Updated on 10.07.09

Is This All There Is?

Trent Hamm

“Matthew” writes in with a thought-provoking concern:

I’m only 37, but lately I’ve come to the realization that I may be having a mid-life crisis. To even write it down feels stupid and cliche’, but I think it best explains what I’ve been feeling. I don’t want to bore you with the details. How this pertains to you & your site is that over the years I’ve had various goals, such as graduate college, earn my CPA license, get a great job etc. Most of them were achievable within just a few short years. My next goal is to become debt free and I’ve come to the realization that it will take some time for that to happen. Beyond that, the only real goal I have for myself is retirement and that is pretty far down the road. Ultimately those distant goals have been the source of my depression. The feelings of ‘is this all there is’ starts to sink in and then I started disliking going to a job that I love. I spend my thoughts thinking about how things are pulling me in directions I don’t want to go. I’ve recently decided that I need to focus on my goals and create some shorter term goals to help get through my depression and frustration.

I think Matthew hits upon the real problem with long-term goal setting – there’s no immediacy.

Humans are hardwired to focus on the short term. The vast majority of our thoughts are in the present or extreme short term future. We’re thinking about what we’re reading right now. We’re thinking about our to-do list for today. We’re thinking about the birthday party we’ve got planned for next week.

Rarely do our thoughts focus on events more than a few months in the future. These events, for the most part, don’t feel quite real to us. They feel trapped in the mists of time, so we don’t see them clearly – and thus rarely think about them in a concrete fashion.

This gets us back to Michael’s problem. If all of the things we’re looking forward to in life are shrouded in the far-off future, we’re left with little to look forward to in the short term. This, unsurprisingly, leads to unhappiness. We feel aimless. We wonder if this is all there is in life. And sometimes we can become depressed.

The solution, I’ve found, is to keep busy in the short term, both with short term things and with smaller projects that fit in as part of the bigger goals I have in life. Here are some suggestions to chew on.

Keep a full social calendar. Organize your time so that you’re busy with something most evenings instead of sitting at home. A wise old friend of mine used to say that “the devil makes work for idle hands.” I think she meant that the more free time you have, the more time you have to dwell on things and convince yourself of negative thoughts. This has certainly been true in my experience.

In Michael’s case, why not get involved in community organizations that interest you? Many such groups would love to have a CPA as a treasurer for the group and it would allow you to keep busy, meet interesting people, and so on. If this doesn’t fit, seek out groups that revolve around your personal interests. Or, if nothing else, pencil in a weekly dinner party and invite friends to it.

Develop – and accomplish – month-long projects. What would you like to accomplish in the next thirty days? Pick something audacious but not back breaking, yet something that will genuinely improve some aspect of your life. Recently, a friend of mine read the entire Bible in one month and is now following it with the Qu’ran in one month so that she could better comprehend some of the social conflicts between Christianity and Islam. Another friend worked towards being able to do 100 pushups in one straight stretch at the end of the month.

Michael, sit down and make a list of five or so things that, if you accomplished them in the next month, you’d really be proud of and happy with yourself. Choose one or perhaps two of them and focus on them intently. Keep that goal central in your mind throughout the month and put continual effort towards it. At the end of the month, you’ll find you’ve improved your life in some regard. Then do it again. In a larger context, such “thirty day projects” really serve to improve a person over time, albeit in a piecewise fashion. (I’ve got a great post on this coming up soon.)

Seek out smaller projects (one to three months) that fit in the context of your larger goals. For people in Michael’s shoes, they have long term goals in place but the stepping stones to reach them are sometimes unclear. They might know what kinds of things they need to do to get there (spend less! network more!), but making that into something tangible is tricky.

This is a perfect time to stop and ask yourself what sort of building blocks you could have in place that would make reaching that big goal easier. For example, if you’re trying to get a promotion at work, a new certification might be useful – or a serious upgrade in your presentation skills. If you’re trying to save for a big, long term goal, a major project that results in something that will save you significant money can be really worthwhile.

