To fight midlife blues, try mastering something hard

The author competes in a 10K Spartan Race at Big Bear Mountain Resort, Calif., May 19, 2024.
The author competes in a 10K Spartan Race at Big Bear Mountain Resort, Calif., May 19, 2024.

Summary

At 46, I started to compete in grueling obstacle-course races. Success didn’t come quickly—and that’s why the challenge was so rewarding.

How is it possible to become good at something when you’re already far behind and time isn’t on your side?

That was the question pressing against my brain in April 2018. I was four months shy of my 47th birthday and had just completed my first obstacle-course racing competition, something called a Spartan Race. My age put me at the rock bottom of the well-known U-shaped curve of life happiness, bracketed on either side by younger and older adults. I was content enough, but my days were clouded by sameness—the same work routine, same circle of friends, a narrowing of interests skewed to my competencies.

Trying to interrupt my midlife slump with this race was predictable, I suppose. What happened to me after that day was not.

As an unathletic desk jockey glued to my screens, training for the competition seemed like a way to fight back against inertia and a body heading past its prime. Obstacle-course racing combines endurance running in often difficult terrain with military- and hunter-gatherer-styled obstacles: crawling under barbed wire in mud, lugging heavy sandbags up mountains, climbing ropes, scaling walls. You even throw a spear. A version of the sport will be included in the 2028 Olympics as part of the modern pentathlon.

As someone who’d chosen bowling to fulfill my university’s physical education requirement and earned the nickname “Bones" in junior high for her physique, my goal was simple: Finish and don’t die. Then I’d go back to my sitting and screens, with my race T-shirt tucked in the drawer—a sartorial red sports car to don when midlife seemed bleak.

But in the days after crossing the finish line—a middle-aged athletic nobody who fell 10 feet off a rope during the competition into a crumpled heap of humiliation—all I could think about (apart from how much every part of me hurt) was: When can I race again? And how can I get better—a lot better?

I’d taken my first step on the road to mastery—a journey that has been profoundly humbling, and one that I’ll likely never finish.

In today’s culture, we celebrate “life hacks" and shortcuts to good health and happiness, whether through supplements, fad diets, five-minute workouts or the short-lived dopamine hit of social media likes. In the workplace, completing goals by setting and achieving KPIs (key performance indicators) often determines our professional value. These expectations can make it difficult to start something new and hard in midlife, when we tend to gravitate toward what we’re already good at and the rewards that come with completing it.

At first, I certainly fell into this mindset. Closing in on age 50, “mastery" seemed vaguely absurd. Haunting me was the much-discussed 10,000-hour rule popularized by Malcolm Gladwell in his book “Outliers," where he suggested that it usually takes that much specialized practice to become an expert in a discipline. Even with two hours a day of training—if I could manage that with a full-time job and loads of middle-aged responsibilities—it would take more than 13 years to hit the mastery mark. I’d be 60. Mastery, I felt, was a journey for those who start young.

But my experience and research over the past six years show that I was wrong to see the challenge in such stark, age-bound terms. As I discovered, pursuing something difficult at any age can have profound benefits for health and happiness, even if you never become a master or an expert.

Becca Levy, a professor of epidemiology at Yale, examined data from one of the country’s most detailed studies of growing older, the Ohio Longitudinal Study on Aging and Retirement, and overlaid it with mortality data. She found that older people with more positive perceptions of aging live 7.5 years longer, on average, than those who are less positive.

One factor believed to fuel this longer lifespan is a “will to live," which can include pastimes that excite and push us. This doesn’t mean we should be occupied all the time. There’s a lot of creative and mental good to be gained from putting down our smartphones, turning off the TV and letting the mind wander. But chronic boredom and a general lack of purpose have been correlated with anxiety, depression and risk of making mistakes.

That feeling began creeping into my life before I discovered obstacle-course racing. But humbling myself among younger people in gyms, training nearly every day no matter how busy or tired, having the goal of racing in new places (like the Arabian Desert)—it has ignited in me a renewed will to live. I am constantly learning, relearning and unlearning.

I am also constantly having to be OK looking dumb.

The Greek Stoic philosopher Epictetus mused that if you want to improve at something, you need to “be content to be thought foolish and stupid." I’ve channeled his wisdom, flailing about on playground monkey bars as impatient children commented on my technique and their amused parents (my peers) watched. Neighbors can see me crawling around my backyard like a wounded animal, performing mobility exercises with stiff middle-aged limbs.

I have felt the sting of finishing races almost dead last, and I once quit a competition midway because I was too cold. I’d never quit anything in my life until that point. Showing up at my gym the next day with everyone else clad in their finisher T-shirts felt like not getting invited to prom.

On the other hand, it’s very hard to be bored slithering under barbed wire in mud, hurling spears and learning to pull yourself up a 17-foot rope. And with improvement has come a mental shift to believe the file labeled “me" isn’t finished—that I can still add to it.

These benefits are available on a variety of fronts as we age. The Seattle Longitudinal Study, started in 1956, is one of the most comprehensive research projects on how we develop and change cognitively throughout adulthood. Among its key findings: Some abilities, such as word skills, may increase into our 60s and beyond, particularly for women, while others, such as spatial abilities—think assembling furniture or reading a map—hold up into our 80s for men. That’s a lot of opportunity for later-in-life learning and journeys of mastery.

