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Midlife: A Philosophical Guide

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Philosophical wisdom and practical advice for overcoming the problems of middle age

How can you reconcile yourself with the lives you will never lead, with possibilities foreclosed, and with nostalgia for lost youth? How can you accept the failings of the past, the sense of futility in the tasks that consume the present, and the prospect of death that blights the future? In this self-help book with a difference, Kieran Setiya confronts the inevitable challenges of adulthood and middle age, showing how philosophy can help you thrive.

You will learn why missing out might be a good thing, how options are overrated, and when you should be glad you made a mistake. You will be introduced to philosophical consolations for mortality. And you will learn what it would mean to live in the present, how it could solve your midlife crisis, and why meditation helps.

Ranging from Aristotle, Schopenhauer, and John Stuart Mill to Virginia Woolf and Simone de Beauvoir, as well as drawing on Setiya's own experience, Midlife combines imaginative ideas, surprising insights, and practical advice. Writing with wisdom and wit, Setiya makes a wry but passionate case for philosophy as a guide to life.

189 pages, Hardcover

First published October 20, 2017

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Kieran Setiya

15 books58 followers

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 221 reviews
441 reviews13 followers
December 19, 2017
Kieran’s book on how to cope with midlife crisis was a Godsend for me.

It is hard not to fall into self-biography when considering midlife crisis. When I was about to turn 40 I was worried about what that would mean for me. Initially nothing happened. As my fifth decade advanced I became increasingly aware of my own mortality, as my father and my two grandmothers died and my son grew at a scarily quick pace. Even though I had no major health concerns, unexpected conditions started to pop up. When I turned 50 I was in panic mode. As I faced the limits of what I would achieve as a professional, as a citizen, a parent, a husband, a relative, as I contemplated the impact of aging on my mother and other older relatives, as I saw it on myself every day in the mirror, when I climbed stairs, or jumped, or carried heavy bags, I spent hours, usually late at night and early in the morning, considering it all. Religion helped some, although not nearly as much as I’d hoped.

The worst part of it was my contemporaries, most of whom seemed to be in denial. Many chose to parrot the party line: “50 is the new 30”. “ I am in my best moment and the future can only get better”. Really? Really? No one wanted to discuss the awfulness of aging as one’s mind and one’s body begin to show the signs of years lived, or of considering roads not taken, goals not reached, or reached and found wanting. I concluded that people I knew (some, at any rate) preferred to play an elaborate deception on themselves and others: if I pretend I don’t care about aging, disease and death, then these awful realities will somehow disappear, to be replaced by funny memes in social media.

Now, I am not one to begrudge anyone anything (or nearly) that’ll get him through the day. Whatever works, right? Well, not for me. I need to make sense of things, can’t just pretend they’re not there. I had read Montaigne’s Essays, and while fascinating they did not provide comfort in these concerns. Setiya’s book is a very useful, short but dense primer on how to live with the awareness of decay and death that middle age brings to anyone not in self-denial. His recommendations are useful, although I did not agree with some of them. Regardless of what one may think about particular arguments, sharing the thoughts of this smart, humane author was balm for my ego. Between the Scylla of denial and the Carybdis of nihilism Setiya charts a middle course that will appear to most readers who, looking around, ask themselves “is this all there is”?
Profile Image for Nick Klagge.
716 reviews53 followers
January 11, 2018
This is an excellent book of modern philosophy. A year or more ago, my dad (a philosophy professor) sent me a link to Setiya's essay "The Midlife Crisis" (http://www.ksetiya.net/uploads/2/4/5/...), which is the seed of this book. I greatly enjoyed the essay, and looked forward to the book version when I found out it was in the works.

I'm 32, so probably at the very young end of what anyone would consider middle-aged. (My dad expressed some shock when this came up in my update feed!) But the ideas Setiya speaks to still feel meaningful to me. I'd guess they would probably feel meaningful to anyone who has more or less established an adult life for themselves. For me, the "feelings of midlife" are probably about the best they could possibly be, and maybe similar to Setiya's own: I've finished grad school and probably won't get any more degrees, I've found a life partner and gotten married, I have a career that is interesting, seems worthwhile, and pays more than I think I need. These things together render a sense of emptiness in the mere succession of achievement of desires.

(I should note that these types of feelings are something for which religion, a belief in a higher power, might be seen as an answer, not to mention that it might help with the prospect of mortality. I don't remember Setiya ever mentioning religion, and the book more or less proceeds on atheistic grounds. That works for me!)

Setiya writes in a style that is just about perfect for me. The closest comparison I can think of is reading Epictetus, the Stoic philosopher. Both of these writers are doing philosophy that is explicitly therapeutic; that is, geared toward helping the reader live her life in a better way. The style is fairly simple and approachable, no more difficult than your average intellectual book of popular nonfiction. Setiya draws on earlier philosophers at times, particularly Schopenhauer, but is mainly happy to give his own perspectives. Despite all this, he also proceeds in a fairly careful, analytical style, considering and rejecting or accepting various specific explanations, then assessing the reasonableness of various approaches to addressing those he selects as likely. He defines special terms a couple of times, but only as needed, and they generally seemed to facilitate understanding rather than impeding it.

I also found the content useful, if not 100% settling any sense of unease. Setiya talks at some length about Schopenhauer's critique of a project-oriented life--either you are unhappy because there is goal you wish to obtain and have not yet obtained, or you have achieved your goal, in which case you are directionless and lack meaning. In this view, life is a continual treadmill of lacking and extinguishing. Setiya's response is to draw a distinction between "telic" and "atelic" activities: those that are pursued in order to achieve some end, and those that are pursued as valuable in and of themselves. Examples of atelic activities might be walking in nature, talking with friends, or listening to music. But there are also atelic aspects of almost any activity. A good example, which Setiya doesn't mention, is training for a marathon or other race. You might view the training as an unfortunate cost to be paid in order to achieve the goal of finishing a marathon, or you might view the marathon as a means to getting yourself to go outside and run, which is itself intrinsically good. In Setiya's view, orienting our lives toward a more atelic perspective is an effective way of responding to the midlife crisis.

