Discover more from Rob Henderson's Newsletter
The Age 30 Crisis and Seasons of a Man's Life
Revisiting a classic adult developmental psychology book
I turned 30 while writing my forthcoming memoir. It was a unique experience, reflecting on my youth while departing my twenties, which many consider to be the end of “young adulthood.”
This led me to read the classic book by the psychologist Daniel Levinson: The Seasons of a Man’s Life.
It was sitting on my shelf for about four years before I finally cracked it open.
Levinson was a founder of the field of positive adult development. He also authored The Seasons of a Woman’s Life with his wife.
In The Seasons of a Man’s Life, Levinson reports research he conducted with his team at Yale. He outlines how development does not stop at age 18. Men continue to change and grow throughout their lives.
Between childhood and old age, there is a vast stretch of time where men encounter similar obstacles and crises as we advance from one stage of adulthood to another.
This is a summary and discussion of this classic book.
In the preface, Levinson writes that the pervasive dread of middle age has led to “almost complete silence about the experience of being an adult.”
The book goes on to say that the most distressing fear in early adulthood is that there is no life after youth, and that to pass 30 is to be “over the hill.”
“It is terrifying to go through middle age in the shadow of death, as though one were already very old; and it is a self-defeating illusion to live it in the shadow of youth, as though one were still simply young.”
The dread of growing old might actually motivate older people to dress and behave like they are younger. In my view, the best way to transition out of youth is through mentorship. Find someone a little younger than you and help them on their journey.
Levinson and his team interviewed 40 different men from various backgrounds; manual laborers, business executives, novelists, and so on.
He identified regularities in their stories and outlined what he termed the “life cycle and its seasons.”
The life cycle comprises overlapping eras, each lasting about 25 years:
Childhood and adolescence (birth to 22)
Early adulthood (17 to 45)
Middle adulthood (40 to 65)
Late adulthood (60+)
The eras overlap because the transitions are gradual.
The first stage is widely understood. Kids are sheltered by their families and, with adequate development, they can become relatively self-sufficient members of society. At first, they spend most of their time with family members, but upon adolescence care more about being around friends and potential romantic partners.
The early adulthood stage from 20 to 40 is “the era of greatest biological abundance and of greatest contradiction and stress.”
This means that your physical and mental capacities are at their peak. You’re as tall, strong, and energetic as you’ll ever be as an adult. But this is often accompanied by the residues of childhood conflicts. Young men are often still burdened by early life experiences, though this tends to recede by middle adulthood.
This is likely because they either get help, take on more responsibility, have kids of their own, or the aging process simply dims the intensity of their emotions.
Levinson makes an interesting observation about how men categorize other people based on age. He says we tend to perceive other people as roughly the same age as ourselves if they are around 6 years older or younger.
When the age difference is eight to 15 years greater in either direction, there is a sibling dynamic, and the older person takes on a sort of big brother role. Once the age gap reaches 20 years, we regard it as a full generation apart. We see the older person as more of a parent than a sibling.
“A man of 30 to 35 is likely to be regarded as an older sibling by persons in their twenties…He is relieved to discover in the early thirties that he still has his youthful powers, though he may find himself more naturally inclined to assume a variety of older sibling relationships to those in full youth.”
This has more or less matched my experience. Young guys have been asking me for advice more and more, and I feel qualified to give it in a way that I wouldn’t have five or six years ago.
When a man first enters the adult world, his chief task is to become a novice adult and build his own home base. He makes big decisions about his occupation, lifestyle, romantic relationships, marriage and family, friendships, and values. This is often a tough period.
The termination of adolescence and the entry into adulthood can bring a sense of loss.
Men in the novice phase have two goals that are in fundamental conflict: They want to keep their options open, avoid strong obligations, and maximize alternatives. But they also want to create a stable life, cultivate responsibility, and make something of themselves, which requires strong commitment.
They ask themselves: Were my horizons too narrow? Do I want to maintain this way of life forever, or are there more fulfilling possibilities?
