When I hit my 40th birthday nothing much happened, but by the time I was 41, I knew I had to change my life. I settled with my family in the peaceful Island of Fuerteventura for a year to discover how to do this.
During that year of respite from the life I’d lived before, many questions rose to the surface as I dealt with the conflicts between my past and my desired future. I changed inside, and my external life changed too.
I made some important decisions and now, several years beyond that mid-point, my life’s journey is continuing with simplicity, aliveness and fulfilment.
Colin hits 40
August 2nd 2003 I crossed an important life threshold, my fortieth birthday, the supposed mid-life line.
Unlike many people I’ve interviewed and worked with, mid-life for me wasn’t like being in a force ten gale, knocking me off my feet. I wasn’t blown over by an external crisis like a failed marriage, health scare, or the death of a loved one. Mine was more an internal, creeping crisis that had grown over time.
Although I was very happy with many aspects of my life – my marriage, children, friends, career and income – I became aware of a gnawing sense that something was missing.
“Am I happy … really?”
I recognised I was entering a new development stage in life when a few years ago a delegate looked me in the eye and said, “Colin you must be very happy with your life.” Although I said, “Yes,” for days afterwards I rolled that comment around in my mind.
I found when I asked myself, “Am I happy…really?” I didn’t have the answer. I knew I should be happy with my life but I suspected I was not. I had ticked virtually every box on my list of life goals and to many others my life looked pretty successful so what was missing?
I sensed my smile had gone into hiding and I didn’t know why. For a while it was all I could think about. I wondered, “How had this happened?” when I was doing the work I cared so deeply about.
For the past fifteen years, my professional passion has been helping individuals tap unrealised potential and make a difference in their lives. Over the years I’ve been trained in many behavioural change models including Cognitive therapy techniques, Ericksonian Hypnosis and NLP.
In 1994 some colleagues and I started a Mindset solutions consultancy called Speakers International, now merged with Rogen to create rogenSi. The sole purpose of this new organisation was to bring attitudinal and mindset solutions to the heart of organisations and organisation change.
Our little business soon took off, catapulting us all over the world doing what we passionately believed in. Of course this was the success we all desired, but as I found, it came at a personal cost.
The last ten years has consisted of riding a treadmill in an increasingly complex world. Most evenings were spent emailing, writing, designing, planning, and repacking – all tacked on to a fifty-hour working week. Each day began at six am and ended seventeen hours later.
I spent an average of fifteen hours a week travelling to and from clients. Technology ensured I was constantly connected to the office, blurring the line between work time and personal time.
Weekends were spent nurturing a young family, catching up with friends and getting some rest if I could before the start of another gruelling week.
I was trapped and exhausted by a raging current of busy-ness. At times unable to keep up, I was stuck in a continual fast forward motion, rushing to get the next task done. This demanding life, in which I had been willing to invest so many hours, was beginning to lose its attraction.
I was beginning to feeling lost, dissatisfied, and drained.
Around that time I chanced on a quote by the great Swiss psychoanalyst Carl Jung:
“Wholly unprepared, we embark upon the second half of life…we take the step into the afternoon of life; worst still, we take this step with the false assumptions that our truths and ideals will serve us as before. But we cannot live the afternoons of life according to the programme of life’s morning – for what was great in the morning will be little in the evening, and what in the morning was true will in the evening have become a lie.”
On first reading I found this quote so compelling that I read it a second time, then a third time, then a fourth time. It struck a deep cord in me. It was like someone pulling curtains open and allowing the sun to light up a once darkened room.
I perceived I was standing at an emotional and spiritual crossroads. I realised that in all my behavioural training I had learned very little about mid-life, this important psychological stage that I had entered uninformed and utterly unprepared for.
I was unaware at the time that I was being prompted internally to make a change. This mini “mid-life crisis” caused me to take a close look at how I was living my life. I started questioning everything: my career, lifestyle and priorities and saw that things were severely out of balance.
La Isla Tranquila beckons
I decided the right time had come to slow down, take an honest look at my life, and ponder what I wanted from the afternoon of my life.
We (my wife Tor, two boys Sonnie and Herbie and I), decided to take a rather risky approach to my dilemma. We set a goal to stop the world and get off for a whole year.
We started planning our escape from the mad whirl of stress to live on a large piece of barren volcanic rock called Fuerteventura. We decided the La Isla Tranquila, or Peaceful Island, as it’s affectionately known by the locals, would be the perfect environment to do some serious soul searching.
It is a beautiful island with no traffic lights, no motorways, no traffic jams, no rush hour, no underground, and no trains. Just sun-kissed sandy beaches, warm turquoise blue seas and plenty of fresh air.
We had to work out how we were going to live for an entire year with no income and raised what we thought we would need (which was actually very little) by selling some of my shares in Si, taking out a loan, and covering our mortgage by renting out our house.
