07/18/2013 08:16 am ET Updated Sep 17, 2013

This Is Not Your Father's Mid-Life Crisis


Like many men from my era, life was all about a career. Or perhaps it was really all about approval and, dare I say, ego. In my case, I did badly at school and never went to university, so it was simply a case of proving to others (although not to myself) that I was capable of achieving something. I think for men in general, the approval and endorsement of others drives many of us in directions we would never dream of going (or indeed should ever go, because it simply does not match up to who we are or who we should become). For many men, this can have devastating effects as we reach maturity in our business life and career. We end up hitting the panic button because of what I call the "too late syndrome."

During the writing of my book, I bumped into my hairdresser on the tube. It was uncanny because I was just about to ring her to book in a trim. I had just come out of a particularly bad bout of depression after some terrible news and far too much travel. This combination caused the usual self-medication and guilt I feel when coming off my path of age-nostic living. I had not exercised for a few days, had eaten badly and had not slept well. Fortunately, it was reasonably short-lived and I was soon getting back to where I should be.

As my hairdresser and I sat in the tightly cramped tube train, we started talking about how my writing was going (I had mentioned the book project briefly to her during one of our sessions). She wanted to know more about the book. I explained it was about being a man and growing older and how to accept certain downsides, but not to accept the traditional aging process. I went on to talk about the three big subjects of addiction, depression and relationship breakdown. Whenever I do that, it always seems to start most women talking as if I am the partner they lost or was with or they wanted to meet, and this conversation on the tube was no different.

She told me there was a study about boys and girls of a very young age and how significantly the boys reacted to a situation of confrontation or perceived danger. The study revealed that the girls did little but stare, and the boys in most cases wanted to run away in fear. In a few cases -- called the "warrior response" -- some boys faced the situation head-on. There is no doubt that fear drives men much more than security. Men's fear of failure in particular can cause enormous problems. Instead of facing it, too many men run away and look for something else that they can succeed in. For the lucky ones, this can be a new job or career, but often the end result is addiction, relationship breakdown, financial problems or even total meltdown and depression.

As males, our biggest mentor figure tends to be our father. From an early age, most of us worship him and look to him for direction on many important aspects of our life. He is a beacon as we grow through our early years and move into adulthood. He represents a path that many of us decide to follow. We have followed, often subconsciously, many of his career decisions, been attracted to women similar to what he has chosen and have had comparable ideals. In many cases, way before we have even realized the mistakes he may have made, we are already down a well-worn path.

When we reach our 40s, many of our critical life decisions have been made and we often feel that our life is set on a path we cannot change. We are often reminded of the possible mistakes we have made following our first mentor as we struggle with our own marriages, families, social lives and careers. It is at this time that we are much more likely to go through some sort of panic, thinking our choices were maybe not ours at all.

Some of our health issues later in life can be traced back to parental attitudes or behavior: If they drank too much, we will tend to do the same; if they ate badly, we will tend to do the same; if they were depressed, we will tend to get depressed. I have periodically suffered from depression and alcohol abuse, something that ran in the family. There is a deep psychological effect our fathers have on our later life as we reach middle age and go through what some call a "midlife crisis".

There are medical experts who believe many of our negative traits are somehow genetically or chemically set in motion before we are born. I am personally convinced that many of the things we experience early in our life help shape our behavior later. This only intensifies as we reach the age when our fathers showed their own symptoms.

Before we all become horrified as we review our own life and the bad habits that we have contracted from our major mentor, we should remember that many of our best traits are also installed in us at an early age. Much of our success, solid values and human qualities come from our father. Of course, the influence of our mothers and the kind of interaction our parents had with each other also play an important role. Both of our parents have tremendous influence on the level of happiness, or lack thereof, we experience in our own close partnerships.

The good news is that unless your mother was a clone of Bette Davis and your father was like Ernest Hemingway or Adolf Hitler, most of us will lead relatively happy lives. The important point to note is that if one can simply identify with the theory that many of our beliefs, thoughts and patterns are not really our own, we can then change many of the bad traits that seem to intensify as we grow through our 40s and 50s. The age-nostic lifestyle requires a radical change in our mindset and behavior. It's not an easy quick-fix. But if you are in your 30s, 40s or 50s, you are in a unique position to change most aspects of the aging process for the better.

Our own fathers never had access to the technology, knowledge and medical research that we have today and will have in the future. I find it hard to imagine my own father injecting growth hormones, having a regular testosterone shot, taking supplements and keeping his fridge full of concoctions that make it look like a laboratory experiment. That sight has been left for my own children to experience now with fascination and pride as they constantly compare me to their friends' 50+ year-old fathers. Even though I have children who are all grown up now, I marvel at what might be possible through medical progress in the next 10 to 20 years. This will undoubtedly make their aging process a whole different experience than what they could have expected.