Finding a balance is not easy. If men lean toward the first goal, then they risk a life of transience, rootlessness, and emotional poverty. If they lean toward the second, they may prematurely commit themselves to something they later find to be meaningless.
The Age 30 Crisis
“Very few men,” Levinson writes, “build that first adult life structure without considerable difficulty and occasional crisis.”
For most men, the life structure of the late twenties is fragmented and unstable. They’re unsure if they chose the right career path. The possibility of marriage becomes a more pressing concern. They feel aimless if they don’t already have a solid relationship, home base, and career path.
From here, men enter what Levinson terms the “Age Thirty Transition.” In the late twenties, men realize that if they are going to make a change, they must do it soon, otherwise it will be too late.
This change could be about their careers, what city to live in, whether to fully commit to their romantic relationship or pursue other partners, and so on.
Levinson writes that this transition is often stressful. He calls it an “Age Thirty Crisis.”
This happens when a man’s current life structure is intolerable, but for whatever reason, they are unable to form a better one. A moderate or severe crisis is common during this period.
The Age Thirty Transition often begins with a vague uneasiness, a feeling that something is missing or wrong in your life. At this point, men sense that they must either find a new direction and make new choices or strengthen their commitment to the choices they’ve already made.
For some men, the process is smooth. By thirty, they feel their lives are reasonably complete. Still, it’s possible that they are not acknowledging flaws in their lives, which “often surface at a later time, when they exact a heavier cost.”
Sixty-two percent of the men interviewed in the book went through a moderate or severe age thirty crisis.
“A stressful Age Thirty Transition was more the rule than the exception in our study...Many young adults as they pass 30 have serious doubts about the value and viability of our society and about the possibility of forming a life structure worth having. Perhaps every generation feels that its life problems are unique in character and severity—and each of them may be right.”
In Chuck Klosterman's 2021 book The Nineties, he observes:
"In the seventies, people loved the fifties...In the eighties, people fixated on the sixties...The pattern is dependable: Every new generation tends to be intrigued by whatever generation existed 20 years earlier."
I suspect the Age Thirty Transition is linked to this fixation.
Our strongest memories tend to be from early adolescence. As we enter our thirties, we often compare the adult world we are entering with the world of our youth. And for one reason or another, we think the world as it exists today comes up short.
For people around 30, our strongest childhood memories were formed in the late 90s and early 00s.
In 1999, the peak of pre 9/11 America, people were not particularly optimistic. Look at the movies. The Matrix, Fight Club, American Beauty, Office Space, the pilot episode of The Sopranos ("The best is over," Tony laments to Dr. Melfi).
Despite all that has happened, the percentage of Americans who report being optimistic about the future of the country has remained essentially unchanged since the 1990s.
We experience nostalgia for the past, even if, at the time, we were not particularly happy as we experienced it.
The Great Paradox of Human Development
Many assume that people in their twenties have a good idea of what career they want. “This assumption,” the book states, “is erroneous.”
For some reason, it is a widely-held belief that people form their occupational paths in a steady, single-track manner.
Levinson writes that “this sequence was not the norm in any of our occupational groups.”
Levinson and his team discovered that it was the rule rather than the exception that young men faced setbacks, frustrations, and distractions when trying to decide on a career.
This was true regardless of their social class or occupational trajectory.
Young men often struggle for years to discover what they want to do for a living. It’s not uncommon to change one’s mind several times during this period of early adulthood.
It’s also a major step to commit to one particular line of work.
And many males come to the end of adolescence with the feeling that they have no particular capabilities or interests.
They don’t know what they want to do with their lives.
Partly as a result of my chaotic upbringing, I gave zero thought to my career in my teens and early twenties. All I knew was that I didn’t want to do manual labor. I spent my adolescence digging ditches to install sprinkler systems, helping to haul heaps of garbage to the local landfill, and stacking firewood to earn a little extra money and help my moms. Not to mention the usual stuff like mowing lawns, raking leaves, and cleaning gutters. By the time I got a “real” job at age 15 washing dishes for minimum wage, it was a massive relief just to be working indoors with air conditioning.