The essay version of this book focuses primarily on the telic/atelic distinction. The book version is padded out with more extended consideration of several other related topics, including the fear of death, regret for lives we didn't live, and regret for mistakes we made in the past. These sections of the book are also characteristically thoughtful, but for the most part, didn't speak to me as much. More than anything, I take this to mean that the "succession of projects" aspect of the midlife crisis is the one that I personally feel the most. The "FOMO" section on lives we didn't choose does contain a view that I found very meaningful, though. Setiya says that one of the aspects of midlife regret is that human life offers such a plurality of values. While this can lead to some painful feelings, Setiya encourages us to take a broader perspective by understanding that this very plurality is a large part of what makes human life rich and worth living. We could only rid ourselves of this sense of tradeoff by drastically narrowing the scope of our interests and experiences, and this, he submits, would be far from worth it.

I came away from this book with some ideas that I now regularly call to mind, and that is very high praise. I hope Kieran Setiya gets a good reception for this book, and decides to write more for a general audience! If the ideas sound interesting to you, I recommend reading first the essay I linked above, and if you like it, getting the book!
Profile Image for Moh. Nasiri.
293 reviews96 followers
June 14, 2021
بحران میانسالی
همه ما دیر یا زود در میانسالی بین 35 تا 40 سالگی به بحران میانسالی یا ورود به جنگلی تاریک دچار میشویم که بر اساس مطالعاتی در سال 2008توسط دو محقق در اوج و فرود زندگی ما بشکل حرف" یو" انگیسی قابل تصور هست که به نوعی پرسش ما از دستاوردهای ما و معنای زندگی هم هست. این کتاب با طرح دیدگاه فیلسوفان برای گذر آرام از این دوران توصیه هایی هم می کند
* midlife crisis : U-shaped crisis
غالباً میان‌سالی را دوره‌ای حسرت‌بار و غم‌افزا تصویر کرده‌اند. دورانی که در آن شور و هیجان دوران جوانی دیگر تمام شده، آرزوهایمان از دست رفته و حس می‌کنیم زندگی‌ با شیبی ملایم رو به افول می‌رود. اما بسیاری از افراد در این سال‌ها شوقِ معنویِ تازه‌ای در وجود خود احساس می‌کنند. میلی درونی که معنای زندگی در جهان را برایشان عوض می‌کند و آن‌ها را به تجارب روحی تازه‌ای می‌کشاند. تجاربی که گویا به همان اندازۀ ماجراجویی‌های دوران جوانی عمیق و خوشایند است.
مهم نیست سر از کجا در می‌آورید، جست‌وجوی معنوی می‌تواند یکی از بزرگ‌ترین لذت‌های زندگی باشد
مقاله ای در سایت ترجمان هم در این خصوص خواندم:

پ.ن.: جمله بیقراریت از طلب قرار توست/طالب بیقرار شو تا که قرارت آیدت(مولوی)

The idea of middle age as a time of crisis is relatively new – but there are reasons to believe it’s accurate.

It was 1965, and Elliot Jaques, an influential social scientist and psychoanalyst, had noticed an interesting trend. While studying the lives of famous figures and talking with his patients, Jaques had found that middle age often proved to be a transformative period in their lives.

Take the great Italian poet Dante, for example. To use his own metaphor, Dante found himself “lost in a dark woods” at age 35 – right before he began writing the Divine Comedy. Michelangelo, to name another Italian genius, actually painted next to nothing between the ages of 40 and 55. 

Struck by the importance of middle age for great artists and ordinary people alike, Jaques wrote a groundbreaking essay that coined an intriguing term. The essay’s title was “Death and the Mid-Life Crisis” – and with its publication, the term “midlife crisis” suddenly began to spread. 

The key message here is: The idea of middle age as a time of crisis is relatively new – but there are reasons to believe it’s accurate.

By now, the characteristics of a midlife crisis are familiar to most of us. And although not everyone ends up buying a motorcycle, changing careers, or getting a divorce, many people are struck by a newfound sense of dissatisfaction around the age of 40.

Why? Well, when we reach middle age, we often have to acknowledge some hard truths. For the first time in our lives, we may have to admit that many of our childhood and adolescent dreams are never going to come true. 

Instead, we have to make do with our lives as they actually are. And for many of us, this means learning that disappointment and boredom are often pretty hard to avoid.

But beyond these gentle letdowns looms something more serious – it’s at this age that many people first really grasp their own mortality. Even when we’re young, we know that death is inevitable, of course. But middle age, with its backaches, wrinkles, and health scares, can make our sense of mortality feel a lot more concrete and urgent.

And it’s not just a hunch that midlife can leave us feeling dissatisfied – a robust body of scholarly work actually bears out this observation. In 2008, two economists named David Blanchflower and Andrew Oswald conducted a study of lifetime well-being; they found that our levels of happiness tend to form a U-shape over the course of our lives. That is, we start out fairly happy, grow somewhat dissatisfied in middle age, and then begin to cheer up again in our older years. 

Luckily, this process isn’t inevitable – and there are a number of philosophical insights that can make midlife easier to bear.
Learn to love the process – not the goal.

A feeling of dissatisfaction overtakes many of us in middle age once the goals we’ve pursued for decades are, at long last, achieved. 

Just think of the last time you got something you really desired. Maybe it was a promotion at work. Maybe it was a luxurious holiday. Whatever it was, you probably felt a surge of pure joy when you first realized it was within your grasp. After all your work and all of your patience, you’d finally won out.

But once that lovely, initial wave of delight subsided, what happened next? If you’re like most people, you probably soon found yourself just as dissatisfied as you had been before.

This insight was central to the philosophy of Arthur Schopenhauer, one of the world’s most formidable pessimists. 

The key message here is: Learn to love the process – not the goal.

Whether it’s becoming a partner at your law firm or marrying the man of your dreams, you’ve probably achieved a few happy milestones by midlife. So why, then, do so many of us find ourselves asking, “Is this it?” 

Schopenhauer’s advice was to give up on desires altogether. After all, when our wishes are unfulfilled, we experience a kind of suffering. And even when we do get what we want, we’re only very briefly satisfied. The better option, Schopenhauer thought, would be to simply stop desiring.

