Posts Tagged ‘midlife crisis’

Pen Pal Project

Repeat after me: Change is not a crisis

December 15, 2015

My desk, 7 a.m.

Dear Reva,

I’m getting an early start this morning, and because it is so dark outside, and because I’m tired, I am completely disoriented. I have to keep reminding myself that I have already slept, had breakfast, packed one child (the one who isn’t sick) off to school and settled into my work day. The fact that I have to do this – remind myself of something so simple and obvious – is one of many examples in everyday life of how much of our behaviour is patterned and based on familiar external cues.

And this, in turn, is one of the answers to your question last week about why midlife changes are perceived as a crisis. I like this question, and have thought about it a lot in my own context. I used to describe my shift into a writing career as the result of a midlife crisis, partly because it got a laugh from the audience, and partly because I thought of it that way myself. But I’ve stopped doing that. I’ve decided that it is too reductive, dismissive, and even pejorative a phrase to describe what has been, in fact, a period of transformative growth and creative flourishing.

Having said all of that, change scares us at a fundamental level. We don’t think that we are good at it. We cling to the (misguided) idea that people don’t really change, and it comforts us, giving us a sense of control and stability. And, of course, change invites failure, which we fear most of all.

Small changes can throw us off for months or even years. Think about how long it takes to settle into a new house, for example, or a new route to work. Long after we should have rewired our brains, we still find ourselves looking for the forks in the wrong drawer, or getting off at the wrong subway stop. And it makes us tired, because every time we have to substitute a real decision, one that requires our attention and consideration instead of allowing us to operate on autopilot, it takes energy.

But here’s the good news. According to Charles Duhigg, author of The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business, “Routine basically gives us the mental freedom to think about what’s actually important…Almost every single species that has survived has the ability to take routines and make them automatic. That way you have cognitive power to invent spears and fire and video games.”

In other words, all of those routines are liberating space in our brains that could and should be used to contemplate change.

My own view is that we are far too wedded to the notion that change is threatening, and that it prevents many of us from reaching our full potential. There is no question that change is difficult (we will all spend a lot of time looking for forks and getting off at the wrong stop, no matter how adaptive we are), but it is also extraordinarily energizing.

This is not to say that I wake up every day and think, “Excellent! Another day of adapting to unfamiliar experiences!” I find change tiring too, even though I have come to appreciate and even seek it. But the rewards of change are as large as your own imagination.

This week, the first copy of the US edition of The Hole in the Middle rolled off the presses and arrived in the mail. Here is a picture of me, right after I opened the envelope. Do you see the same thing that I see? Wonder, astonishment, joy, and more than a little disbelief?


us edition copy

That’s what change looks like.



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My Midlife Reading List

July 14, 2015

My office

Dear Reva,

You made my week by asking me for a midlife crisis reading list. It has been a pure pleasure to spend time thinking about the books that have helped me navigate this life stage.

Kate's bookshelfAs an aside, I would add that part of the challenge of these years seems to be the struggle to chart your course while being battered by external storms that rise unexpectedly. Take my tennis group, for example. I play tennis with a small, much-loved group of friends every week. All of us, of course, are grappling in various ways with professional ambitions, and often we talk about our work and the manifold frustrations inherent in it. But over the past six months, personal events have overshadowed professional concerns: my husband left me, R’s mother had a stroke, M’s sister fell into a coma from a brain tumour, and K had to stop playing for a few months to do intensive physio on her shoulder.

All of that to say that while planning is essential for all kinds of professional and personal achievement, my own midlife experience has forced me to grapple with the problem of how to carry on when life refuses to conform to any plan you’ve ever made. At this stage, my midlife journey is primarily an interior one, about letting go of perfectionism, and accepting impermanence, and being in the here and now, and looking within for support and validation, and knowing that the only thing I actually control is my own behaviour. All of which is, for me, really, really hard.

There are a few approaches to reading as a cure, or bibliotherapy as some call it. One approach is to read fiction about people going through their own midlife crises, which will either cause you to nod in recognition, or feel better about your life in comparison to the lives on the page. Some books in this vein that I deeply love include Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From The Goon Squad, Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity, Lionel Shriver’s The Post-Birthday World, Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections and Jonathan Tropper’s This Is Where I Leave You.

Another approach is to read memoirs by people who have soldiered through midlife and emerged as stronger, wiser and more authentic humans. I spend an entire week on vacation last year reading nothing but memoirs by funny women. It did more good than the sun and margaritas. Here I recommend Nora Ephron’s I Feel Bad About My Neck (and also Heartburn, which is supposed to be fiction but isn’t), Tina Fey’s Bossypants, Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love, and Amy Poehler’s Yes, Please.

