36 year old with midlife crisis looking for advice
June 17, 2013 3:14 PM   Subscribe

I got to a point in my life, where I need to look around and decide what to change. And although it may look as if I should have a lot of options and possibilities – I feel stuck. I would appreciate any comments from you – any hints, suggestions, ideas or stories how you overcame similar problems. I do need inspiration and I would be very thankful for any feedback from you.

I am 36 year old guy, single, living in London. I am not a native English speaker – I came to the UK a few years after graduation to get a job and start a career. I studied computer science, which was my passion in my teens and twenties. I have been working as a software developer since – recently in investment banking sector.

I never really succeeded professionally – was never promoted in any way and never really advanced my career above the level of a software developer. I see it as a disappointment because I was passionate about my profession for some time and I was good at it at some point (or so I was told). In the past, for some reason, I never really tried doing anything on my own – having a startup or something. Always preferred being employed. Probably it was a mistake on my side.
Now all the passion has gone and I am left with just a job, which although pays reasonably well, is just a mean to get money. Recently, I have sometimes even hated this job. I do not like the atmosphere in the workplace, the competition, people barely talking to each other and spending the whole day staring at the computer screen. I have lost literally all will and energy to develop my IT skills further in my spare time, which obviously is crucial for developers. Today I am still employable – in 2 or 3 years I will probably not be (unless I manage to change something). Even if I am still employable, I am facing a professional life of a “zombie” – 40, 50 and 60 year old guy doing something he hates, reporting to people who could be his children. Recently I have also observed, that I am already facing some sort of “block” as a developer - I just got a lot slower at programming. I spend too much time thinking about possible scenarios and implementation details instead of writing code and delivering results…

I have had a few relationships in my life but in the end decided that being single was the best way for me. I still think that decision was right. The lack of good friends has on the other hand pretty much always been my problem. I have simply never been a good “material” for friendship and although I am probably better at “it” now – it is still extremely hard for me to find friends. Not surprising considering my life in certain alienation and with low self confidence.
In the past loneliness has not been a huge problem for me. Since I was satisfied (to a point) with my professional life, most of the time I had managed to do interesting things on my own. However – as I am getting older and facing other problems - I start to see life very differently. And I can see now how this alienation is slowly becoming a big problem as well.

Recently I became interested a lot in philosophy, which I try to study in my free time although it is still very unstructured process. I love going to the theatre. I have been learning piano for a while and I do want to come back to it soon because it is still my passion.
In my late teens I was told that I was good at writing. I think I could still enjoy it but I hesitate a bit to give it a try. Somehow I am not really able to find a creative voice in my head to write fiction. In the end it would also be very difficult since English is not my native language.
My interpersonal and communication skills are poor but I would really like to develop them. I guess I would prefer to spend more time talking to people. Something, which does not happen often in my current professional life.

The main thing which keeps me in London is the cultural life here, which I enjoy a lot: theatres, museums, concerts, exhibitions… I am not really sure if I would like to live in places, which offer less cultural opportunities.

I do realize that this whole story may look strange to you. I know that there are people, who would appreciate the job and opportunities, which I have. I do recognize the things, which I achieved in my life (no matter how small) and I am grateful for them. It is just that my current situation is unsustainable in a long term. I am depressed and I know I need to change something. Just don’t know what it is yet…

I do believe that your feedback may inspire this change or at least let me see things differently. That’s why I am writing it here…
posted by dogbert to Work & Money (18 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
I see a lot of what other people tell you and what they think you should do in your post. I see very little of what you actually think and what you want, rather than your interpretation of what you think you should want based on what they tell you. Perhaps try doing what you want and giving yourself some space to explore your desires rather than constantly trying to adapt to others?
posted by Ghostride The Whip at 3:19 PM on June 17, 2013 [1 favorite]

It sounds like, though you say you're okay being alone a lot of the time, you'd really like to share some of your interests with others. Meetup groups (or similar institutions), classes, theater groups, music groups...they may be a way of connecting.

When the main thing in your life is work, then the difficulties of work become your difficulties in life. Finding some way to balance that and not face everything alone may help, I think.
posted by xingcat at 3:21 PM on June 17, 2013 [1 favorite]

You mentioned theater a couple of times -- have you considered taking a drama class or workshop? Acting can be quite therapeutic for someone who feels alienated or has trouble relating to people, since it's a good way to practice reaching out and interacting with others.
posted by Mo' Money Moe Bandy at 3:41 PM on June 17, 2013 [1 favorite]

I'm ambivalent about trying to answer because I'm not quite sure what you deem as most important on that list. But I am replying because I struggled with some of the same things at different points in my life (i.e. not really connecting to people). I suspect that this may be what may help you right now because when you describe what is wrong with your work, what comes through is general ennui or unhappiness, but not what you want to do.