But we don’t have to agree with him. Instead, we can draw a distinction between two types of activities. One type aims at completion – things like writing a book, getting a promotion, or getting married all aim at certain finished states. It’s these types of activities that often leave us feeling disappointed and unsatisfied. 

We can call them telic, from the Greek word telos, meaning “end.” The other type of activities is atelic, or “without end.” You can stop talking to your friends, for example, and you can stop sailing – but you can’t “complete” these things like you’d complete your tax returns.

When you engage with telic, end-focused activities, each success eliminates a desire – another article published, another meal cooked, another deadline met. This sense of routine box-ticking can be profoundly deadening over time.

The solution is to make more time for atelic activities, like listening to music, spending time with friends and family, and going on long, rambling walks. Even more simply, you can just change your attitude toward everyday life. Instead of keeping your eye on the prize, pay attention to the process itself – and in time, you might find yourself enjoying it.

* blinkist.com
مطالعه بیشتر:
Profile Image for Nelson Zagalo.
Author 9 books320 followers
September 8, 2019
Kieran Setiya é professor de filosofia no MIT e escreveu o livro “Midlife: A Philosophical Guide” (2017) que se tornou uma espécie bestseller no tema das crises existenciais da meia-idade. Li o artigo que deu origem ao livro (passei depois os olhos pelo livro mas acrescentava pouco mais) e deixo aqui as linhas principais defendidas pelo autor, sendo que a razão que me levou a realizar esta partilha é de que a conclusão maior vai contra tudo aquilo que tenho feito e estudado nas última décadas. E o pior é que conhecendo tão bem como conheço o modo de organização da vida no formato narrativo, tendo a dar a razão a Setiya. Diz-nos ele que não podemos resolver a crise se continuarmos a tentar construir histórias sobre aquilo que fomos, somos ou queremos ser. Para Setiya, o problema assenta na diferença entre o valor atribuído ao que fazemos, entre o télico e atélico, ou seja, entre "ter um fim" ou ser simplesmente "interminável".

Continua no blog em https://virtual-illusion.blogspot.com....
Profile Image for Repix.
2,177 reviews411 followers
May 4, 2021
Solo si te gusta mucho la filosofía porque no es amigable ni práctico.
Profile Image for Scott Muc.
42 reviews3 followers
November 1, 2022
My rating is very subjective because this book hit home for me. It might not for you. This is also less of a review and more of a self-reflective summary.

As someone who is entering their mid-40s and has decided to go on a career break for an unspecified amount of time, this book resonated big time. Though not for all dimensions.

It starts by describing the midlife crisis as not a crisis. It's primarily a set of circumstances that can only occur in ones midlife. The book describes what these circumstances are and provides guidance on how to sort through them.

There's a large focus on regret and counter-factual thinking. Thankfully, that's not something I suffer from. Perhaps because I've had a great life and don't believe I've done any direct harm that I would regret. I'm content with uncertainty and enjoy thinking probabilistically (thanks Thinking in Bets: Making Smarter Decisions When You Don't Have All the Facts and The Drunkard's Walk: How Randomness Rules Our Lives).

I'm happy that I read about transformational change (thanks Transformative Experience) which provides a good framework on where Decision Theory falls flat which this author doesn't cover very well. There's different systems at play between picking a cereal to eat, a car to purchase, and a career path to follow (thanks Aspiration: The Agency of Becoming).

The key takeaway was doubling down on the concept of Process vs Product (or Telic and Atelic as the author labels them. Telic is a way of describing things that have an end in mind. Atelic is the opposite of that. For example, commuting to work is a telic activity. Going for a stroll isn't. I felt that comparison right away. When I walk to work, I walk with purpose. I usually walk too fast, and get annoyed easily by blockers in my way. When going for a stroll, where I choose randomly which direction to go, I'm in the moment. Savoring the activity. Atelic activities are all about living in that moment.

What's interesting is that telic activities that are loved are somewhat depressing because the goal is to end that much loved activity.

Something I'm learning in my own midlife is the gradual shift to more telic activities. I feel that my career has migrated to more telic activities as well. I'm starting to resent product management, the software delivery process, and the constant drive to build more and more. In recent years, I found a love for maintenance, which I now understand is a somewhat atelic activity. My favorite engineering activities to do these days are repave my machines and tinker on my raspberry pi. No goals, simply enjoying the work for works sake. I wonder if this is what drives a lot of open source software (and the demise as they navigate from being atelic pursuits to telic goal driven projects).

In the conclusion the author mentions that paying attention to the How is more rewarding than the What. This has been a tension in me in my professional life. With companies attempting to be more outcome focused, the "how" question is dismissed. I think this is why I respect the band Rush so much. Not because of what they are, but how they got there. It's why I'm so adamant about writing software with tests, in pairs, and with an eye on maintenance.

Meditation is another excellent atelic activity.

I'm not sure if this is a fare connection, but I feel fostering positive habits is bridging atelic activities in the now to support telic goals of the future (thanks Atomic Habits: An Easy & Proven Way to Build Good Habits & Break Bad Ones). I don't plan on setting reading goal targets in Goodreads in the future. It's not a good proxy metric. Reading a concrete number of books isn't that meaningful. I aspire to acquire knowledge, learn from other peoples experiences, and to immerse myself in fantastical worlds. How does "Scott read 10 books in 2022" communicate that? The irony is that this is the 10th book I read this year :-D (which is my Goodreads goal)

Being less inquisitive of other people's activities is another takeaway. Let people do what people do without interrogation. I don't want to transform someone's joyous atelic activity into a goal orientated telic one.

I learned about the author and the book from an episode of Econtalk (https://www.econtalk.org/kieran-setiy...). The interview is probably a good substitute for the book.

Nothing from the book felt new or profound to me. But what it provided was a cohesive thought and summary of a lot of life's concepts. My takeaway is that I let the telic treadmill take over and lost the atelic pursuits. Now that I've resigned from my job, I look to explore the atelic world that helped me flourish in the past (I don't believe this is nostalgia talking).
Profile Image for Liz Mc2.
305 reviews19 followers
June 2, 2018
I found this philosophical self-help/self-helpish work of philosophy on the perils of midlife quite charming. Satiya tackles major questions of midlife (or any time of life) like whether what we do has value, regret for missed paths/wrong choices, mortality, being trapped on the project treadmill, and considers how philosophy can help us answer or cope with them. The pleasure is more in the journey, the discussion of the ideas, than in the conclusions, which are unsurprising: mindfulness can help you learn to focus on the atelic, in the moment value of your activities rather than always looking back or forward. (It’s not bad advice, but nothing new). He makes the philosophy accessible, and has a dorky, self-deprecating sense of humour.