Here’s the thing about trying to achieve mastery later in life: You may not reach your destination. And I’ve come to believe that’s a good thing. Because unlike the enjoyable activities we pursue that have definitive endings—taking a walk, eating a great meal, going on vacation—training to get good at something hard is ongoing, incomplete. And that’s the beauty of it: There’s always something to look forward to.

Regardless of what you’re trying to master—fly fishing, chess, pickleball—experts say that regular movement of some sort is critical for maintaining the physical and cognitive health you’ll need. Starting a new exercise program, particularly in midlife, when noticeable decline often begins, “can really interrupt the pace of those not-good changes, those negative changes, and turn them into positive changes," says Steven Austad, senior scientific director for the American Federation for Aging Research. New research, he adds, shows “physical activity is one of the best ways to avoid later-life dementia."

Six years have passed since my first race. After some 4,000 hours of practice, I’ve advanced on the five-stage “Dreyfus model" of skill acquisition from “novice" to “advanced beginner" to “competence." I now race competitively in my age group and have under my belt 19 top-three podium finishes and two world championship competitions. Some days, when everything is clicking, I may even touch the fourth stage of proficiency.

It’s a far cry from childhood, when I cowered behind my best friend during dodgeball and warmed my school’s bench in soccer games. Longevity is never guaranteed, but I’ve made strides to keep functioning independently as I age—lifting my suitcase into the airplane’s overhead bin, hiking three miles in snow if our car breaks down. I’m also more confident off the racecourse. Not long ago, I took a job with a tech start-up where I’m one of the oldest employees. Younger workers teach me about AI; I took a crew of them on their first Spartan Race.

Admittedly, I’m still coming to peace with the idea that I’ll never reach the final stage of “expert" at this sport I now love. I’ve met people who are experts: They possess natural talent I don’t, or have spent time training that I probably can’t at this point. There remain obstacles I fail during races more than I’d like; now that I’m 52 years old, I don’t know if that will change.

These reminders of my limitations and mortality are what’s been most humbling about the experience. But “never finished" may be the best medicine when life seems to be making a turn toward endings. I interviewed a woman in her 80s nicknamed “Muddy Mildred" who ran obstacle-course races. How far can I get with the time that is left to me?

Here are five tactics experts recommend to jumpstart your mastery journey:

1. Intrinsic motivation gets you farther than extrinsic motivation. Motivation from external factors—money, a promotion, a medal—can be short-lived. “I can probably get someone up from the couch to run a 10K if I give them enough money," says Chad Stecher, a behavioral health economist and assistant professor at Arizona State University. “But after that 10K, unless I provide additional incentives or support, their physical activity won’t persist."

Instead, look for a pursuit where you are motivated to engage because of personal satisfaction or a deeper drive. One place to start: childhood. What did you want to be or do when you grew up, but it hasn’t yet happened? My experience of being a gawky kid still drives me.

2. Cultivate a “growth mindset." Believing your success is tied more to hard work than innate talent is critical on the mastery journey. The well-known Stanford University psychologist Carol Dweck talks about one Chicago school’s unorthodox but effective grading protocol, where instead of a failing grade, students would get a “Not Yet."

You’re not going to become a good diver without landing a lot of belly-flops, or a competent fly-fisherman without the line occasionally getting wrapped up in a tree. It doesn’t mean you won’t get there; it just means you haven’t gotten there yet.

3. Locate edges and equalizers. Crystallized intelligence—your stored-up body of wisdom—can make age a secret weapon. The older you are, the more you’ve tried, failed, succeeded and learned. Draw from that bank. I can’t rely on a 25-year-old body to perform well, so I’ve turned to information: intel on gear, clothing, weather, hydration, terrain, sleep.

“When you’re older, you can see the bigger picture more than you could when you were 17," says Alex Hutchinson, bestselling author of the book “Endure." “It’s really easy to get excited about big goals, but to actually achieve them takes patience to take care of details, patience to stay on track when obstacles arise."

4. Prioritize what’s essential. You can’t hack your way to mastery. It takes time and the “disciplined pursuit of less," as Greg McKeown explains in his book “Essentialism."

To include obstacle-course racing in an already full life, I trimmed my Instagram feed to mainly follow accounts helping me learn about the sport. After analyzing how much of my workday was spent in inefficient, hour-long, weekly one-on-one meetings, I cut most of them back to 25 minutes and set clear agendas. I declined all social invitations that weren’t from my closest friends and stepped away from many boards I served on. With every “no," I got back a few more hours to devote to this new journey.

5. The mastery journey can be never-ending. And that’s fine. Finishing only that first race would have given me short-lived bragging rights and an awesome social media photo. But then it would have been over—extinguishing a source of meaning in my life.

It wasn’t until I firmly entered the realm of “never finished" that I realized how electrifying it could be. Which sure feels like a far cry from being stuck at the bottom of a U curve.

This essay is adapted from Gwendolyn Bounds’s new book, “Not Too Late: The Power of Pushing Limits at Any Age," which will be published on June 18 by Ballantine. She is the vice president of content & U.S. media partnerships at SmartNews and a former writer and editor at The Wall Street Journal.

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