Closing the smile gap in Fuerteventura
We arrived on the island on the 1st September 2004 for the start of our family adventure and my mid-life retreat. For me it meant escaping the orbit of the office, palm pilot, and laptop lifestyle life.
I decided to call the 365 days between September 1st 2004 and September 1st 2005, “Closing the smile gap, a year long in-venture.”
We rented a two-bedroom apartment and settled down to the Spanish way of life. Within two weeks the boys, aged four and six, started at the local Spanish school.
Watching them walk in line into their new school, not being able to speak the language, was one of the hardest things we have had to do as parents. In tears we both hugged each other as they disappeared behind closed doors.
We could barely imagine what it must be like to sit there so young, in a new school, not knowing anyone and not being able to understand a single word being said.
At the time we drew a lot of comfort from other experienced non-Spanish parents who said the boys would soon pick up the language – and they were right – thankfully! Having two crying and upset boys every weekday bedtime was heart wrenching.
At times we were ready to go back home to the UK While the boys were at school we occupied ourselves on the complicated task of getting all the necessary paper work completed to be able to live and function on the island. We spent many hours in the wrong queue, driving round and round trying to find the wrong building, only to learn that “Manana” means not today.
Still, even with these hiccups we soon transitioned into the peaceful flow of life the island is famous for. I completely slipped the tether of work, enjoying an ever-increasing tranquil state of mind. Juan, a local father from the school the boys went to, explained the island to me.
He said, “Economically the island belongs to Spain. Geographically it belongs to Africa but culturally it belongs to South America.” This pleased me because, according to research by the World Values Survey, study after study shows that Latin Americans are amongst the happiest people on the planet.
Culturally I was in the right place.
Questions and some answers
Living for an entire year free from all work concerns gave me physiological space to find answers to what was missing and start the process of closing my “smile gap”. The year away gave me a chance to do some serious inner investigating.
Everything I’d clung to and thought important in the “morning” of my life came into question. Many assumptions I had built during the first half of my lifetime were no longer working for me. At the midway mark I had created a life based on what I grew up believing would bring me happiness and success.
I kept thinking about a line in Carl Jung’s quote – “we take the step into the afternoon of life; worst still, we take this step with the false assumptions that our truths and ideals will serve us as before”. Who am I? What’s really important to me? Why am I here? What do I want? What’s purpose?
As I pondered these questions, I began to realise just how much proving myself and gaining approval of the family, both business and personal, had motivated the first half of my life. Now I desired a new way of being, one that was more closely aligned with my inner truth.
Inner conflict, inner evolution
Gradually over the year, unmet desires and hopes began to rise to the surface and be acknowledged for the first time. I began to understand what was missing from my life. In the race to achieve I had lost sight of what mattered most.
The life I had been living was no longer reflecting my deepest values or priorities and was leaving me stressed, tired and unfulfilled – putting my smile into hiding. It wasn’t easy to confront life’s BIG questions. I found it took a degree of courage to begin the process of asking and even more courage to hear the answers that bubbled up from the heart.
Mid-life is like any development stage in life – it naturally encourages an inner conflict. I found the “crisis” part lay in the internal struggle of letting go of old youthful values that no longer held any meaning for me whilst connecting with the voice of my essential self.
There’s been a degree of sadness and loss for the “old” parts of myself I’ve left behind, whilst the rediscovery of parts of myself long since buried has released a new sense of vitality, energy and a deepening level of fulfilment.
This “crisis”, or conflicting internal energy, is an important part of the journey. As we struggle to resolve this inner conflict we naturally move to the next stage of our evolution. This is why I now view mid-life not as something negative, but as a wonderful gift.
Facing the fear of re-entry
In May 2005, four months before we were due to finish our year out, we flew, as a family, to mainland Spain to check out an international school. It’s a school we at RogenSi have been associated with from its inception eight years ago.
It has always been a school we’ve wanted to place the boys in because of its holistic view of children and what learning really means. We arranged to meet with Paul, its founder, to talk about the possibility of the boys starting there at the start of the school year – September.
At the point of flying out we had spent nearly nine months on the small island. Landing in Madrid to catch our connecting flight we had some time to spare. In a mere two and a half hours, we had left the peace and tranquillity we’d become so accustomed to for the hustle and bustle of a busy, noisy airport.
From the vast expansiveness and timelessness of the island, to the constricted “small box” reality of civilisation. People brushed past us in a furious hurry and rush. Women were decked out in the latest fashion and designer brands. Men dressed in suits and ties, clutching mobiles, laptops and palm pilots, eagerly checked their watches.
Everybody’s life seemed reduced to the clock. It felt claustrophobic.
Too much, too fast. We retreated to the far end of the terminal where there was less noise and busyness. This gave us breathing space before we got something to eat before boarding our next flight.