I thought the major drawback or missing piece was that this is a work by a privileged man with a good life (something he acknowledges). The type of regret he addresses is “I should have risked a career in music instead of becoming a lawyer.” What about regrets for real mistakes, things we’ve done wrong that hurt not just us but others? Most people don’t make it to midlife without some of those, and he doesn’t really tackle how you can reconcile yourself to those. So the scope is limited, but what’s here I enjoyed.
Profile Image for Ashley.
683 reviews1 follower
April 28, 2019
Best for:
Those who enjoy a philosophical approach to things, and those who are approaching middle age.

In a nutshell:
Philosopher Kieran Setiya, as he approached mid-life, decided to explore ways philosophy might help him power through — or even stave off — a crisis.

Worth quoting:
“I recognize the luxury of the midlife crisis, with a degree of guilt and shame. Why can’t I be more grateful for what I have? But this is my life.”
“There is consolation in the fact that missing out is an inexorable side effect of the richness of human life.”
“There is no more to going for a walk than what you are doing right now. You are not on the way to achieving a goal. You are already there.”

Why I chose it:
I’m turning 40 next year and I enjoy studying philosophy.

This fairly short exploration of mid-life is lightly humorous and well-written. Author Setiya is approaching 40 and has started to feel what many do when they approach mid-life: a sense of malaise. As he is a philosophy professor, he is, one could argue, fairly well-suited to explore the larger questions around life and what it means as we continue into the second half of our lives.

And I think he is. This is a largely successful book if one is looking not so much for all the answers, but for some ideas of how to change one’s thinking about this time in life. Setiya looks at the big issues that crop up around middle age: regret / paths not taken; fear of death; and wondering what to do next when you’ve completed most of the standard life projects.

The section on regret is interesting, as it forces a rational approach to the issue. Namely, that even if you could start over and do things completely differently, that would mean wiping out who you are now. Do you really want that? Do any of us? Sure, it’s understandable to spend some time wondering about different choices, but you can’t do anything about it. I found this section … not that helpful for me. I don’t have large life regrets or anything like that (though I’ve gone back-and-forth on career choices basically since leaving university) but I don’t think I followed Setiya’s process here.

The fear of mortality section was also a bit of a challenge for me, as his main point seemed to be (if I’m understanding it) that we shouldn’t focus on not being around after death because we weren’t around before birth, and they’re ultimately the same thing. There’s also something here about putting more emphasis on the future than the past, but I had some trouble following it.

The section I found most helpful was the one dealing with the challenges of what happens when you’ve met most of the life goals society sets out for us. For me, that included going to university, meeting a life partner, and buying a home, all of which I’ve done. What happens after that? What about all the other projects we work on, that are also bound to finish (like, hopefully, my book)? What do we do then? Setiya’s suggestion is we focus on all the things that are not bound by a start an end, instead looking at the process. His example is enjoying a walk for the walk’s sake. Not because we are using it as a means to an end. That is a way of thinking that I could definitely incorporate into my daily life.

Overall, would I recommend it to my peers? Eh, probably not, but mostly because I think it’s a little heavier on the philosophy than they’d like.

Keep it / Pass to a Friend / Donate it / Toss it:
Donate it
Profile Image for Francisco Barrios.
544 reviews31 followers
October 25, 2022
Este libro terminó siendo una profunda decepción y espero resumirlo en pocas palabras.

Sí, la crisis de la mediana edad como problema filosófico ha recibido poca atención por parte de los filósofos (como acertadamente expone el autor en el primer capítulo). Las razones para esto pueden ser muchas, sin embargo, no sé si esto se debe al descrédito en que la “autoayuda” (y su hijo posmoderno, el “coaching”) han caído en nuestros tiempos.

El autor apuesta a remediar esto apuntalando su propuesta en un diagnóstico, que me parece acertado en varios aspectos (salvo una omisión grave a mi parecer), y en una vía de salvación que puede resumirse en dos aspectos: conciencia plena o “mindfulness” y meditación, mucha meditación, para paliar los aspectos más angustiantes de la vida actual.

¿La omisión grave cuál es? Que no se aboca para nada en un estudio (¡o una simple mención siquiera!) de las condiciones sociales que nos han puesto en buena medida en esta situación. Sin entrar en ningún detalle, el autor hace caso omiso del consumismo descarnado o de la precarización laboral (por poner solo dos cosas sobre la mesa) que gravitan sobre sus coetáneos desde el último cuarto del s. XX. Me deja una sensación de que, como filósofo, su intención no es hacer una crítica —ni siquiera un diagnóstico completo— sino solo decir: «qué terrible es la crisis de la mediana vida en una sociedad industrializada, explotadora y consumista: toma, te recomiendo paliar tus males con un poco de budismo new-age y meditación en tu lugar de trabajo. No te olvides de hacer yoga, colaborar con Green Peace y decir no a los plásticos de un solo uso».