Michael has a long term goal of debt freedom and he likely has a “number” he wants to hit each month in terms of extra debt payments, but that’s not really a project per se.

Instead, he should try something else big and audacious. Michael, why not start a three month project to make your home as energy efficient as possible? Air seal your entire home. Install a programmable thermostat. Check the insulation and install more if it’s recommended. Put all of your home electronics on smart energy strips. Switch all of your light bulbs to CFLs and LEDs. Perhaps even replace your windows, doing them yourself, of course. This is a huge project that involves a lot of work – it’ll eat up a lot of your spare time – but at the end of it, your energy bill will drop by half or more and you’ll likely increase the resale value of your home.

Another project: learn exactly how your car works. Teach yourself how to do every single maintenance task that needs to be done for your car yourself. Not only is it less expensive, but once you know how to do these things, you can do them for pretty much any car you come across. It’s another skill in your belt that’s a direct money saver for you and might be a skill that you can utilize to help friends.

These are just a few examples. There are many more floating around out there.

Find a personal passion or hobby to channel yourself into. What do you enjoy doing in your spare time? Most people can name some things. The lucky among us names one or two big things with a huge smile on their face – those are the people that have found their passions.

Seek out your passion by trying lots of new things. Go to single meetings of lots of different community groups. Try out activities you’ve always wanted to try but never seemed to find the time. Learn how to play a musical instrument. Teach yourself a foreign language and travel to that country. Take up golf – or competitive Scrabble. Learn woodworking. Whatever it is that itches inside of you, give it a shot and see where it takes you. If it fizzles, try something else. But always seek your passions – and when you find them, you’ll know. They’ll flip you upside down and change your life.

Good luck.

Loading Disqus Comments ...
Loading Facebook Comments ...
  1. devin oxman says:

    hey Trent,
    nice post; again this gets back to completing large goals by fragmenting them into manageable steps which is always useful advice. Just wanted to point out that in the first paragraph you attribute the readers name as Matthew, and then you consistently use Michael through out the rest of the post. Not trying to be critical or nitpick but just wanted to make you aware as it obviously slipped through the filter.
    As always, your site is a pleasure to read.

  2. Eric says:

    This is something that I have been struggling with lately as well. Very good post, you brought up most of the points that I came up with for myself.

    Short term goals are certainly the way to go, I am learning iPhone programming. I wanted to do it and have been happy with the progress and learning a new skill, even if it isn’t really marketable for me career-wise.

  3. Ramona says:

    Every morning when I wake up, I take time to review the day & see what I have to “look forward to”. I try to schedule something in every single day because I need these “highs” constantly. They aren’t mind-blowing – it could be that I’m having pizza for lunch or a massage later in the day. But making a casual plan for every day helps keep me out of the ruts of life.

  4. Johanna says:

    Another suggestion would be to sign up for a class, if Matthew (or is it Michael?) lives near a community center or a university that offers evening non-credit classes for adults. It doesn’t have to be part of some big quest to find your passions – if something looks even remotely interesting, give it a try. For me, the $50-100 that a semester’s worth of lessons costs around here is enough to force me to follow through with it, but not so much that I feel bad about myself if I try it but don’t like it.

  5. DivaJean says:

    Such true words have not been said, Trent.

    Keeping busy evenings in front of the TV is good enough most of the time for me- doing handwork sewing projects, etc but I too was getting into some mid life ennui..

    Thankfully, my kids’ scout troops need help. I have upped y participation in my BuggieGirl’s troop and in Buddy’s Boy Scouts. Putting together badge work and projects has been a mid life saver for me. My daughter is blossoming from doing extra community service and working towards earning her Junior Bronze Award while y son is finding some new ways to connect with friends in his Boy Scout Troop as we bring more to the table. I find that I look forward to seeing what each kid is ready to challenge themselves with next.

