Midlife crisis or midlife awakening? What exactly does it mean to question the direction of our lives?

Words Maria Tedeschi

Everyone, except for the insightful few, reaches a point in their lives where they think ‘Is this it?’

We all have potential, or so the rumour goes. If someone asked you to explain what potential is exactly, what words would you use?

Is it an end goal? Is it a journey? Is it a quality within you? Is it a skill you have yet to discover?

‘How to Realise Your Potential’ is a popular workshop run by The School of Life addressing this very issue. The class is always sold out. Learning facilitator of the workshop, Sophi Bruce, says potential is a little treasure we all have hidden inside us. Borrowing from positive psychologist Martin Seligman’s bestselling book Flourish, your potential is realized when you harness this treasure.

Why do so many people feel like they haven’t reached their potential?

Your potential and what you are successful or good at aren’t necessarily natural partners. Psychologist Debra Brodowski says finding your potential is a skill, not a trait, and she often sees clients who are seeking clarity in their direction.

“A lot of us go through life without actually thinking about what we want to do. We finish high school, get a general qualification, fall into a first job and that’s where the career path follows, without much consideration to ‘Is this what I want to do? Is this something I actually value and enjoy?’” says Debra.

Advocate for the freedom of the individual, French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre calls this bad faith. Simply put, Sartre says we find it easier to say we have no options to change direction. We’re bound by the circumstances we find ourselves in, whether it’s a financial consideration, lack of academic achievement or lack of work experience. 

It’s scary to make a change; it feels easy to just keep going on the path you’re on.  Sartre says if you decide to not make the change, you may one day wake up feeling that you’ve wasted your life. Now that may just be the far scarier choice.

Debra says the advice often given in school is to pursue a career that matches the school subjects you enjoy and do well at.  For example. a student good at maths and sciences should pursue a career in medicine because it best aligns with their academic success.

What isn’t explored, but Sophi encourages, are values. “I’d advise people to look intrinsically at their values. If you’re living according to your values, you’re feeling much more purposeful than if you’re not,” Sophi says. So the values of the hypothetical student who excels at maths and science might indicate they’d really like to work with underprivileged children.

Realistically, it’s hard to know exactly how your life will turn out. Choices you make, careers you choose, courses you study are decided upon what you ‘think’ your life will be like. You can never know how anything will turn out until you try it. The other thing to consider is how influential your immediate circle of family and friends can be in your decisions.

“It’s hard for people to do something different, because if it doesn’t fit into the worldview of your family and friends, you get a lot of pushback and that’s why people end up in jobs they’re expected to do and careers they’re expected to have rather than something which is going to be suited to them,” says Debra.

Who you are shouldn’t be defined by one career choice. “We don’t have to be restricted to just one job for all of our lives. We can actually have a portfolio for our career and try out different things,” adds Sophie.

HOW DO YOU FIND IT?

Finding your potential shouldn’t only apply to your career choice. Finding your creative side, or wanting to be a better parent, or a desire to engage in social justice should all be encouraged and given equal importance to your career.

So how do you correct course in life to find and realize your potential?

Greece’s most famous philosopher, Socrates, maintained that the “unexamined life is not worth living” and that you should “know yourself”. This is as true today as it was in 400BC.

Sophi suggests you should also redefine what success means to you. “In our society, potential is so caught up with success and having to have some kind of notoriety or another piece of paper, but actually that does muddy the waters of what our potential really is. Success is not the be all and end-all of why we’re doing things.”

THE STEPS

Sophi suggests you ask yourself the following questions.

What do you want to do?

Who do you want to be?

Who do you want to be with?

What are your values?

What motivates you?

What organizations align with your values?

Once you’ve answered those questions, write down one practical, measurable step to help you move forward.

Also, find a new tribe, a new group of people to connect with that’ll help you to start moving in the right circles towards your newfound goal.

Debra recommends you find out what your strengths are. Online tests are available on the University of Pennsylvania website,

authentichappiness.sas.upenn.edu/testcenter

You can also choose to undergo comprehensive testing with a psychologist who can conduct a thorough interview and psychometric testing such as the Myers Briggs or DiSC personality profiles.

“A psychologist may ask you what you think your strengths are, what motivates you, what you think your values are, what dreams you had as a child that may have been unfulfilled. This helps you to start thinking differently,” Debra says.

“I suggest to people who are feeling aimless, don’t permit yourself to be paralyzed by not having an aim or objective,” adds Sophi. “It’s actually a lot better to just try some things out. You can think of a hundred reasons why you shouldn’t do something. It’s about reframing that and thinking of three reasons why you should. The first reason is because you might as well.”

Want more?

11 TED Talks when you don’t know what to do with your life, bit.ly/1NtyRQw

You might also like to read:

Careering ahead: Find your purpose

The Parent’s Playbook

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