¿Es esta la filosofía del s. XXI?
Profile Image for Manu.
359 reviews49 followers
September 18, 2022
A phenomenal coincidence happened as soon as I started reading the book. This book shared an epigraph with the book I had just finished!
"If I am not for myself, who will be for me?
And if I am for myself only, what am I?
And if not now, when?" (attributed to the Talmud)
Of all the combinations of books and quotes, what are the chances!
There is indeed a link between Fromm's The Fear of Freedom (the book I had just finished) and this, but we will get into that a bit. This book is Kieran Setiya taking a shot at a philosophical guide for midlife. That time of the life when, even if one can't really complain about how it has turned out thus far, there might be 'something hollow' about doing more of it, and perhaps some regret about the choices made. Nostalgia, apprehension, emptiness, futility, regret, inadequacy and a 'downward slope with the end of the road in sight'. Compared to the earlier stages of life, I have found the literature on this relatively less, so any addition is great!
Setiya first takes us through the history of "midlife crisis" and its place in popular culture, including literature, cinema and even a 1982 board game!
'Is that all there is to it?', is what he goes after in the second chapter. That feeling after achieving one's desires. Avoiding paths that are only for the self and ego, making room for pursuits that benefit others and humanity at large, and not exclusively doing things that are ameliorative (righting a wrong / extinguishing a bad - war, fight against injustice etc) as different from existential (contemplation, art, time with family and friends etc) are ways to overcome this feeling.
In 'Missing Out', as the title suggests, the focus is on choices, paths not taken, mistakes etc. Many choices in life are incommensurable. For example, watching a sunset alone vs spending time with family and friends. How does one avoid regret? Understanding in granularity the consequences of your road not taken, not overestimating the value of options, and comprehending the downside of that nostalgic younger self who had an abundance of choice are all ways to tackle this. The point that what we miss about ourselves at 18 is not the open choices ahead, but the time when we were free from making choices is something I found interesting.
The fourth chapter is about mistakes, and the focus is on the positive aspects of the mistakes. For example, the people and experiences in your current life that would be lost if you had made a different choice. The texture of life that would have been lost, and the unknowns in the 'other life' play a part here. Death is the subject in the next chapter, something that I couldn't relate to because I have taken it as a given. But there is some excellent framing here that can help you reconcile to the inevitability.
The biggest challenge, as he rightly points out, is not the past or future, but living in the present. And that's the last chapter, the one I found to be the most useful, especially the telic/atelic framing. Telic refers to goals/milestones and even activities with a specific desired end. A simple example would walking to a store and back (telic) and just going for a walk (atelic). The author brings up the origins of this goal-based and efficiency mindset in Puritanism, an area that Fromm's book spends quite some time on. If you think about it, midlife is when a lot of telic goals would have been met - whether it's around fame, money, or love. And that brings up the crisis of what life is all about. Ergo, focusing on atelic activities is a good way to address this. I was reminded of Fromm's "There is only one meaning of life: the act of living itself".
It is impossible to get a specific answer to one's midlife 'troubles', but Setiya uses a vast toolkit - pop culture, philosophers from Buddha to Schopenhauer and everyone in between, and his own life and experiences - to provide not just philosophical consolations but practical tips that are very accessible. At 160 pages, I don't see a downside to reading this especially if you're in your 40s/50s.

P.S. It is fascinating to see two books separated by almost eight decades approaching this human condition in different contexts, and a neat coincidence that I read them one after the other.
Profile Image for Kristina.
Author 2 books1 follower
April 14, 2021
This was a really good and well-written book, and I respect the author’s reflections, but I felt it lacking. Perhaps I didn’t connect with the author because my mid-life experiences are shaped by womanhood, and my cyclical experiences. I think the arguments and reflections could have benefited from exposing the reader to more continental thinkers and more women’s voices. There were some aspects of the book that I connected with, but there were many main points that the author seemed to think were universal experiences/crises and I just couldn’t relate. I, too, experience midlife crises, but they are different in nature than the main ones the author focuses on.
Profile Image for Susan.
35 reviews1 follower
January 4, 2023
This was philosophically interesting but thin on its applicability to my own life. Setiya takes great care in this book to sketch out philosophically useful approaches that apply to highly successful and talented people whose lives have been filled with mostly good things and who do not believe in a transcendent reality beyond this world. His book is written for that group. If you are, like me, a religious believer who does find prayer something that is both, in Setiya's terminology, telic (end-driven) and atelic (unfinished and existentially valuable for itself) and if you have faith in a reality after death, then this is not the book for you. I don't want to criticize him too harshly if I don't share his big assumptions about the world--this book is, as I said, philosophically interesting and I found things to think about here. But I will say that his examples of people hitting midlife regret--the woman who becomes a lawyer instead of a musician or Setiya himself who becomes a philosopher instead of a doctor--assume a huge set of positive assets that many people do not have. I suspect that many people's bad feelings in middle age are not centered around the fact that they chose to become a lawyer or a philosopher but that they came to the understanding of their own frailties. I regret that I don't write more scholarly articles, but I understand about myself, at middle-age, that I do not have the stamina or the drive to stay up late at night to do this alongside of my full-time university teaching position. Some of my colleagues do have more energy to both teach intensively and also write. I don't. He also doesn't discuss that midlife is just a time when the accumulation of bad things that have happened to one becomes more and more apparent. Through one's youth and early adulthood, one generally is accumulating friendships and opportunities, knowledge, and experience. In middle-life, in my experience, there is a lot of loss: friendships that end, parents who die, job opportunities that dry up. In mid-life, one has to be very intentionally about replenishing one's life. But the losses are real. I will never get my parents back. I will never be the parent to a baby again. I will never be heralded as the young person with new ideas. I will never have knees that don't ache with arthritis. Setiya's examples of loss and regret are not my losses and regrets. Finally, he doesn't take seriously enough moral regret. He briefly mentions that one might regret mistakes. But this seems to be a huge category that is not well-addressed. Again, my religious faith tells me that seeking forgiveness for the wrongs one has done is essential. The idea that mid-life might involve feeling badly about the wrongs one has done is absent from his analysis. With that said, I loved the section on John Stuart Mill whose childhood, crisis, and happy marriage has always fascinated me. I was delighted to discover it here.
Profile Image for Daniel.
760 reviews7 followers
October 1, 2022
This is great...

Two things will help prevent mid-life malaise:

1) Care about something other than yourself.
2) In your job, your relationships, your spare time, you must make room for activities with existential value.

- The midlife "crisis" is not a sign that something is missing. It's a totally predictable phase. In longitudinal studies, there is a u-shaped curve in happiness/life-satisfaction. Peak unhappiness is at roughly 46, and happiness predictably increases year over year as we age past our late 40's.