We hadn’t expected this. Re-entry into the long forgotten world of civilisation was going to be harder than anticipated. I was worried about holding on to the benefits gained from our year out and not losing them immediately on re-entry to mainland living.
“Hi, what was it like?”
Arriving back to the UK from the year-long retreat I remember smiling a lot as I walked around the RogenSi London office. Everything seemed clearer, sharper, and brighter. I was living in a very different reality bubble from the one I left.
Everyone I bumped into was interested to find out about my getaway experience. Soon after general chitchat of how much weight I had lost and how tanned and well I looked the questions would start. It almost always started with the same question. I knew it would come.
The question went something like this, “So Colin, what was it like?” On the surface this appears to be a simple question to answer. But, every time I tried to answer it the words I used to describe it always seemed vastly inadequate. No matter what words I used they never came close to doing the experience justice.
I mean, how do you communicate a year free from stress and responsibility associated with work, whilst living in a completely different culture and climate with the people who matter most to me, my two little boys Sonnie and Herbie and my beautiful wife Tor?
To describe what the experience was like is like trying to describe a colour blue in words to a blind person. Unless you’ve seen the colour blue it’s hard to explain.
Sharing my new passion
So, eventually, when asked that seemly simple question, I would respond with two words, “Life changing!” Once I said that I felt I had said enough. They already knew. I would stand there in silence smiling wildly, communicating at a deeper level, the level below words – feelings. Let them feel it.
This appeared to work. It was often greeted with an accepting smile and a relaxing of the shoulders. Some would then turn and walk away looking a little more relaxed, while others showed curiosity to know more.
In attempting to explain how it was life changing and how I had found my “smile” I would enthusiastically share the change process I went through and the realisations it had given me. In those early interactions I know I sometimes came across as a little evangelical in my approach.
My passion for this “life changing” stuff often got the better of me. Looking back, those early events taught me two valuable lessons: one, only spend time communicating my thoughts to those who show genuine curiosity and interest; and two, don’t search for approval for my new found philosophy for my second half of life.
What’s changed inside
I’m learning to stop trading what’s important to me for others’ expectations and the norms of society. Doing this can present uncomfortable decisions but when I face them I’m ultimately led to some transformational life changes.
My career has become more than money and the comforts of life. My way of life has become more than status and how others define me. I know that this is the consequence of journeying to the heart.
Some say it’s the longest journey and I found my inspiration from going there. It would be a lie to say that listening to my heart and following my passions has been an easy path to follow. It has not: it required high clarity of intentions, a depth of knowing beyond beliefs, and most of all, it required a powerful heart-driven dream.
I’ve discovered the more I’ve followed my path, the more life’s beauty has been revealed to me. It has forced me to dig deeper than expected. Such change has meant relinquishing out-dated and long-held assumptions that used to lead me to uncertainty, anxiety and stress rather than peace of mind, well-being and fulfilment.
What’s changed outside
My professional and personal life has changed dramatically since taking the year out. We now live in Andalusia in southern Spain, enjoying the slower pace of life and the warmer climate.
I play more, run more, laugh more, rest more, write more, and meditate more. I’ve established deeper and more meaningful relationships with my wife and the boys. I now make it a priority to spend quality time with them.
My professional life has changed too. I used to spend 100% of my time working and consulting in the corporate arena but now it’s more varied. In May 2010 I left RogenSi to go solo, and now have a portfolio career which I’ve created around my interests and passions. I love having multiple streams of income.
I also spend time in the boy’s school, with the children, teachers and parents on personal development, accelerated learning and self-esteem matters.
I give back by running retreats in Spain for people looking for help to find and follow their smile and don’t charge for my time. At the time of writing this the retreats have raised £120k for a number of charities. I can honestly say my life now contains many more moments of that wonderful feeling that’s beyond time, a feeling of the sacred: aliveness.
The mid-life review
I think mid-life has been both the most challenging and exciting time of my life so far. It’s an emotional rollercoaster ride but I’m committed to riding it to the end and enjoying it.
Mid-life offered me the opportunity to design a more authentic way of living in the second half of my life. I will not take my final breath thinking that my second half of life was full of “should haves” and “could haves.” I don’t want to be somebody who dies at forty but isn’t buried until eighty.
I’ve met many people who only lived for a short time but took a long time to die.
I’ve been on an amazing learning journey. We left La Isla Tranquila with our family bumper sticker motto, “Outwardly simple, inwardly fulfilled,” and this is our second half of life philosophy.
It’s what we benchmark any decision against: is it simplifying our life and is it fulfilling? More and more, with each day that passes, I’m discovering the peace and contentment I’m searching for and I’m beginning to understand and better experience what real happiness means to me.
I’m still work in progress, but as a result of all the work I’ve done I feel the second half my life is going to be richer than ever before.