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Searching for self-identity – Who am I now?

June 5, 2011
 Searching for self-identity – Who am I now?

“What we find now is not primarily an economic problem, but an existential problem.”

— Peter Drucker

Most of what I write about and work with others on these days has to do with transitioning between a season of extreme structure to a season of uncertainty and openness. Ten times a year I spend a 27-hour period with a team of very capable colleagues guiding a dozen or so people in midlife through a program we call Halftime Institute. Participants are men and women who have built lives and formed habits that, with varying degrees of success, provide self-identity and structure based on what they do. They are Halftimers who have pretty much come to an inflection point in successful lives of accumulation and are now excited about giving back. They find themselves voluntarily or involuntarily in a new season of life.  And most of them don’t have a clue about what to do now.

I can count six distinct seasons in my life so far:  Learning ⇒ Apprentice ⇒ Entrepreneur/Leader ⇒ Parallel Career combining success alongside significance ⇒ sell company and redistribute proceeds in significance work (what I’m doing now) ⇒ eternity (thankfully yet to come).

Meanwhile I have lately developed a budding interest in the 25-40 post-college crowd. The big surprise is that I find them asking almost the identical questions as the Halftime Institute mid-lifers.  What is the common link between recent college graduates and mid-lifers separated as they are by three or four decades of age?  David Brooks (The New York Times May 30, 2011) describes the younger cohort as having been “perversely structured.” He says, “This year’s graduates are members of the most supervised generation in American history. Through their childhood and teenage years, they have been monitored, tutored, coached and honed to an unprecedented degree. Yet upon graduation, they will enter a world that is unprecedentedly wide open and unstructured – college students are raised in an environment that requires one set of navigational skills, and they are then cast into a different environment requiring a different set of skills which they have to figure out on their own.”  Goodbye structure. Hello “real world!”

In an interesting book, titled Quarterlife Crisis (1), two authors say that the mid-life crisis is the only age-related crisis recognized as a common inevitable part of life – the subject of hundreds of books, movies, and magazine articles. But they say, “The midlife cri sis is not the only age-related crisis we experience. This other crisis can be just as, if not more, devastating than the mid-life crisis. It can throw someone’s life into chaotic disarray or paralyze it completely … at their cores both the Quarterlife Crisis and a midlife crisis are about a major life change.” The authors discovered that “after about 20 years in a sheltered school setting – many graduates undergo some sort of culture shock … the extreme uncertainty that 20-Somethings experience after graduation occurs because what was once a solid line that they could follow … has now disintegrated into millions of different options.”

Back to Brooks, “Most successful young people don’t look inside and then plan a life. They look outside and find a problem, which summons their life. Most people don’t form a self and then lead a life. They are called by a problem, and the self is constructed gradually by their calling … fulfillment is a by-product of how people engage their tasks, and can’t be pursued directly — Life comes to a point … when the self dissolves into the task. The purpose in life is not to find yourself. It is to lose yourself.”

All of this made me think back on one of the conversations I had in the course of writing my fourth book, Finishing Well. I talked about self-realization with Armand Nicholi, Editor of The Harvard Guide to Psychiatry. He told me many things about self-realization and competing priorities, but in the middle of the conversation he boiled it down to three words: “It’s about relationships.” I recall that Nicholi spoke about both students and mid-lifers in the course of our conversation. He said, “You know I teach people who are just starting out. As Harvard students, they are all bright to start with … early in the semester I ask them, ‘What is your life goal?’ Invariably they answer, ‘to be successful.’ So I ask, ‘what does that mean to you?’ And their answer has some relationship to fame and fortune. I let that soak in for a few days, and then in a subsequent lecture I ask ‘if you had twenty days left, what would you do with them?’ The universal answer is that they would spend the time working on their relationships with family and friends, and if they are people of faith, with God. Then I suggest that ‘fame and fortune,’ what they claim to want more than anything, are actually in conflict with their highest stated priority of friends and family. They become so intensely focused on what they want to achieve, that of wealth and glory, that they largely neglect the things they value most in life – their relationships.

Later in the conversation, I asked Armand if he could compare his students’ responses to those of a middle age patient sitting before him, unpacking whatever issues he or she had been dealing with. I asked, ‘what do you see there?’

“Two words,” he said, “Disordered priorities. These people have spouses who are of secondary importance to them; they have children they are not close to anymore and who have formed influences other than family and they have been so busy looking after their own interests that they basically neglected God altogether.… For the last thirty or forty years, they have been getting their sense of self-worth from what they do for a living and when that’s gone they don’t know who they are.” Or, I might add, what to do with the rest of their lives.

So What About You? 

  • How does your age and stage on life’s continuum affect your self-identity just now?


  1. For more about Halftime Institute, see
  2. There is a new just issued Zondervan paperback edition of Finishing Well which includes Ten Principles for Life II by Peter Drucker. Good summer reading.


(1) Authors, Alexandra Robbins and Abby Wilner – Tarcher Books

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