So these were some things that helped me connect with people in the past. You could try one or some or many of these things (or discard them all, they are just ideas).

• Volunteering can sometimes help you connect with people. I suspect you have skills that people would love to have (playing the piano, computer literacy, or even basic literacy). If there is a group or cause that you feel passionate about, try to volunteer. But tutoring people one-on-one many years ago helped me connect. It also sounds like you are an expat - what about volunteering and helping recent immigrants to the UK get used to London?

• Check out meetup. I just punched in meetup and then London and some of your interests (i.e piano, theater). There is a jam group, for example. If you have never played music with other people, it is an entirely new way of connecting. The cool thing about an activity like that is that you do something, get acclimated to a person, and build a bond over time without talking as much (not that you have that problem).

• If you don't connect with people at the first few meetups you attend (it happens), flip the dial and try again and go to another one.

I know you may not believe some random person on the internet, but if you can connect to just one or two friends that "get you," many of these feelings go away. It sounds like you have many interests that you actively pursue and I believe that there are not just one but many friends out there for you.

The other impression that I get from your post is that somehow you feel life is over. You are 36, right? You have more working years in front of you than behind you. So if you are not happy, you can change careers, try out new work roles, etc. It's never too late (I've known people in their 60s who take on new jobs). But to be honest, when I read this post, I don't think you have defined what you want to do - what you deep down want to do vs what people in your industry do (i.e. startups, etc.). So I think that if you tackle the friends thing first, then work on tackling the "finding a new career" if that is truly what you want to do.

If you think that it would help to bounce ideas around as to how to meet people, feel free to memail me. I've gone through the same thing before and have similar interests.

posted by Wolfster at 4:13 PM on June 17, 2013 [1 favorite]

sell your crap and take a trip around the world :)
to keep an income, try to freelance maybe 10-20 hours a week from wherever you can find an internet connection.
I haven't done this myself but I know of people who did.
posted by spacefire at 4:19 PM on June 17, 2013 [1 favorite]

English wasn't Joseph Conrad's mother tongue. You'll never know unless you try.
posted by Ideefixe at 4:26 PM on June 17, 2013 [2 favorites]

It sounds to me as if improving one area of your life could well give you some energy and enthusiasm to change/improve other areas of your life. I reckon the job situation is actually the hardest thing to change at the moment - you may well need a complete career change, and it can be difficult to think clearly about what else you could do when you are unhappy and uninspired in general.

You may find it easier to begin with the social aspects of your life. As others have suggested, an amateur drama group could be really fun and help improve your communication skills as well as introduce you to new people who might become friends. Even if you don't feel comfortable actually acting, there's plenty of stage crew/lighting/costuming type roles that need to be done.

Volunteering is also a great thing to do, introducing you to people and making a difference and contributing skills you already have. Helping "computer illiterate" people navigate the intarwebs, young folks learn how to drive, tutoring, whatever. There's a couple of good websites to help you work out what you can do. It may even help you work out some ideas for a different career.

The other possible angle to tackle is your depression. I'm not a mental health professional and won't diagnose you over the internets, but you could try talking to your GP/get a referral to see a psychologist or something of that nature. Your depression may well be situational, but could still be the kind of thing where meds just give you a bit of extra help to cope with everything else.

I had a premature midlife crisis in my late 20s - mostly career-related. I was so miserable I quit my job, went back to uni to get a postgrad qualification for a completely different industry, in which I still work. I was lucky in that I had an epiphany about what else I wanted to do which gave me a goal to strive towards, and that I also had a partner to help make the financial aspects easier while I retrained. I've since been sporadically dissatisfied but don't have any inspiration about what else I'd like to do, plus am not miserable where I am, plus have no partner to help pay rent while I go part-time to study, so I putter on trying to change other aspects of my life much as I am advising you to do. So I know a bit of what you're going through!
posted by Athanassiel at 5:03 PM on June 17, 2013 [1 favorite]

There's an old music hall joke. A man goes to the doctor and says "Doctor, it hurts when I do this". The doctor says "Well stop doing it."

Joke, philosophy for life, whatever. It's obvious that what you're doing isn't working for you, and you need to stop doing it.

I never really succeeded professionally – was never promoted in any way and never really advanced my career above the level of a software developer. I see it as a disappointment because I was passionate about my profession for some time and I was good at it at some point (or so I was told). In the past, for some reason, I never really tried doing anything on my own – having a startup or something. Always preferred being employed.

Comfort zone. Rut. Ennui. Boredom.


Jump into the contract market. There's no career progression out here, but hey, you've resigned yourself to that anyway. You'll get more money and you'll be the guy who comes in and has to know his shit. It's terrifying, and I guarantee it will wake you up.

Contracting rewards you with experience at a crazy rate - every three months it's a new management structure, new build tools, new way to pretend we're Agile, new everything. You're always running to keep up.

Best outcome: you stop thinking like an employee, and start seeing opportunities everywhere. After two years you'll be struggling not to be promoted. Worst outcome: it doesn't work out, and you have to get another permie job. And it's London, so we're talking... two weeks out of work, max?
posted by Leon at 5:09 PM on June 17, 2013 [3 favorites]

Try to find others who share your interests - philosophy, theater, writing, etc. A friend has a philosophy club where people get together at the library once a week and talk about philosophy. You could join a writing group or take a creative writing class. Force yourself out of your shell. Sign up or volunteer for something, anything.

I was interested in volunteering at the animal rescue but I always told myself that it wasn't possible because it's not easy for me to get there on public transportation. One day, I just bit the bullet and thought, whatever, I'll walk if I have to, and it's been a positive thing in my life. I can't have a dog but petting one and spending time with them improves the quality of my life. One day, I came in and spent most of my time cleaning up messes. I felt like it was still a good use of my time because I was being helpful and I love dogs.

If you want to write, just write. Start a blog, Tumblr, WordPress, LiveJournal. Make up a goofy name. Don't worry about format or what you're writing about or what the blog looks like. Just do it. Write for 30 minutes a day for a week. Then spend 10 minutes a day editing the old stuff and 20 minutes a day writing new stuff. If you write something you like, tell other people to check it out. If not, keep trying until you do.

Look at stuff you can do on weekends - trips, workshops, etc. Make a list of places you would like to check out, even local places, and plan to check items off that list.

This stuff can be hard but seriously, sometimes I just repeat "I can do this, I can do this" to myself until I'm doing it. Don't get discouraged if something doesn't go well, just try something else. This is your life. You get to do this once so make it count.
posted by kat518 at 6:28 PM on June 17, 2013

Dogbert, your written English is convincingly native sounding. Looking for cultural clues shows me that not only did you pick up the language, you've left behind what came before. You seem to have adapted a strikingly Western manner of thought, appropriate and common in your age range.

Not sure that any of that means anything, but if I had come from a different culture and had been so inculcated in the new one, I'd be feeling pretty disconnected, too.

Maybe a stint here would help? American culture is similar enough that you'd be able to navigate it, and here, unlike England, almost everyone considers that we're on the path to something else. Being comfortable with the status quo is kind of an England thing. Here, we're constantly dissatisfied with our circumstances and expect that we are all headed to greatness eventually. The math suggests that most of us are fools for thinking that, and my countrymen might argue with me, but I think it's true. We all think we should be president of General Motors or of the USA.

We're not that polycultural in some regions, but in others (like NYC) we are. It's a crazy country, and some tiny little pieces of it have worldwide impact. Others, like where I live, are known for virtually nothing. It's a wide spectrum and there are 325 million of us wondering the same thing as you for the most part. Angst like yours is a way of life and a rite of passage here. At least you'd be exotic and have a lot of company.
posted by FauxScot at 6:40 PM on June 17, 2013 [4 favorites]

Since you mentioned not having substantial relationships during a career advice post, I'm going to suggest you look into that issue further. There are so many people in the world (the vast majority, in fact) that do not love their job. I hesitate to say you should not expect to love your job, but I will say that finding a job you are truly passionate about and sticking with it for decades is unusual. What gets most people through the day is their family, friends, or outside interests. It's the old adage, "Work to live, don't live to work."

On the other hand, you don't want to stay in a job that makes your miserable, or where you are mistreated, or to continue in a career that does not provide the lifestyle you desire. A career change or a lateral move to another organization is not at all uncommon when someone feels "stuck" in their position. Many people go back to school later in life in totally unrelated fields. In other words, there are a lot of options for changing your path if software development isn't the right thing for you, for whatever reason. Or you might go back and get another degree in a related field and go into database design or something, in an attempt to reinvigorate your interest.

