A guy I know owned a chain of restaurants with a business partner. He no longer does. What happened? Covid was certainly a challenge and food service is always a tough business, but the main reason was that the partner had a textbook midlife crisis that ended up blowing up his life and his finances. He had to sell his stake in the venture and the business never fully recovered from the fallout. 

This is just one personal anecdote, but it's certainly not an unfamiliar story. Midlife crises can spell the death of your marriage and your dignity, but they can also spell the end of a previously successful business. How do you prevent them? 

At first blush that sounds like both a complicated question and a personal one. But according to Harvard professor Arthur C. Brooks, most midlife meltdowns can be prevented with just two simple mindset shifts. 

Midlife crises aren't inevitable

Brooks is the author of a series of articles in The Atlantic called "How to Build Your Life," which break down the academic research on positive psychology and thriving in your life and career into useful advice for a popular audience. In his latest, he tackles the phenomenon of the midlife crisis, tracing when the idea first came into popular consciousness and the evolving understanding of why one occurs and how often. 

All of this is fascinating if you're looking for a deep dive into the subject, but the essential takeaway is that scientists once thought midlife crises were a normal part of the aging process. They've since changed their tune. "More recently," Brooks writes, "many have found that a 'crisis' is not our unavoidable fate."

To avoid crashing into regret and mortality and making ill-considered decisions when we hit midlife, Brooks insists you need to make these two small but profound changes to your mindset.

1. Focus on gains, not losses. 

Aging is implacable. As you get older, you are going to lose physical strength and speed and eventually some mental speed and flexibility, too (though those changes start later than you expect). Understandably, that sets off feelings of panic in many people. But Brooks points out that those feeling despair at their worsening memory and weakening biceps are only focusing on half the equation. Some skills get worse with age, but lots of other important ones get better.   

"Stagnation, which can lead to a crisis, happens when you try to fight against time, whether you're desperately trying not to look older or struggling against changes in your skills and strengths. Generativity comes from accepting your age and recognizing the new aptitudes and abilities that naturally develop after age 40 and get stronger through your 50s and 60s. These include the growing ability to see patterns clearly, teach others, and explain complex ideas--what psychologists call 'crystallized intelligence,'" Brooks writes. 

Still skeptical? I've written about multiple studies showing that certain important skills from EQ to some types of creativity actually get better as we age. You can read a few of them here, here, and here. I should also point out that the average age at which entrepreneurs with successful exits found their businesses is thoroughly middle-aged 47 precisely because all the skills and experience gained in your younger years make you a more formidable (if also more easily tired) entrepreneur. 

2. Focus on subtraction, not addition. 

Brooks has written before about how the good life is often gained by subtraction rather than addition. (He advocates a tool called a "reverse bucket list" to figure out what commitments, stressors, and miscellaneous other junk to remove from your schedule and your brain.) Apparently, this process of pruning is key to avoiding a midlife crisis too. 

"Early in life, success usually comes from addition: more money, more responsibility, more relationships, more possessions. Life in early adulthood is like filling up an empty canvas. By midlife, however, that canvas is pretty full, and more brushstrokes make the painting worse, not better," he claims, advising: "Work to change your objective by stepping away from voluntary duties and responsibilities, and making more time to think, read, love, and pray--the work that you need to do to reengineer you."

This all sounds easy enough in theory, but as we all know focusing on the positive and saying no more often can actually be fiendishly difficult in real life. Which is why, Brooks helpfully points out, there are many programs and academies out there to help you through the process. Brooks suggests a few in his article

Whether or not you opt for some formalized approach to grappling with middle age, the truth is that middle age will inevitably grapple with you. Knowing a bit about the psychology of how people successfully weather the transition away from youth and into a flourishing middle adulthood could help boost your peace of mind and maybe even your business success.