When I enlisted, I picked a job that sounded cool to my seventeen-year-old self (electronic warfare systems) and just went with it. It was a haphazard, spur-of-the-moment decision. At age twenty-three, after 6 years on a job I didn’t mind but didn’t enjoy either, I finally started to consider what actually interested me.
I connected with a particular story in the book. Levinson describes a man named Morgan who quit high school at age 16 against his parents’ wishes. He then enlisted in the military for three years and then completed college in his mid-twenties. Following this, he had another “crisis,” second-guessing his career choice. This lasted 3 more years before finally entering a PhD program and completing it. He did not complete the “novice phase” of adulthood until age 33.
The book states that young men who fail to explore their options and commit to an occupation prematurely often come to regret it later.
However, Levinson also writes:
“One of the great paradoxes of human development is that we are required to make crucial choices before we have the knowledge, judgment, and self-understanding to choose wisely. Yet if we put off these choices until we truly feel ready, the delay may produce other, greater costs.”
We are expected to make major life decisions before we have the wisdom to choose wisely.
But if we wait too long to choose, then golden opportunities will pass us by.
The book states that alongside his career, a young man’s “developmental task” is to form the capability of having adult peer relationships with women.
It is often difficult for a young man to learn about his inner resources and vulnerabilities in relation to women. And it takes even longer to learn what women require from him, as well as what he might require of them. To learn how to take a woman’s perspective.
Young men often take an extended amount of time to learn about themselves, let alone others. And they generally score lower than women on perspective-taking and empathy. So it’s likely that young women are more likely to consider what it is like to be a man than young men are to consider what it’s like to be a woman.
Interestingly, the book (published in 1978) states that “young men in all cultures, for countless generations, have been marrying and starting families in the novice phase. There has probably never been a society in which the average age at first marriage for the total population was greater than 25 years.”
Things have changed.
In the late 1970s in the U.S., the average man married at twenty-five and the average woman at 22.
Today, the average man gets married at thirty and the average woman at 28.
Still, Levinson’s main point is important.
Young people, despite their inadequacies, insecurities, and shortcomings, have throughout history and across cultures formed marriages. This is what I tell young guys who moan about the current dating landscape.
However bad things are now, your ancestors had it far worse. They lived on the edge of death and starvation and ice ages and wars and serfdom. I know they didn't have to deal with real threats like dating apps and climate change and income inequality, but early humans still had it pretty bad.
And that “great paradox of human development” applies here. Just as young men are often compelled to form a career before they have the wisdom to choose wisely, so it is with relationships.
You are too young to choose wisely, but if you wait too long, you’ll miss out.
As Levinson puts it, we “choose a partner and start a family before we quite know what we are doing or how to do it well.”
This is true no matter what age we are, but especially true for men in their twenties.
Levinson states that marriage has become harder because the cultural guardrails around monogamy have eroded.
“In contemporary society, as the legitimacy of authority and the bonds of social integration are weakened, marital stability receives less institutional support and depends much more on the efforts of the spouses.”
When marriage is prized and people collectively agree upon its importance, it is easier to get married and stay married.
This is why marriage rates across the social classes were identical in 1960.
If marriage is just one choice among many, though, then it is harder for a couple to sustain.
This is why marriage today remains high among the middle and upper classes and has collapsed among the poor and working class.
For educated and affluent people who are predisposed to make long-term commitments, grow up around married couples, and understand the benefits it confers to themselves and their children, they choose marriage.
Many others got game theory’d out of it. It’s harder to cooperate when defect has become the norm around you.
We are now seeing the consequences.
Sexual freedom used to “work” because it encouraged people to defect in situations where people mostly cooperated.
