Midlife is one of three life stages that “sprouted” in the 20th century. The word “adolescence” didn’t exist until 1904, when society realized that just because you hit puberty didn’t mean you were an adult.
“Retirement” was popularized nearly 100 years ago with pensions and Social Security and the advent of AARP and retirement communities 25 years later. These two life stages got a whole lot of love.
But, there’s a life stage in the middle that “don’t get no respect” (thank you, Rodney Dangerfield). “Midlife” was a natural outgrowth of the three decades of additional longevity we were granted in the 20th century. But all it got was a lousy brand, the “midlife crisis,” coined in 1965.
It’s pretty clear when you are going through adolescence or retirement, but midlife is a bit amorphous. When does it start, and when does it end? It’s the bastard life stage that no one wants to claim.
And there’s an upside to that. In midlife, you can create your own roadmap. Yes, this sometimes is the excuse for middlescents acting like adolescents with fast cars and faster flings. But, more than anything, midlife offers us the opportunity to chart out how we want to curate the second half of our adult life.
So, a few years ago, I asked my favorite mapmaker how to create a midlife roadmap. Richard Saul Wurman, the world’s leading information architect, has written over 90 books, including the Access guidebooks (full of maps). He’s also the guy who started the TED conference.
He tells me, “Life is a blank piece of paper. You start new, but you filter the old. The wiser you are, the better the filter. The better the filter, the more you’re a mapmaker. The more you’re a mapmaker, the easier you make the complex. You help people find their destinations. In other words, wisdom is about wayfinding.”
He went on to say it’s around midlife that we realize that our blank piece of paper is full of scribbles from our parents, friends, community, and culture. Midlife is when you throw that set of scribbles out and find a fresh new one. You alone can christen this virgin piece of paper. Ask yourself Mary Oliver’s classic question, “What is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” And that’s when you start to create your roadmap.