  6. Looby says:

    I was about to suggest the same as Johanna- evening classes can be great ways to introduce yourself to a new hobby or simply to spend some time learning something that appeals.
    I’m currently spending my Saturday mornings learning Latin.
    Here the local school board also offers evening classes, usually at different high schools throughout the area so you can find the one nearest to you.

  7. Anastasia says:

    One thing that I like doing putting fun things on my calendar as well as work things and other appointments. Every few weeks I look through the local events calendar and schedule any my husband and I would like to go to. If we have plans with friends, I add those. These aren’t goals exactly, but it brightens my day to look at my calendar and see the things I’m really looking forward to mixed in with everything else.

  8. guinness416 says:

    These are all great suggestions but if Matthew thinks it’s real depression as opposed to the blahs he should consider seeing a doctor as soon as possible.

    There are also those great “happiness” posts that Getrichslowly has done every so often which are worth investigating Matthew – are you getting good sleep, regular sex, routine, good friendships, etc. I also find regular strenuous exercise helps keep my mood up no matter what’s going on in my life and can lead to all sorts of short term goals and achievements.

  9. JonFrance says:

    I think both the questioner and the comments agree that new goals are the answer. Whether this truly manifests as a mid-life crisis or not depends on two things: what the new goals you find actually are, and what your values are, especially as it pertains to your life now.

    For instance, Roz Savage divorced her husband to row solo across the ocean, because she decided that her goal outweighed her commitment to the life she had. But others find new goals that either do not require breaking up your old life, or else they adapt them in order to find a balance.

    So, this is an occasion to revisit your values and convictions first, and then move forward with your goals armed with a sense of who you are.

  10. Jamie says:

    I think what Matthew has hit on is that no matter how many possessions you accumulate or wonderful experiences you chase after, nothing in life will satisfy you unless you acknowledge the true purpose behind your existence.

    The book of Ecclesiastes in the Bible has this to say on what Matthew is experiencing:

    “I denied myself nothing my eyes desired;
    I refused my heart no pleasure.
    My heart took delight in all my work,
    and this was the reward for all my labor.
    Yet when I had surveyed all that my hands had done
    and what I had toiled to achieve,
    everything was meaningless, a chasing after the wind;
    nothing was gained under the sun.”

    Those words were spoken by Solomon, the wisest man who ever lived. He threw himself into every kind of project and pleasure he could think of, yet he was still empty until he looked to God. To Matthew or anyone else who feels this way… which we all do at times… I encourage you to read the book of Ecclesiastes and then the book of John in the Bible. That thirst in your soul for something more is there for a reason.

    Speaking to someone else who thirsted for more, Jesus said this:

    “Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks the water I give him will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.”

    Why not take the time to find out what it is that Jesus is offering?

  11. IRG says:

    JonFrance, #9, writes:
    So, this is an occasion to revisit your values and convictions first, and then move forward with your goals armed with a sense of who you are.

    Exactly. You have to align your values, your beliefs, your passions and your interests and values with any goals. Otherwise, it’s just a big to-do list. No wonder people feel depressed, etc.

    The “depression” here sounds a lot like boredom, which seems to be the case with many, regardless of age or number of “goals” achieved.

    As worthy as goals are, there is more to life. There is connection via solid relationships of all kinds, which require constant attention and maintenance (for lack of better word.) There is one’s involvement with community via a variety of activities, including volunteering.

    I have a friend who has a job he loves, doing something he believes in and helping people who need it. He’s met a lot of his goals professionally. But other areas of his life? Not so much. You have to look at where you are goal setting and extend it to one’s private/social life as well, as is the case with this friend.

    Too many times people put all their eggs in one set of goals, as it were, while not focusing time/energy on personal ones.

    In the meantime, enjoy the process, not just the outcome, whether it’s cooking a nice meal for friends; hanging out with them or just “being” with people and doing something you love, whatever that may be.

    Everybody has something they love doing. So make time and just do it. With or without a goal.

    I think maybe this individual needs something more than goals to keep them going. Human connection may be the key. Cause it sounds a lot like that aspect of their life may be under-developed.

    Good suggestions, Trent.

