Style is a state of mind.
“Midlife crisis is a term coined in 1965 by Elliott Jaques stating a time where adults come to realize their own mortality and how much time is left in their life. A midlife crisis is experienced by many people during the midlife transition when they realize that life may be more than halfway over. Sometimes, a crisis can be triggered by transitions experienced in these years, such as the death of parents or other causes of grief, unemployment or underemployment, realizing that a job or career is hated but not knowing how else to earn an equivalent living, or children leaving home. People may reassess their achievements in terms of their dreams. The result may be a desire to make significant changes in core aspects of day-to-day life or situation, such as in career, work-life balance, marriage, romantic relationships, large expenditures, or physical appearance.” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Midlife_crisis
The word crisis here is interesting, because I don’t think it needs to be seen as such.
If you have been extraordinarily lucky (like I believe I have) to have had some really interesting experiences in your personal and professional life; to have found mentors and inspiration in likely and very unlikely places; to have discovered interest and curiosity in many divergent physical, intellectual and spiritual (in the broadest sense of this term) pursuits, then it is only a matter of time before you come face to face with ‘midlife’. And by this, I mean your midlife.
For me it’s not the realisation that ‘over half my life is over’ and I need to play catch up to make amends with it and be more true to myself. Sure, there’s something in the latter part of that sentence that resonates with me as it might resonate with some of you. But I see it more as a kind of “half life”, like the the half life of coffee or maybe nuclear physics or chemistry, for example, where it describes the time required, probabilistically, for half of the unstable, radioactive atoms in a sample to undergo radioactive decay.
So, like that half life, people who undergo a ‘midlife crisis’ in my view might just have reached the point where a lot of the BS that coloured their earlier thinking has half decayed. And their remaining time, an endless array of half lives to come, becomes more palatable and more simple to understand. Even if the circumstances are more complex. That’s pretty positive no? It doesn’t mean half your life is over. Hardly in my case, I’m only 31. We just have a limited vocabulary for these algorithms.
In my case I decided to resign recently from my very interesting job, full of regular travel to Paris working for a wonderful and thoughtful French PR agency. Not because I hate PR – not at all. In fact I think PR as a profession can be very worthy – a respected former colleague of mine represents Save the Children and what she is achieving is amazing.
But well beyond the third sector… in Luxury, Fashion, Financial and Corporate PR… there are some very talented an clever consultants in the industry who came into it out of a sense of fairness to start with. The fairness to present the less easy point of view, the less media-friendly point of view. People who were driven to be the voice (not in an evangelical way, but just in a human way) to present – not the inside perspective, because that’s near impossible – but ANother perspective.
These are people keen to expand their mind, rather than accept easy cynicism. People who thought it would be nice to say something positive about this or that powerful industry, because so many thoughtful, intelligent people devote 12-16 hours a day to it willingly. Could it be that the science behind the beauty industry offers routes for female emancipation (think of L’Oreal’s collaboration with UNESCO or Dove’s real beauty campaigns)? Could it be that a hedge fund godfather’s success lies in his core values for opportunity, self-made success, and working hard to live with integrity?
And I welcome the negative press also. It is their job to present the many truths they uncover. It is not their job to weigh all this up, though. That’s your job as the public.
The problem with PR (and with the press also, since the News Hacking scandal called the methods of the press to equal scrutiny) is that this initial drive for fairness can get lost quickly in the churn of opinions we are mandated to pitch, campaign and raise awareness about. ‘Doing fairness’ on a regular basis can quickly convert into a mechanical activity that loses sight of its premise. It can make its proponents biased and sometimes even appear rigid, delusional, or worse, naive.
I have long lived by a method of fairness I cultivated in my early teens. My method was to acknowledge how I feel, empathise with the opposing beliefs I was confronted with, and try to act in fairness to both points of view. A classic diplomat’s method that so many of you must also abide by on a daily basis. But I actually wonder if this method is too simplistic?
The diplomat’s position is not just cold, it is somewhat unfair to him/herself. It forces him/her to compromise on his/her own values from the very outset, without giving the other party and bystanders an opportunity to participate in generating an overarching insight from the conflict. And insight – well insight is everything right? Isn’t it what we all seek and value?
My very wise sister made me see this. She made me realise that my diplomacy meant I wasn’t allowing myself to feel fully and honestly my initial reactions to anything. And in so doing, I was not allowing myself to really explore why those initial reactions happened and how to deal with them. She also felt it was patronising to think that my fairness was indeed fair at all.
This led me to wonder whether we should stop pointing fingers at media generators (PR folk, the press, politicians, NGOs, IGOs, the lot)? The insight is not in spotting their bias or their self-interested spiel. The insight might be in something in between them. This may seem very intuitive of course. But my point was to examine the intuition here and how diplomats cultivate fairness as a premise, but then transform into something quite unlike it in practice. Academic? Yeah, maybe. But compelling. For me, at least, in my first half life.
So no, I didn’t leave my job out of any disrespect for the role nor the PR industry. I left it because I wanted to explore all those other industries and occupations and activities that also make me tick intellectually/physically/spiritually. I left it to stylobate a little, among other things.
I don’t have the luxury of a lot of time or money, but I do have the luxury to simplify my needs. To own less things, need less tangible stuff until I finally decide how I will earn my living. This is going to be hard, because I’m spoiled by extravagant habits. But I just know that even when it’s hard, it will be interesting. Isn’t that one of the classic definitions of a challenge?
Sometimes taking a step back, putting your heart first, making a bold and risky decision without a grand plan, is just ok. It may not be refreshingly perfect, but your life isn’t a campaign. Sometimes your values, like the good intentions of PR or of Law or the concept of Free Trade, can lead you astray if you practice them mechanically without giving yourself the chance to re-examine your first principles.
And I want to stress this word ‘principle’. I disagree with the popular definition that a principle is a ‘fundamental truth’. In the context of social and scientific theory: a principle is ‘a first assumption’. And if history has taught us anything, it is that first assumptions can sometimes be wrong or, at least, very off. This doesn’t mean we need to practice re-evaluating our principles at every opportunity. To do that would dilute its purpose. But also risk making the activity of feeling out what is Right from Wrong or Good from Bad into a mechanism itself.
No, do it when it’s time, when you reach your half life.
I have openly used the term ‘midlife’ in this post, because this sort of introspection is often described to me as a kind of midlife crisis. I don’t want to muddle through introspection for too long, though, because that feels a little too indulgent. There are so many other things outside myself that are much more interesting to me, let alone to you.
What I will do over the course of the next few posts, however, is share my experiences and the lessons I learn along the way. In the hope that, perhaps, they might be useful to you?
But before I do that, I call for redefining ‘midlife crisis’.
The Human Biological Half Life stinks of HR speak (no offence), so maybe I could offer the “midlife principle”?
And – honouring the initial premise of PR – perhaps we can try to be ok with it as another, dare I say positive, experience?
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