by Philip Ruddy, MA, LMFT
A friend recently forwarded me a news story about the lead singer of heavy metal band Metallica's James Hetfield, who the article declared, at the age of 52, had just achieved his secret, life-long goal of earning a Ph.D. in Astrophysics,
The article quickly circulated around social media, with many fans and readers expressing surprise, congratulations, and in some quarters, sheer disbelief.
It turns out, the article was purely satire — and untrue. But, I wondered why the concept was presumably funny for many to imagine. Is it really so hard to accept that someone in middle age might secretly have a passion for something seemingly contrary to their outward, public persona? The humor of the piece is based upon the idea that a seemingly rough and tumble guy like James Hetfield would never really do such a thing. Yet, I know from my own work with clients, that middle-age is a time where we often do ask ourselves the big questions, and take more risks, including pursuing our as yet unexplored personal goals.
As a Los Angeles-based depth psychotherapist, I myself chose to re-direct the course of my life and career toward the field of therapy in my 40’s — after working for almost 20 years in film and television production. That transition was not always easy, and I could not have done it without the support and encouragement of many others, but the decision brought a range of joy and fulfillment into my life that I never could have imagined when I was younger, and there is not a single day where I regret my choice to do an honest inventory, gather my courage, and take action.
Many of my clients now come to me because they are going through similar life transitions, asking how they might focus, or perhaps re-focus, their lives and career in a manner that has more personal meaning for them. The opportunity to work with them is deeply meaningful for me, and provides a satisfying bridge from my past career to my present.
Psychologist Eric Erikson, best known for his pioneering work on the stages of human development, looked at the fundamental opportunity of Midlife (age 40-65) as a choice between Generativity vs. Stagnation.
Choosing the path of Generativity includes looking inwardly to identify our integral personal values and goals, and then moving outwardly to productively connect and share these values with our friends, family, and community — giving something of value to the next generation.
Choosing the path of Stagnation means avoiding opportunities for inner reflection, personal growth, meaningful productivity, and deeper connection to the people in our lives and community.
The truth is, we as humans do make radical and surprising changes in mid-life, every day.
James Hetfield may not have gone back to school, but rock guitar legend Brian May, of the band Queen actually did earn a Ph.D. in Astrophysics from the Imperial College London in 2007, completing studies which he had started decades earlier, prior to becoming a professional musician.
Similarly, punk rock icon Greg Graffin, lead singer and songwriter for Bad Religion earned a Ph.D. in Zoology from Cornell, published two books on science and math, and teaches paleontology at UCLA
Truth can be stranger than fiction.
For many of us, this period of midlife is incredibly rich and exciting. A time in which we have enough life experience to have gained a little wisdom and perspective — and with luck, enough energy to re-direct ourselves in a manner that’s more in alignment with our inner compass.
I invite you to reflect upon where you are in your own life and consider Erikson’s simple question: Generativity? Or Stagnation?
No matter where we are in life, every moment of every day provides us with new choices and new opportunities. And if there is anything I’ve learned from my own journey — and the journeys of so many of my clients, it is this simple phrase:
It is never too late to start.
Philip Ruddy, MA, LMFT, works in private practice and helps creative artists, writers, producers, directors, punks, comics, rockers and film / music professionals explore, manage and often transcend anxiety, depression, career / creative blocks, midlife transitions and relationship issues. Call (424) 354-3910 today for a free 15-minute consultation, and take the next step on your personal creative journey.
Erikson. Erik H. and Joan M. (1997) The Life Cycle Completed: Extended Version. New York: W. W. NortonImage "Rock Guitar Heavy Metal Guitarist" licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License. It is attributed to Pete Linforth. The original version can be found here.
Slater, C.L. (2003). Generativity versus stagnation: An elaboration of Erikson's adult stage of human development. Journal of Adult Development 10, 53-65.
Image: "Rock Guitar Heavy Metal Guitarist" created by Pete Linforth. Llicensed under Creative Commons 2.0. Original version can be found here.