  12. Penny says:

    Being stuck in a “blah di blah” rut bites :(

    What usually has worked for me:
    -exercise. Within a week or two, I forget about the balhs.

    -Write for fifteen minutes about what you’re grateful for. Retunr to list once per day for the next week.

    -Make a short-term goal that will “scratch the itch”. Plan a vacation, go to a gourmet restaurant, hire a maid service and get the whole house cleaned—what-evs.

    Hope one of these helps!

  13. Ellen / MoneyLounge says:

    I set the goal to run a marathon, but have enjoyed each milestone along the way. I started with committing myself to run more often (4-5 days a week), then to sign up for a 5k, then a 10k, next weekend I am running a half marathon, then I will set the date for a full marathon. Each race is a goal achieved on the way to the big one. And the best part is I had to do all of the work for this myself, I reap all of the benefits, and no one can ever take this achievement away from me. I am an advocate of running if it is feasible for you because it gives you the ultimate sense of accomplishment based on how hard you work.

  14. CB says:

    Lots of good suggestions, but Penny (#12), your approach is one that I know will work for me!

  15. Patty says:

    Get out and volunteer with an organization. You get to meet new folks that may be similar to you , at least sharing this interest, you get to make a difference in your community, and you get a purpose beyond the goal writting, measuring, and such. Goals are good, don’t get me wrong – a well rounded life keeps the blahs away.

  16. Patty says:

    oh a ps – if being a treasurer is too much like work, then there are so many other areas in organizations, Michael could take part in. He has a wealth of knowlege – get out and share it.

  17. Penny says:

    #14CB: Why thank you—-happy to help; what-ev works :)

  18. Kirk Kinder says:

    I think Michael needs to define what his life is all about. I recommend writing his obituary as it would read today if he passed. Then write it again. Only the second time, write the one that he would want written. He may find something that he can focus his life on or some goals that haven’t been fulfilled.

    This has nothing to do with having a far off goal. It means his goals are not satisfying his internal needs. Even if he retires wealthy, he will still have this same emptiness unless he is focused on something that drives him – his true passion.

  19. Sheila says:

    Matthew/Michael, my non-profit is looking for a CPA to be on our Board of Directors, and I bet many non-profits in your area are, too. If you have a passion for something (in my case it’s animals and kids’ reading programs), volunteer your services. Selfishly speaking, I get a lot out of volunteering.

  20. plonkee says:

    Sometimes it can feel like suggested activities are just distractions and ways of filling the time until something good happens. When I feel like that, I try to remind myself that it’s all about the process. A goal isn’t good because you achieve it, it’s good because you enjoy the process of getting there.

  21. “The lucky among us names one or two big things with a huge smile on their face – those are the people that have found their passions.”

    That’s me! :)

    I know I feel the same way, but I’m not even out of school yet… All of my goals are rather ambitious and not ones I can accomplish quickly with what I’m earning now.

  22. steve says:

    All of Trent’s suggestions are good and positive and likely would make a positive difference in one’s life if one followed them. But they don’t address the deeper fundamental question behind “Matthew”‘s letter, which sounds to me like he is confronted by a perceived lack of overall meaning and purpose in his life or in his position in the world. I have no advice to him about that other than to recognize that is what you are confronting and be open to whatever answers appear to you.

    Doing some of the things Trent suggests may be good in the sense that they would stave off depression and fill time, but I don’t think just setting goals and achieving them is going to help Matthew with the underlying question he is confronting right now.

    Peace, “Matthew.”

  23. steve says:

    #11, IRG, has an observation that I think might be helpful here: “I think maybe this individual needs something more than goals to keep them going. Human connection may be the key. Cause it sounds a lot like that aspect of their life may be under-developed.”

  24. Carmen says:

    I agree most with Kirk in reply 18. The answer may not be to ‘add more,’ but to ‘change or take some things away.’