- We often look back longingly at our young adult life. The world was our oyster. We feel like we could have done ANYTHING. In our 40s and 50s, that no longer feels like the case. We often regret our early-life choices and wish we could go back and choose a different path. But no matter which path path we choose (spouse and vocation are big ones), we will likely look back and feel angst at the choice we didn't make. This regret is totally predictable. We tend to think that everything associated with the other choice would be rosy. That's obviously not true. What if's are totally natural, and would we really want to NOT have what ifs? Do we wish we DIDN'T have choices? Obviously not. The fact we had (and have) options is a sign of a rich life. Kieran often wishes he chose the path of a doctor rather than that of a philosophy professor. But we can frame our bad decisions or regretted decisions as precursors to positive outcomes. If Kieran chose the path of doctor rather than philosopher, he wouldn't have met his wife and had his son. So even though he sorta wishes he had made a different careet decision, he would not go back and change it if he could.

Biggest takeaway... We achievers need to recognize our telic vs atelic pursuits. Telic pursuites are those whose purpose is completing them (doing the dishes, training for an event, building a fence, one's job). Atelic activities are done for the sake of doing them, not for the sake of completing them (leisurely walk, visiting with friends, watching a sunset). Lives need to have a good mix of telic and atelic activities because as soon as a telic activity is complete, there's the question, "What's my next project?" The feeling of satisfaction is instantly gone, and it can only be revived by a new pursuit (it's much like seeking satisfaction in "things"... As soon as the thing is in your possession, we adapt and instantly need yet another new thing to satisfy our urges. We can frame telic activities as atelic if we can embrace the process, and mindfulness is a good way to do this...

Nice job, Kieran!
Profile Image for Gary  Beauregard Bottomley.
978 reviews580 followers
April 30, 2018
Life is engulfed within a paradox. Kierkegaard gets this best of all. I don’t think the author mentions Kierkegaard but he does mention many other philosophers and uses them to provide context for his telling of a midlife reassessment that is not necessarily characterized as a crisis. He’ll quote Kant to the effect that philosophy is most interested in three questions: 1) what can we know, 2) what should we do, and 3) what is deserving of our hopes? The author always has those questions in the background while he’s telling his story.

There is the ‘paradox of the ego’ – the fact that if we only consider ourselves we actualize ourselves less than if we consider others too, a J. S. Mill concept that the author speaks about, or the paradox of our own inevitable dissatisfaction for which Schopenhauer’s dour philosophy outlines and is outlined within this book. At the core of our being and the striving for our meaning through answering of those three questions there are paradoxes inherent in achieving our well being (eudemonia) or happiness or satisfaction or whatever one wants to call our true purpose (telos).

To summarize the message in this book, the author tends towards an existentialism with his ‘no regrets’ and becoming trumps being, and that we absolutely own our own choices while the author down plays the existentialist’s ‘anxiety about nothing’ that we have from the-being-unto-death absurdity inherent in life leading to a paradox of Being itself. The author also leans toward Buddhist thought except for the denial of the self because he likes the ‘power of the now’ – the mindfulness of Eckhart Tolle. He’ll switch the priority of Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics to favor the practical (he’ll say existential) over the contemplation of the divine.

The author is way more intelligent in philosophy then I’ll ever be, but he never wows me in his story telling and I never really had to struggle to keep up with a somewhat familiar telling of a story. As Kierkegaard said, an author must always assume the reader has read other similar books on the topic and needs to tell the reader something they don’t already know in order to make the book worthwhile. This is a very short book with some ‘self help’ stuff and in-spite of the self help stuff that always goes wasted on me the author manages to connect different philosophers coherently in his story telling.
Profile Image for Sara Budarz.
650 reviews25 followers
November 14, 2020
Years ago I taught a class that covered everything from Plato to Kant and Schopenhauer and beyond, and I will forever remember that class as thrilling and terrifying and oh so rewarding for the sheer fact that it forced me to try to not only make sense of the philosophies for myself, but rather required that I understood them so well that I was able to distill their essence to my students, and for anyone who has ever grappled with philosophy, this isn't an easy task.
And that is perhaps precisely who I loved reading Midlife; Setiya's writing is both intellectually rigorous and yet utterly approachable for those outside of academia. It is a beautiful book that is aimed at those approaching midlife, and yet I have to admit that I wish I had come across this book (although this would be impossible, since it did not yet exist) in my late teens or early twenties. I wish, in other words, that I would have been given insight into what it is that actually leads to a feeling of disappointment as we reach midlife, in order to more proactively shape my life differently. But that is also precisely the way of thinking that Setiya points out is not exactly helpful. Alas, I am a slow learner.
There is a lot of wisdom in this book. I especially liked his discussion of the telic mindset and the need to seek out the atelic, as well as the distinction between work that is ameliorative vs. existential.

Highly recommend to anyone, of any age, whether you are the sort to see the value in evaluating life at the midpoint or not.
Profile Image for Jason Pettus.
Author 18 books1,279 followers
January 24, 2020
2020 reads, #3. DID NOT FINISH. This slim book is exactly what it advertises itself to be, a guide to the things that famous philosophers have said over the centuries on the issue of middle-age, so I'm not sure why it surprised me to find this out. It just wasn't quite my cup of tea, so I opted out early.
Profile Image for Joe.
231 reviews39 followers
April 1, 2019
Abandoned 44 pages in.
91 reviews1 follower
November 27, 2022
While I am not quite at midlife (ok, 20 years short of it), I resonate with some of the struggles one may face during that trying period, such as the fear of mortality (or the ambiguity and uncertainty tied to it) among many others. Setiya attempts to rationalize these difficulties and internal conflicts in a manner that is heavily philosophical, though, frankly, his attempt was largely futile. Nonetheless, I see how this can be a useful tool for those in need of some reflection and, of course, those who are actually at midlife.
40 reviews
March 26, 2021
The book shed light on the midlife crisis, its causes and different aspects, and provide new prospective to help, resolve the inner conflict humans face at mid-age
162 reviews15 followers
December 20, 2017
Kieran Setiya lives up to the title of his book – he provides a philosophical guide for dealing with a midlife crisis, at the center of which he finds himself aged 40.
I read this at the midway point of age 39, so I couldn’t help feel that I am in the sweet spot of his target readership. While I am not suffering a ‘midlife crisis’, I extracted a lot of value from what Setiya has to say. Perhaps my takeaways from this book will be a pre-emptive strike against a future midlife crisis.
Setiya draws heavily from both philosophy and literature to make sense of the midlife crisis, analyze the condition and accompanying feelings, and finally offer advice and suggestions for coping with them.
Early on, he distinguishes between instrumental value and final value by invoking John Stuart Mill.
Instrumental value is the value something has because of its consequences, while final value is worthwhile in and of itself.
Mill’s moral philosophy is to promote the greatest happiness for the greatest number which is of the instrumental variety. Our actions are evaluated by the extent to which they bring about a greater or lesser degree of happiness.
The trouble, as Setiya points out with a reference to Aristotle, is that without an end game of value, we enter an infinite loop with value continually being defined as the happiness of others.
Moreover, happiness cannot be reduced to a unit of measure, because values are ‘incommensurable’. A gain in one area does not subsume a loss elsewhere in our lives. “The desire to see the colours of the setting sun will not be satisfied by the sound of music. What we want are particular pleasures, not a homogeneous hedonic buzz”.
Herein lies part of the trouble that brews at midlife. In having our life take on the definite shape that it invariably has, we have to confront our losses. For Setiya, becoming a philosopher meant not becoming a poet or a doctor. The boundless options we faced as a youth are foreclosed and we feel this loss.
Part of the remedy is to consider that the specifics of our lives give us meaning as we live in details, not abstractions. “Do not weigh alternatives theoretically, but zoom in: let the specifics count against the grand cartoon of lives unlived".
Another woe of midlife is the sense of mortality that envelops us as we have lost friends or loved ones and can see the horizon of our lives. Here, the remedy on offer is to adopt an attitude of ‘temporal neutrality’, giving equal weight to experiences past and future. We don’t mourn the time before our births, so why should we lament the end of our lives?
Although as we age we have less to look forward to, we have more to look back on.
The final, and greatest source of middle-aged angst is the feeling of futility that accompanies our achievements and failures alike.
Setiya refers to a piece by Simone de Beauvoir to bring this feeling to life. “No matter what pleasures you promise yourself, when the promises are kept, the pleasures are no more. They seem in retrospect to count for nothing, or at least for less than they did in prospect, gazing at the gold mine at your feet. We are inevitably swindled”.
Each of our accomplishments is “bittersweet: longed for, pursued, and ultimately, disappointingly, complete. That’s over with. What now?”.
To bring us out of this dilemma of needing goals and desires to give our lives meaning on the one hand, and destroying that meaning by ticking them off on the other, Setyia refers us to Buddhism and mindfulness meditation.
He distinguishes between what he calls “telic” activities – those that aim at terminal states, and “atelic” activities that are never terminated or exhausted.
And all projects, while fundamentally telic in that we strive to bring about a desired outcome, have an atelic counterpart, which is the process. So Setyia says we should look for meaning in the process and not the outcome.
Enter the role of mindfulness:
“To live mindfully is to perceive the value of atelic activities, a value that is not exhausted by engagement or deferred to the future, but realized here and now. It is to resolve your midlife crisis, your sense of repetition and futility, or dislocation and self-defeat, by living in the halo of the present”.
Profile Image for Andy.
982 reviews36 followers
April 11, 2019
philosophical and personal exploration of the challenges typically associated with midlife

suggestions on how to understand and address feelings of lack of purpose, regrets for decisions made and opportunities not pursued, and growing realisation of our own mortality

interesting exploration of decisions or events that may have caused pain or are causing regret, yet if we had the opportunity to live over would likely repeat, due to interconnected dependencies for other aspects of our lives

have a sense of purpose, ideally beyond addressing you immediate needs and avoiding pain.
be engaged with the world and purposes beyond yourself
be aware that regret and opportunity loss is inevitable and often preferable to the alternative where life would be poorer due to a lack of options
Profile Image for Chintushig Tumenbayar.
462 reviews32 followers
March 3, 2021
Midlife crisis гэж бид бүгдээрээ сонссон байдаг ч туулах хүртэлээ яг юу болохыг мэдэхгүй, анзаарахгүй өнгөрдөг болов уу гэж боддог. Аз болж энэ талаар философийн талаас харж юу тохиолдож болохыг урдаас харан зөвлөсөн товхимол гарсан нь бодит төсөөлөл авахад тусаллаа. Тухайн хүн хэр хэрсүү байхаас хамааран өөр өөр насанд тохиолдож болох ч яг амьдрал тэгшрээд ирэхэд бид өөрөөсөө асуулт асууж эхэлдэг. Нөгөөтэйгүүр энэ л насан дээр өөрийн хүсэл мөрөөдлүүдээ эргэж харах заримийг хэзээч биелүүлч чадахгүй гэдэгтэйгээ эвлэрэх хэрэг гадаг байна. Нэмэлтээр өөрт санагдсан нэг зүйл нь өөрийгөө буруутгах, хийсэн сонголтоо эргэж харах явдал их байдаг ч хэрэв тэр сонголтыг хийгээгүй өнөөдрийн би, миний хүүхэд төрөхгүй гэж байсан гэж бодохоор л өөрийн эрхгүй хийсэн шийдвэрээ буруутгахаа больдог юм байнаа. Цаашид амьдралыг өөрийн хүссэнээр явж байгаа эсэхийг тогтмол эргэцүүлж цаг тухайд нь өөрчлөлт хийж хувьсах нь том GAP гаргахгүй байх болов уу.
This entire review has been hidden because of spoilers.
Profile Image for Jane Costanza.
43 reviews3 followers
November 17, 2019
Heavy on philosophy which for me was hard to follow. The part that spoke to me the most was the last chapter regarding those who hit midlife and wonder at the futility of it all - after having completed milestones, accomplishments, projects, etc. His solution for this is to think with a more atelic mindset instead of telic, that is, think process and less project. Value the process. The other thing I got from it is how rigorous philosophy is as a study. I don't know much about it, but it is both intriguing and kind of a mind-blackhole bottomless pit kind of thing.
Profile Image for Mandy.
Author 1 book11 followers
August 7, 2022
I listened to a great podcast where the author of this book was interviewed, so I decided to read the book that was discussed. It didn't help me with my midlife struggles, and I wish I would have just stuck with the info I picked up from the podcast. Mildly interesting philosophically, but nothing here for practical use.
Profile Image for Mirjam.
281 reviews10 followers
May 17, 2018
Mwah.. dit boek bevat wel heel veel citaten van dode filosofen en vooral veel voorbeelden uit het leven van de schrijver zelf. Ik voelde me onvoldoende aangesproken. Jammer, want het is een interessant onderwerp en zijn benadering heeft veel potentie.
Profile Image for Cat.
830 reviews143 followers
September 3, 2018
Setiya is witty and erudite, and the tips that he gleans for making the most out of mid-life--focusing on others, prioritizing existentially satisfying activities rather than merely remunerative ones, examining the specific terrain of your life rather than dreaming of other roads not traveled, accepting that love (both self-love and the love of friends and family) requires letting go, and treating the projects that shape your life as processes rather than goals (atelic rather than telic). He draws upon John Stuart Mill, Schopenhauer, Wordsworth, Beauvoir, and more to elucidate, not only that there are ways to think your way through the crisis of midlife, but more pertinently that philosophy need not merely be a set of abstractions but actually deal with the immediate concerns of a life narrative. I was glad that Beauvoir figured so strongly in the text towards the end because there was a bit of universalism and dead-white-man-itude in this book, even as Setiya gestures to the fact that these crises could be experienced by people of vastly different experiences, levels of privilege, etc. The preponderance of white European men in the philosophical pantheon and the frequent allusions to rationality (is it rational to fear death if death is much like the oblivion before birth?) does approach a troubling universalism. (How much more interesting to tap into Audre Lorde's thoughts on the erotic as a way of refiguring midlife's meaning?) But Setiya acknowledges his intellectual lineage and also his personal experiences in a way that is quite endearing. And he leans heavily on Virginia Woolf, whom I cherish, especially when it comes to philosophizing about what everything means in the end and the inevitability of regret. Perhaps it is a limit of Setiya's discipline and training, but I would like to see more thinkers of color in this book--especially when he winds up alluding to very generalized principles of Buddhism after giving such a lively and particular account of Western philosophy.

An eloquent and helpful book with nicely wry self-reflection. I particularly like the closing chapter about atelic versus telic activities. I'm just finishing a major project of my own, and as Setiya (by way of Schopenhauer) points out, there is a sense of loss to seeing the goal achieved recede behind you. I would like to work on my own pattern of thinking, focusing more on the on-going elements of my intellectual life (reading, writing, thinking) and less on the checks on the list. Each project involves so many elements of the former, and my attitude tends to emphasize the latter, which again, as Schopenhauer would anticipate, involves frustration until completion and loss afterwards. In short, I need to think of writing like gardening, a cyclical, messy, and ongoing set of activities, many of them pleasurable, some of them irksome but temporary. In some seasons, I garden more; in others, I garden less. But it's not like I check "summer garden" off the list and then swear off plants forever. Setiya proposes that the intimation that all labor is Sisyphean that frequently occurs in midlife can be warded off or at least attenuated in this way.
Profile Image for Justus.
182 reviews3 followers
October 22, 2022
Midlife is a strange time. Major decisions have been made, and with kids the focus has been switched towards preparing for their wild problems.

But we’re not old! We’re just caught in a predetermined present, experiencing physical decline, playing out the decisions of the past, while dimly peering towards decades of an uncertain future.

So how we manage? The book starts with contemplations upon regret (fully acknowledging that much “regret” in affluent countries are #firstworldproblems). Then Setiya ponders how to best consider about our mortality and closes with a chapter about life beyond goals.

When young, we pursue projects for specific results. Get that degree, grab that job! The paradox of such pursuits is that accomplishing the goal kills the goal. I often felt such emptiness after final reviews. A killer presentation is better than failure (I’ve done that too) but still left lingering hollow emptiness. All for what? On to the next semester.

Accomplishments are critical in the pursuit of prosperity (there is almost little income benefit between a high school graduate and a 3-year college dropout). Crossing the next check box can’t be all there is, especially now that the ultimate checkpoint is visible in the far horizon.

Setiya brings up the concept of “atelic activities“. Activities for their own reward. Walking for the joy of taking a stroll (not just getting to point B). Reframe one’s hassles with kids from specific tasks (cooking, cleaning, training) to the generic atelic act of parenting (easier said than done!).

Live in the present.

I’ve noticed this shift in my reading. I used to devour business books, searching for nuggets to improve productivity and leadership skills. But I’m now closer to retirement than hand drafting in Berkeley. The ROI has waned and this homo economicus has turned away from consuming productive fare.

My bed stand currently has two books of poetry, a book on philosophy, and a photo monograph. Hell, instead of reading last night, I listened fifteen minutes of Sunday at the Village Vanguard.

Midlife might not be pretty, but that’s pretty cool.
Profile Image for Mirav.
9 reviews
March 19, 2018
I thought this is a really interesting and well-written book: I like how Setiya approaches the topic of 'midlife' through a philosophical "lense". In his work, he suggests other ways we might think about a phase of life that is often associated with having a "crisis" (including where we are at a particular point in our lives -- sometimes questioning our past decisions, wondering whether we "should" have 'taken other roads' (for example, in the arenas of career, relationships, etc.))

He encourages us (whether the reader actually falls into the "middle aged" category or not) to consider different perspectives on various aspects of our lives 'thus far': For example, Do we REALLY wish (now) that we had followed the career path/ "track" that we had strongly considered when we were in our early 20's (but then ended up taking a different 'route', which led us to where we are now)?? Setiya invites us to consider that our previous "plans" may not have turned out as we'd hoped -- and encourages us to see the positive aspects of our current situation. I'm glad I'd happened to come across this literary gem in my local library... :-)
Profile Image for Jacob Williams.
445 reviews7 followers
July 10, 2019
That is what I believe about philosophy. It could not survive without philosophers whose commitment to answering the most recalcitrant questions leads them into difficulty. But for all its disputes, uncertainties, and complications, academic philosophy has much to offer almost anyone in the midst of living, and wondering how to live, a human life.

What this book offers: thought-provoking discussions
What not to expect: firm solutions

I appreciate Setiya’s attempt to apply philosophy to practical concerns. The discussions of existential vs ameliorative value and telic vs atelic goals were particularly interesting to me, and the section on death is thought-provoking although my thoughts and feelings on the matter are very different from his.

I’ve written a longer review here: https://brokensandals.net/midlife-rev...
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