We have lost a lot of social cohesion. Defect is becoming the norm. So sexual freedom stopped “working.”
It might be fun to be a cad in a high-trust society. But it’s no fun in a low-trust society, as people are now discovering.
Anyway, these are the two main tasks of the novice phase of adulthood: occupation and relationship.
This phase is monumental in a man’s life.
Consider how much changes between the ages of seventeen and 33.
Levinson writes that in the Early Adult Transition (age 17-22), when a young man has first left home, his “life is still strongly rooted in the family of origin and the pre-adult world; the process of separation is just getting underway.”
But fifteen years later, in your early thirties, adolescence seems so distant. So different from the current world.
The Settling Down Period
If men successfully complete the Age Thirty Transition—the final stage of young adulthood—they then enter what Levinson calls the “Settling Down” period.
This is a crucial step in adult development.
The main task of the Settling Down period is to commit to a few key choices and to invest yourself as fully as possible in your family, work, friendships, community, and personal interests.
As Levinson writes, by the early thirties, “A man has a stronger sense of urgency to ‘get serious,’ to be responsible, to decide what is truly important and shape his life accordingly.”
In a fascinating book on decision-making, Algorithms to Live By, the authors describe a dilemma we face when choosing between options.
Explore vs. exploit.
Explore means to gather information.
Exploit means to use the information you already have to pursue what you want.
Trying new restaurants vs. eating at your favorite eating establishments.
Seeking out new hobbies vs. indulging in current ones.
Hanging out with new social groups vs. spending time with your existing circle.
How do you know whether you should explore or exploit?
It depends on how much time you have.
If you had a week left to live, would you be trying new hobbies, seeking new friendships, and eating exotic meals? Probably not.
Instead, you’d want to do things you know you’d enjoy, while surrounded by people you love, and eating your favorite foods.
On the other hand, if you had a century of life ahead of you, then you’d probably be more interested in exploring lots of possibilities.
Why do babies put everything in their mouths? Because they don’t know anything.
For them, the world presents endless opportunities to search for tasty treats.
If you’re a baby, putting every object you encounter into your mouth is like pulling the handle of a slot machine hoping to hit the jackpot.
But as kids grow older, they become more selective about what they’ll eat.
They went through an explore phase, now they are in exploit mode.
For men, the Settling Down period means tilting away from exploring new opportunities and more towards exploiting the life foundation they established during early adulthood.
Successfully transitioning into this stage doesn’t mean freezing in place and not trying new things. It does, though, mean relinquishing the early adulthood preoccupation with optionality.
The Settling Down period typically extends from age 32-33 to age 39-42.
This phase of life involves assigning certain relationships, aspirations, and aspects of yourself to a more prominent place in your life. It also requires relegating other things to the back burner or ceasing them altogether.
In their mid-thirties and early forties, men who successfully enter the Settling Down period attain seniority at work. This brings money and prestige, but it also comes with burdens and responsibilities. Men in this phase let go of childhood conflicts which can sometimes plague early adulthood.
Levinson says there are two major tasks of the Settling Down period.
The first is to establish one’s place in society. It means to create a sufficiently orderly and stable life, to plant some roots and become a respected member of one’s community by contributing to young people the knowledge you have accrued in your own early adulthood. It means investing in existing romantic and social relationships.
The second major task is to advance in the workplace. At this point in a man’s career, “he has a sense of being on the low rung of the ladder, preparing to make his way to the top. Imagery of the ladder is an important part of life in this period.” The higher rungs might represent wealth, recognition, power, prestige, recognition, professional achievement, and so on.
Often, one of these tasks predominates at the expense of the other. If one task is overly neglected, though, it can create great difficulty in a man’s life.
On the Settling Down period, Levinson writes:
“It is time for a man to join the tribe as a full adult…time to find his niche, get plugged into society with greater commitment and responsibility, raise a family and exercise an occupation and do his bit for the survival and well-being of the tribe. In modern complex society, the meaning of ‘tribe’ varies widely. It may include his local community, religio-ethnic group, profession or nation or humanity at large—whatever part of the species has most significance for him.”