And lastly, there is the nakedly self-help category. I was never a big fan of self-help books, but have read more of them in the past year than ever before. I still wouldn’t describe myself as a self-help convert, but I have huge admiration for Pema Chodron and Brené Brown. In particular, Chodron’s The Places That Scare You and When Things Fall Apart, and Brown’s Daring Greatly have prompted me to have some useful and enlightening conversations with myself.  And I love Brown’s famous TED talk, which describes her own midlife crisis.

While you are loading up on reading material, don’t forget that every midlife crisis needs a playlist. I – surprise! – favour power songs by women. Try Sara Bareilles’ Brave, Natasha Bedingfield’s Unwritten, Alanis Morissette’s You Learn, Katy Perry’s Roar and Rachel Platten’s Fight Song for starters. With the right soundtrack, anything is possible.



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Read Reva’s last letter here.

Pen Pal Project

Finding Your Path

February 16, 2015



Dear Reva,

When I was in University, I had an incredible summer job as an intern at a big publishing house in Toronto. Incredible, not because it paid well, but because it took me inside the beating heart of book production, and books were and always had been my one true love.

Among other tasks, like operating the postage machine, I managed the ‘slush pile’, the name we gave to the ever-growing stack of unsolicited manuscripts that required a cursory review and response. This was, of course, back in the days before email submissions. We had an imaginary Acquisitions Editor, whose name I cannot reveal even to this day, and aspiring authors would write long letters to him, and I would reply. Sometimes they would phone him, but he was always in a meeting.

Knee-deep in the slush pile one day, I was graced by a visit from the Editor-in-Chief, a brilliant and glamorous woman of whom I was entirely in awe. She asked about my progress. At that moment, I was drafting a rejection letter to an aspiring author in Iroquois Falls, who had penned a god-awful bodice-ripper (understand that I am not opposed to bodice-rippers in principle, but this one was ghastly).   Radiating positivity, I said something along the lines of: “I think it’s wonderful that so many people write, even if it ends up being just for themselves.” And she wisely replied: “People don’t write just for themselves. Everybody writes so that someone else will read it.”

And now that I’m a writer I can tell you she was absolutely right. We write because we are skilled at it, and because it gives us intense pleasure to line up the right words in the right order on the page, but mostly we write because we understand that the whole point of this business of living is to connect with other people, and the written word remains one of the most powerful connective tools ever devised.

You asked a great question in your last letter about drive and expectations. I’m going to defer that one to my next letter, as I want to think about it a bit more.

I will, however, take a stab at the question about how we know when it’s time to make a significant change in our professional lives. In doing so, I’m going to reveal a secret addiction. Here it is: I love Convocation speeches. I’m serious. I watch them on YouTube. And recently, I watched a Convocation speech by Neil Gaiman to a bunch of undergraduate Arts students, and it was fabulous.

In his speech, he talks about never having had a career plan, but rather an overarching life goal, which in his case was to make (eventually) a living as a writer of fiction. He imagined that goal as a mountain in the distance, and evaluated every career decision he made by asking whether it took him closer to the mountain or farther away. mountain, path to success, Reva Seth, Kate Hilton, pen pals, pen pal project, choosing your path, the right path

I love this metaphor. The mountain can be a specific job, but it can also be a set of professional aspirations, because often, even though we can’t identify the exact job we want, we can nevertheless describe the qualities that our ideal job ought to have (self-supporting, creative, in the public interest, international, and so on). And the idea of the mountain allows for this indeterminacy, because it permits many possible paths. The point is that you can be as non-linear as you need to be, as long as your path is moving you towards the mountain in the distance.

I’ve met so many people who struggle with professional dissatisfaction. Sometimes, the issue is that they genuinely don’t know what job would make them happy. These people (to play with the mountain metaphor) can see a whole range on the horizon, and they are overwhelmed. They know they have the ability to reach any one of the individual mountains in the range, but they are paralyzed by choice.

Other people know exactly which mountain they want to reach, but they don’t believe they can get there. The perceived risk of walking towards the mountain, of declaring themselves, is too great. Maybe they don’t believe they have enough talent to reach the mountain, or enough support from the people around them. Maybe they suspect that the cost of the journey will be too high, because it will disrupt the stability of core relationships in their lives.  And they may be right. Or not.

We can’t know. This seems like a bad thing from the perspective of people who like control, but it isn’t, necessarily. This is the road to a bigger life: the step out into the unknown, beyond the comfortable and the safe, beyond the things we already know we can do.

Whatever path you choose, I know there will be something amazing on it for you.




Link to Reva’s last letter:

Reva’s response to this letter:

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