But that's all details. Before you decide what you want to do to change your lot, stop and think about what kind of life you want to have, taking work out of the equation entirely. Like, pretend you have just been given a reasonable stippend to live wherever you want, with all your basic expenses covered. You're not wealthy, but you don't have a job and you don't need to work at all. What does your life look like now?
I have had a few relationships in my life but in the end decided that being single was the best way for me. I still think that decision was right. The lack of good friends has on the other hand pretty much always been my problem. I have simply never been a good “material” for friendship and although I am probably better at “it” now – it is still extremely hard for me to find friends. Not surprising considering my life in certain alienation and with low self confidence.
This paragraph really stood out to me. It's clear from your post that you're a very professionally-oriented person. But if you are unable to internalize your accomplishments due to self-esteem problems, you'll never feel successful enough. Fact is, you'll never be the best programmer in the world. There will always be someone whose grass seems a little greener, whose mind is a little sharper, whose skills with the latest languages are slightly ahead of yours. I'm afraid you're looking for something – satisfaction, acceptance, validation – in a place that will never be able to give it to you. (This reminds me of the responses to this post I made a while ago.)

I may be off base here, and I'm not saying you shouldn't address your career questions, but it sounds to me like you may be conflating a longing for more meaningful personal relationships with your career issues. I suggest that you work out how these two very different problems are tangled together before you make a decision about how to proceed.
posted by deathpanels at 7:04 PM on June 17, 2013

Burn your stuff and take a trip to Alaska.
posted by rr at 9:38 PM on June 17, 2013

I love what FauxScot said. England would have to be pretty miserable at the moment, with the economy and all. Do you have family who have encouraged/pressured you to do well in the new country, and you find it hard to go against their wishes or 'let them down'? At some stage you have to be yourself. I'm not going to suggest you throw caution to the wind, especially in this economic climate. But like has been said above, you could do some travel, try some new things, see what friendships evolve. And there will be movement, whatever it turns out to be. :)
posted by inkypinky at 12:33 AM on June 18, 2013

Your words struck a chord with my own feelings when I am depresed. I would try therapy. Your employer probably has a free service, most big firms in the City do. If not your GP can make a referral although resources are limited and waiting lists can be long. A final option is to pay for it yourself, there are various lists of suitably qualified folk online. I think this will really help, not only in getting to the bottom of your feelings but in helping you to plan for happiness.
posted by BenPens at 5:34 AM on June 18, 2013

You sound like you think your chance at life is done -- you've failed at your career, you've given up at love, etc. But you're only 36! Maybe a third of the way through your life! If things aren't going well, now isn't the time to look back sadly; it's the time to make some changes!

Maybe therapy is a good place to start -- I defer to others on signs of depression. Then look at your career and see what changes might be possible that would renew your interest in what you're doing and/or give you new avenues to explore. Make a conscious effort to expand your social circles, whether by improving your socialization skills (as part of that therapy), or by finding new ways to connect (mefi meetups or whatever) that fit your current skill set and desires better, etc. In general, if you feel like you're wallowing, look at your life, determine what parts are working and which aren't (from job to fashion to location, etc.) and start changing the latter!
posted by acm at 6:33 AM on June 18, 2013

About the writing, you just never will know until you try. I read a great book last week with a quote that was repeated often: "Anybody can *not* do it".

You need to dedicate time to writing every day. Read Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott.

If you don't feel comfortable writing in english then write in your native language. Put it on the internet where people from there can read it. Don't make excuses.
posted by dawkins_7 at 9:15 AM on June 18, 2013

Response by poster: Thank you very much for your comments and suggestions. I appreciate the effort that you have made, your kind words and all the feedback.

Some of your comments gave me new ideas about the things to try out. And you’re right – I have been prioritizing work over most other things in my life. In a very peculiar way actually – although it was so important I wasn’t really able to even make long term goals and plan my career. No surprise that I have not got anywhere.

I did ask myself this question recently – what would I do if I won million dollars and not have to work again. And here is the only honest answer I could come up with: I would divide my time between studying philosophy and learning how to play the piano. Maybe would also try to learn how to paint. Would at least try writing as well…

This is just a beginning of a change in my life. Somehow I know it will happen. Thank you all for taking part in it…
posted by dogbert at 4:08 PM on June 18, 2013 [2 favorites]


I like the fact that you're good at coding. Listen, this is a big talent not many people have. This mixed with the ability to write is just setting you up to start your own blog. You can connect with people on your blog, and make friends that way. You should start a blog called the mid-life crisis! haha. Talk about your experiences, how your handling them, what other people can do to help their situation. Make it funny. Relate to people. You can do this with anything your passionate about. Music or philosophy even. It wouldn't hurt bringing in the extra money with advertisements placed on your blog as well. Give it a go! I've heard many people who quit their day jobs because they started a blog. You can do it in your spare time. GO FOR IT! Keep your head up!

Good luck!
posted by FinanceGuy at 7:26 AM on July 26, 2013

« Older Partnership Agreement - Roles and Titles?   |   Where can I rent a ramp or a light wheelchair in... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.