Committing to a career, a community, and a family.
Successfully entering the Settling Down period involves strongly connecting to a segment of society and being responsible to its demands. In the process, a man will be surprised at the rewards it confers.
Returning to the ladder analogy, the book states that a man has spent his adolescence and early adulthood “creating a foundation on which a ladder can be built.” The more stable the foundation, the easier it is to climb upward.
At the beginning of the Settling Down period, a man is near the bottom of the ladder, aspiring to move upward.
The ladder doesn’t necessarily have to involve an organizational hierarchy. Levinson gives the example of novelists he interviewed, who hoped to produce a body of work they are proud of.
The top of the ladder is “the Dream.”
A man’s sense of well-being will depend on his own evaluation of how far and how fast he is moving toward his goals.
The first half of the Settling Down period encompasses investing yourself in career, community, and family.
Then there’s the second half—the culmination of the Settling Down as a man enters his forties.
It involves sufficient advancement on the ladder, becoming a senior member of his chosen occupation, wisely exercising authority, and mentoring young people.
If you have successfully made it to this stage, you spend less time relying on others and more time being relied upon by others.
Still, many men reach their late thirties and feel that they have not accomplished enough or achieved what they wanted.
This can involve a sense of being held back, of being restrained either by others or by one’s own inner conflicts and inhibitions.
For example, the book outlines how in their thirties, many men enter the managerial ranks at work. Even though their primary occupational interest was not in executive functions but in their original work (e.g., engineering or accounting), men will often get promoted into being a manager. At this point, many men get stuck in a role that does not interest them.
I saw this in the military. There was one guy I knew who liked being a technician but had gotten promoted against his wishes—there is an “up or out” policy such that if you don’t achieve a certain rank by a certain point, you are discharged. This guy was then put in a managerial role mostly due to time in service (he’d been enlisted a long time).
At work, he’d help us younger guys out on a specific task. But when the higher-ups came around, he’d grab his clipboard and go back to manager-mode. He was earning more, but was less satisfied with his job—a job he never wanted.
And even if a man is on track to reach the heights he so desired, he may find that his professional circumstances are restrictive and detrimental to other desires, like being free to speak his mind.
The book states:
“Organizations often operate so rigidly or corruptly that an individual places his career in jeopardy if he is very forthright or eager to take the ball and run. It is generally safer to avoid controversy and be a loyal member of the ‘team’—and not speak too loudly with one’s own voice. As a man advances, he comes into contact with senior men who have their territories to maintain and protect. Their interest in him often contains a subtle mixture of support and intimidation. He receives a double message: ‘Be a good boy and you’ll go far,’ together with ‘Make trouble and you’re dead.’”
Besides the assumed masculine pronouns (the book was published in 1978), this passage has aged incredibly well.
The overtly rigid dynamics I saw in the military are matched only by the covertly rigid dynamics I now encounter.
What’s interesting, though, is that in the military you are explicitly indoctrinated into compliance. Because lives are at stake. In upper middle class organizations, though, indoctrination is largely implicit. Because reputations are at stake.
Paths Men Take in Their Thirties
As a man approaches the end of the Settling Down period in the late thirties, he experiences a range of desires and emotions.
For instance, they want to be true to themselves while simultaneously seeking affirmation from society.
They begin to feel a sense of bodily decline. A man in his thirties, with a decent diet and fitness regimen, can often stave off the physical effects of aging and can even surpass the formidability of his own twenty-year-old self.
However, for most men, no matter how much they keep at it, they will show some signs of wear as middle age approaches. This can give rise to a desire for greater striving.
The recognition of physical decline can re-ignite the motive to reach new professional or personal milestones.
Relatedly, a 2014 study found that when people enter an age that ends in nine—39, for example—they become especially likely to engage in “meaning-seeking behaviors.”