    Most people know the answers to their ‘problems’, but find it too risky to act upon them. I say be true to yourself and don’t cloud the issue by simply making yourself busier with more potentially meaningless activities. Having said that, they might help in the short term so you can make changes in a highly positive frame of mine.

    The obituary writing is also a fantastic tool to assist in this process. Additionally, questions such as ‘What do I want out of life,’What does my ideal life look like’ and ‘When do I feel most happy?’ help too.

    But also balance this with counting your blessings.

  25. Pattie, RN says:

    Jamie (#10) has written what I was thinking exactly. There is a God-shaped hole in every human being, and unless that is recognized and filled, nothing else really matters. I have been at hundreds of death-beds; and I can say with 100% certainty that Faith and family are all that matter at the end.

  26. Anna says:

    In addition to all these excellent suggestions for developing interests and connections and for searching in the spiritual realm, may I reinforce the advice from #8 and #22 about confronting depression. A few visits to a therapist would provide some insight into whether this is an aspect of the problem; if so, then the appropriate measures can be taken. Also, a life coach can help a person identify goals that he finds truly compelling.

  27. Sandy says:

    I’ll second Scouting for those with kids. When you are a scout leader or co-leader, there is always something to work on for the children in your group.
    Even if you don’t have kids, and are looking for a great way to give something of yourself to a group of girls or boys, it’s a great thing to do. I know of several women who are childless, but want to contribute to the bringing up of children.
    I have a teen daughter and middle school aged daughter. A few years ago, I spearheaded a group to keep older girls in scouts (after 5-6th grade, attendance drops in GS)by arranging activities for older girls. We’ve gone on outings to a Hindu Temple, learned Belly Dancing, did a yoga class, sewed draft dodgers for the elderly, earned badges in Crime Scene Investigation, visited a Jewish museum, gone snowshoeing…when they get older, lots of opportunities are out there that they couldn’t do when they were younger. Giving of yourself as a scout leader can be incredibly fulfilling, and one is really only limited by one’s imagination (and GS rules!)

  28. angela says:

    I think we all feed into the “instantaneous gratification” buy off. I want my happy meal now. It is difficult to see the end result when the end is so far off.

    One suggestion, take a 1 day sabbatical from everything and tackle some internal ‘house cleaning’. What do you want to accomplish, what can you tweak in your life to make things better in some way. What would you like to do vs. what do you have to do. I used to do this for years when I was younger and really looked forward to it. It refocuses me, reenergizes me, and realigns my goals. It is like a life check up. Jogging myself into this consciousness makes me a better mother, wife, co worker and friend.

  29. Bavaria says:

    This is a great post-very thought provoking!
    Here’s my 2 cents worth:
    “Take care of yourself”-healthy diet,exercise,& fun activities.
    “Take care of your job”-do your best.
    “Take care of others”-volunteer,teach,help-(so rewarding!)

    And delete things that are encumbrances-too much stuff, pointless activities,etc…

  30. Michael says:

    Hehe. For the record, I didn’t write that letter.

    I also think you missed the real need of the writer, Trent. He doesn’t need to break down his empty, existentially unsatisfying goals into even smaller ones. He needs a goal broad and deep enough to satisfy him. He’s not going to find it in personal finance.

  31. Jen says:

    Re: Kirk Kinder (#18): that was the topic I chose for the college application essay that helped me win a lovely scholarship. :-)

    Re: Sheila (#19): YES. My theater company is DESPERATE for board members, especially those who come from the business world. In addition to a person’s individual skills and talents, the ability to attract board members is actually a sizable factor in winning grants, so you may be making a double impact.

  32. Strick says:

    Whether the goals are short term or long term, one really has to figure out how to find fulfillment in the journey and not just the accomplishments along the way. It not only makes you happier, it actually gives purpose to the accomplishments rather than just being a checklist of goals.

    Why would someone living an unfulfilled life have a huge goal of retirement to have more free time to devote to their unfulfilled life? It is those people already fulfilled by their out-of-the-office life and who deal with their work to support that who should really dream about retirement so as to focus even more on the things that fulfill them.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *