of Alan Partridge. I spent time with Mike, the ‘data guy’ who is a bigger Francophile than me. I went for coffee with an engineer called Seth, who seemed as fascinated by the world of women’s magazines as I was fascinated by front and back end systems. I went for dinner with a bunch of colleagues, who, like me, were all mid-lifers who had changed direction. (One woman used to work in investment banking, another was a teacher, one ran a big charity whilst another was once a famous sport star in another life). We ended up in a blues bar until 1 in the morning. I laughed so hard the entire night that I woke up unable to speak. I hadn’t done that with colleagues since…well, never.
And that’s when it hit me: mid-life was the perfect time to move on and change direction. Understanding who you are and the limitations you are saddled with is vital in identifying the right switch in direction. (It’s not mere chance, for example, that Substack is both part tech company, part journalistic platform). What’s more age gives you enough perspective to realise overnight transformations don’t happen. They take time. Patience. A willingness to understand you have so much to learn still. And the acute realisation that those younger than you may teach you the most. There’s no shame in that. In fact it’s exciting.
On my final morning in New York I went to Soul Cycle. The lights dimmed, as they always did. The instructor yelled some claptrap about ‘living your best life’ as they always did. We cycled. We clapped. It all felt so old. So desperately in need of reinvention. As I showered and got changed I decided I needed an end of week treat. Perhaps, I told myself, I should head to McDonalds. Give Krispy Kreme a try all over again. Support an old dog who realises it needs some new tricks.
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Really lovely read, and a message so many of us need reminding of. I love that changing our brains, learning new things and creating new neural pathways can happen at any age, any stage, we just get lazy and don't bother trying sometimes. But when we do try, it is so worthwhile and rewarding. Sometimes the further out of our comfort zones, the more there is to learn and bigger satisfaction afterwards. Thanks Farrah