These behaviors aren’t always positive. In addition to being more likely to run a marathon, people in an age that ends in nine are more likely to seek extramarital affairs or commit suicide.
At this developmental stage, men can be insecure about their sense of achievement. They may quietly second-guess whether they have achieved enough, despite the fact that many such men by age forty have reached seniority in their occupation.
Levinson describes what he terms the “boyish self” that is often activated during the late thirties.
Coming to terms with “unresolved pre-adult conflicts, including the boyish wishes and desires” is often a necessary part of adult development.
This youthful element—the boyish self—housed within the male psyche contributes optimism, energy, idealism, and a sense of wonderment. But it can also be a source of conflict and discontent.
Maturity entails understanding the sweat and sacrifice required to truly advance in life.
But a man’s boyish self wants things to go effortlessly in his favor. And when he doesn’t experience the recognition he so desires, he feels deprived and humiliated.
“It is the little boy inside the man who transforms the ordinary mortals with whom he is involved—bosses, wives, mentors, colleagues—into tyrants, corrupters, villainous rivals, seducers, and witches.”
This pattern of thinking is a defense mechanism known as “splitting.”
According to some schools of psychoanalytic thought, there are people who are frightened by the idea that the same person could contain both good and bad aspects in their nature.
It introduces a terrifying degree of uncertainty.
And so, as a defense, people simplify the world by dividing everyone into good and bad.
This is prevalent among young children, as well as adults with narcissistic and borderline personalities. It’s characteristic of undeveloped, immature thinking. Still, even healthy adults can engage in it sometimes.
According to Levinson, the self-consciousness men feel about their place in the world by the late thirties causes this unpleasant part of their psyche to flare up.
He shares a quote from one of his interviews with a man who spoke about this period of his life:
“I realize now that 35 is really a very vulnerable period. I can remember when I was in my twenties thinking that when I was 35 I’d be the jauntiest, most debonair, free individual on earth, but in reality I wasn’t at all.”
The book suggests that there are different paths a man’s life can go during the end of the Settling Down period.
One is what Levinson terms, “Advancement within a stable life structure.”
In this structure, men attain most of the goals they spent years striving toward. They have a successful career and a family. They generally have a strong sense of self-esteem.
Still, Levinson notes, many men who were doing well externally still felt internally that something was missing.
They spent so much time thinking, “If I get to the top of my ladder, I will have everything I really wanted and live happily ever after.” Life doesn’t actually tend to work this way—happiness—at least the way modern westerners tend to think of it—is not a permanent state.
Many men Levinson interviewed felt disillusioned upon realizing this.
Nevertheless, this is the most successful of the structures the book maps out. As Levinson puts it, “Any individual life is a mass of costs and gains.”
Among the forty men Levinson and his team interviewed, 55 percent predominately followed this structure of advancement.
Another path a man could take is what the book characterizes as “Serious failure or decline within a stable life structure.”
About twenty percent of Levinson’s interviewees exemplified this second sequence.
Some failed in obvious ways in their settling down period. Others achieved a good deal of success but failed in certain crucial respects, which made them think of the whole journey as pointless.
For instance, some men described being perpetually stuck in middle management. This is the fate of many employees in large organizations. The structure of management is pyramidal, with only about one position in top management for every fifteen or 20 in middle management.
Most of those fifteen or 20 received “lateral promotions,” never reaching the heights they desired.
This kind of pyramid scheme is pervasive in academia.
To get a tenured professorship, aspiring academics obtain a PhD. They then typically complete a series of postdoctoral positions, and each year apply for a tenure track job. The vast majority fail. While most people who pursue PhDs want to become professors, the percentage of newly minted PhDs who secure tenure-track jobs is well into the single digits.
And of those who do get hired, they then must work for 6 years before submitting an application for tenure. Not all succeed.
There were two paths that I found more interesting. One is, “Advancement which itself produces a change in life structure.”
As the book puts it, the basic pattern is as follows:
“A man receives a promotion or a drastic increase in income. At first glance the increase seems to be a great boon, an opportunity to live better and do things that he has long wanted to do. But this gain propels him into a new world in which he has new roles and relationships. It activates new aspects of the self, while providing little room for the expression of other, formerly important aspects…The advancement is a mixed blessing, and it may turn out to be a curse.”
My life has been a series of reversals, but no reversal has been so pronounced and prolonged as what happened 7 years ago when I exited the military and entered college. Since then, externally, my life has gone quite well. Still, I carry a lingering sense of alienation.
I was at a formal dinner the other day, and a friend pointed out how lovely the atmosphere was at this centuries-old Cambridge college. He asked me why I wouldn’t want to stay and work in such a beautiful place.
I replied that I enjoy these events on special occasions. But I prefer fast food. On most days, I’d rather go to Burger King or a taco truck than go to a four-course meal with three different spoons.
When I call my high school friends and catch up with them, I can feel the distance growing between us in terms of where our lives are going.
So we don’t talk about work or the future. Instead, we talk about family, relationships, movies, tv shows, reminiscing about what life was like when we were kids.
The Midlife Transition
Regarding men in their forties, the book states:
“Their Mid-life Transition is a time of moderate or severe crisis. Every aspect of their lives comes into question, and they are horrified by much that is revealed.”
There are many interpretations of both The Sopranos and Mad Men. But one is that each series is essentially a character study of men undergoing a mid-life crisis.
In the final season, forty-six-year-old Tony Soprano is in a coma, having a dream (though series creator David Chase has implied that this is more than a mere dream). Throughout his otherworldly experiences, Tony repeatedly asks, “Who am I? Where am I going?”
In the final season of Mad Men, as his life is unraveling, forty-four-year-old Don Draper checks into a quasi-spiritual meditation retreat. Upon seeing a man describe aloud his feelings of worthlessness, Don breaks down and hugs him.
In their twenties, men are typically developmentally unprepared to resolve internal conflicts. At this point, few men have the inner resources to attain an integrated personality.
Relatedly, people generally have the highest Dark Triad scores (psychopathy, narcissism, Machiavellianism) in early adulthood, which gradually decline with age.
This personality constellation, to a point, might be beneficial in pursuing external badges of success. But may also inhibit self-reflection and self-understanding.
In his illuminating and disturbing book Machiavellianism: The Psychology of Manipulation, the psychologist Tamás Bereczkei writes, “Machiavellians are rarely concerned with their internal life, they are much more interested in getting valuable things from the external environment.”
He also states that Dark Triad Machiavellians “do not analyse their thoughts and feelings, nor do they often rely on their imagination…They develop a concrete and logical way of thinking in which emotional reactions play hardly any role.”
It also might be unwise to dwell on your inadequacies when you haven’t accomplished anything. Thinking about your shortcomings as a young adult could be an impediment.
The twenties and thirties are typically spent trying to make something of yourself and contributing to your community. Later, once a man has attained some success, it may be useful to take a step back and reappraise his choices and actions.
By his forties, a man has usually accomplished something in life. And is less tyrannized by his ambitions. He can then turn his attention inward.
The Mid-life Transition often brings regrets and memories of malice to the forefront of a man’s mind.
“He becomes more aware of the many ways in which other persons, even his loved ones, have acted destructively toward him (with malice or, often, with good intentions). What is perhaps worse, he realizes that he has done irrevocably hurtful things to his parents, lovers, wife, children, friends, rivals (again, with what may have been the worst or the best of intentions.”
Levinson writes that during this stage, “a man must come to terms with his grievances and guilts—his view of himself as victim and as villain in the continuing tale of man’s inhumanity to man.”
This might be related, again, to declining Dark Triad propensities. As we age, we often regret how we treated others when we were younger. Family members, friends, former romantic partners, and so on.
