From House Holder to Forest Dweller – the shift to “Why?”

Why does that revolt come, in mid-life, after years of striving and having finally achieved a certain recognised  – and well rewarded – status?  According to William Bridges, sometime after the age forty, people experience an important transition in their work life: The transition from being motivated by the chance to demonstrate competence to being motivated by the chance to find personal meaning in their work and its results.

In professional life you get in and get ahead by demonstrating your competence.  It is this professional competence which has earned you your place in life – your material wealth and your social standing.  It is a quality that has served you well and that you hold close to your sense of self.

But somewhere along the way competence begins to lose its force as a source of motivation. You no longer get a buzz from solving technical challenges and your work starts to take on a weary predictability.  You will probably try to reactivate the old motivation by seeking new assignments, a change in responsibility or a new employer.

And these might work temporarily, but they are missing the point.  You are not simply losing interest in the same old stuff; you are undergoing a fundamental internal transition.  It is this which is causing you to lose connection with activities that used to matter to you.

The idea that life is a series of transitions is not new.  But perhaps the modern western economic imperative conflicts with the internal transitions that we all face.  By mid-life you have established your home and family, your financial standing and your career credentials.  What ambitions do you have left to achieve?  With twenty more years of work ahead of you, you should be making the final assault that will entrench these successes and lead to a respectable retirement.  Instead, you are troubled by the feeling that something has changed.  What is it?

This so-called mid-life transition occurs at the point when Hindus believe that people are meant to stop being “householders” and start a period of inner search and discovery – called the “forest-dweller” phase.   The mid-life crisis is not just a tired cliché.  Making radical changes in your external life is often an attempt to deny this inner transition you are facing.

Why do we find this transition so difficult?  Because it involves letting go of beliefs, dreams and imagined futures.  It involves coming to terms with who you are.  It involves discovering what you want to be right now and letting go of what you wanted to be as a 16 year old.

So ask yourself: “What is it time to let go of in my own life right now?”

(Bridges. W: Transitions, Making Sense of Life’s Changes. 2004)


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