The Mid-life Transition also involves acknowledging that many of one’s failures are not other people’s fault. Rather, men come to terms with the fact that many of their misfortunes are the result of their own tragic flaws.
This might also involve grief over lost opportunities, outrage over betrayal by others, or guilt over betrayal by oneself.
Men who successfully complete this stage come to fully accept that they must bear the responsibilities and costs of their choices.
Levinson reports that eighty percent of the men he and his team interviewed experienced some version of what we now call a midlife crisis.
The men questioned their choices, either occupational or romantic or both, and ruminated on mistakes they made.
The book goes on to state that this kind of reappraisal can’t be a cool, rational, intellectual process. To fully evolve beyond this stage, a man must experience the emotional turmoil, despair, and inner conflict involved with questioning his current life structure.
The majority of men Levinson interviewed in this period thought of their lives thus far as either a flawed success or a failure. This is because few of them accomplished everything they thought they would by this point.
Their outcomes usually fell below their hopes.
Still, the outcome was typically good enough that very few men considered the direction they had taken to be a total disaster. In fact, many acknowledged that others thought their lives were quite favorable.
Interestingly, even the men who did accomplish all they set out to were generally not as satisfied as they’d hoped. The book describes this as “one of the most pervasive illusions.”
For men, dealing with the consequences of the fact that fulfilling their ambitions did not give them true happiness is often “a mind-boggling process.”
Some men respond by working extra hard to accomplish even more. Or grow to accept that permanent satisfaction may never arrive.
Others, though, attain a less successful life structure by their forties. Levinson states:
“Some men have suffered such irreparable defeats in pre-adulthood or early adulthood, and have been able to work so little on the tasks of the Mid-life Transition, that they lack the inner and outer resources for creating a minimally adequate life structure in middle adulthood.”
Fortunately, this is a minority of men.
Despite these challenges, midlife is usually when men are at the height of their powers, both mentally and professionally.
It is crucial for both society and the individual that a man accepts the guilt and pain that often accompany this period of life. And to exercise authority and power with wisdom and compassion.
Levinson also writes that this is the period when a man “has a strong desire to become more creative: to create products that have value for himself and others.”
These two propensities might be intertwined. Reflecting on his shortcomings might propel a man to channel his energies to productive ends.
Middle age is when men tend to do their best work.
For example, across disciplines, a clear pattern emerges for achievement among scientists:
But this pattern isn’t limited just to scientists, or to professional work.
The Talmud contains a section called “The sayings of the Fathers,” which outlines the “ages of man.”
Confucius, in about 500 B.C., identified 6 stages in the life cycle.
Solon, a Greek poet in the 7th century B.C., divided the life cycle into ten stages.
According to both the Talmud and Solon, only at age 30 does a man attain full strength, and “plant his feet firm upon the ground,” according to Confucius.
From 30 to 40, a man often has great strength and energy. But has not yet reached full maturity and wisdom.
And in the Talmud, 40 is the age for “understanding” and 50 for “giving counsel.”
From 42 to 56, says Solon, “the tongue and the mind are now at their best.” In the next phase, 56 to 63, a man “is able, but never so nimble in speech and in wit as he was in the days of his prime.”
Similarly, Confucius wrote, “At 40, I no longer suffered from perplexities,” and “At 50, I knew what were the biddings of heaven.” Although it was not until he was 60 that Confucius says he “heard them with a docile ear.”
Likewise, the Talmud states that the full wisdom and dignity of being an elder begins at 60. This is also the age, says Confucius, that men enter into a new relationship with life and death, with the ultimate source of personal values, and with the self.
These thinkers who reflect the wisdom of Hebrew, Greek, and Chinese cultures converge on similar ideas about a man’s life cycle.
Throughout their sixties, men often take on mentorship roles.
They use the wisdom, judgment, self-awareness, and breadth of perspective they have accumulated to shepherd the next generation of young men through the seasons of their lives.
To receive new posts, access the full archives, and support my work, consider becoming a free or premium member.