Artists and Designers are in Mid Life Crisis

by Atim Annette Oton

Michael J Fox aptly warns,“However well you plan out your life, whatever courses you take, whatever degrees you get, your life is really going to get most interesting when it goes off the rails.”

I remember when I actually had a mid-life crisis. I had just graduated from college, returned from a summer in Paris, and spent a year trying to understand what I really wanted to do in architecture. It was not depression, it was not fear, nor was it uncertainty, it was 1991, I was 22 and the New York Times had an article on an architect driving a taxi. Reality hit and I decided to go to graduate school, and spent two years in London at the Architectural Association Graduate School that got me a job when I returned at the end of summer 2004 after travelling across Europe. Yes, it was a mid-life crisis; I just had mine a lot earlier.


Today, as I have been talking with, listening to and business coaching some artists and designers, it dawned on me, most of them are in a Mid-life Crisis. Yes, I dare say it out loud.

Midlife crisis is a term coined in 1965 by Elliott Jaques stating a time where adults come to realize their own mortality and how much time is left in their life.[1] A midlife crisis is experienced by many people during the midlife transition when they realize that life may be more than halfway over. Sometimes, a crisis can be triggered by transitions experienced in these years, such as andropause or menopause, the death of parents or other causes of grief, unemployment or underemployment, realizing that a job or career is hated but not knowing how else to earn an equivalent living, or children leaving home. People may reassess their achievements in terms of their dreams. The result may be a desire to make significant changes in core aspects of day-to-day life or situation, such as in career, work-life balance, marriage, romantic relationships, large expenditures, or physical appearance. –

What I have been seeing, hearing and listening to as I work with artists and designers is that they are at a cross road in their life and careers. They have come to the end of the road and have 3 paths to take on the road, one which is the same path, the other is to remain still and do nothing or the one which is about risk, the unknown, which requires that they try something new. This crossroad challenge became more real since 2008 when the normal disappeared. Even companies like Microsoft experienced crisis, see some highlights here:


Most people in crisis seem to take the first two paths – one that is about doing the same (repetition is the model they follow) or the stand still (the I am in panic and fear, so I am stuck and will do nothing). These two options scare me, because it is not what I would expect from creative people…its a misnomer – creative means – you can think up new things right? I have always thought that designers could The third option really is the one that they should take and it brings them out of the crisis, but to do that is very difficult.

Life’s Passion

Getting back and in the right path from mid-life crisis means that artists and designers need to stop and take sometime to think. My best business counselling advice has been – get to your essence. Who are you? What is your Life or Personal Mission? What are your goals and objectives? This sounds very simple, but I find that most have spent the last 10 years just doing and never asking themselves these questions.

I call it this a process of really looking at your life’s passion. I did this when I was 22, and again when I was 31 when I left architecture and went into academia; 9 years ago when I opened Calabar Imports. My life’s passion got me to leave my full-time job 7 years ago and it got me through a fire at Calabar Imports – 2 years ago. The examining of your life, mission, goals and objectives to me represent the “new” year’s resolutions, except they come when you reach crossroads.

Take Stock

The second thing I advice is to take stock of your life, really take a hard look at it. Look back at what you have done, achieved, or accomplished. Be critical of it…after all, you have 10 years on it. Is it the best you have done? Or could you have done better? So many artists and designers are looking at others to compare, I have never done this, I look at myself to see what more I can accomplish. This inward look makes you set a strategy for leaving crisis. It makes you actually understand your self-worth; and combined with your personal mission, goals and objectives, they set you off in a new direction.

Team of People

I am a people person, but more and more, I really think I am a team person. All the projects that I have done that have been successful, in retrospect, I see that they have been with a team of people. I love to collaborate, partner or work jointly with others. I find it more inspiring and quite frankly, more fulfilling. I often wonder how artists and designers walk the solitaire lonely road with no team.

A team of people is a place to share what your working on, have support – both emotionally and spiritually, to be your critical space when you need feedback. But it is very critical to find a team that nurtures and grows you and not one that accepts your laziness or ability to do no critical thinking or valued work. I find some artists and designers just have cheering teams which scares me as they do not provide an opposite opinion. They “yes” people are not worth my time. As a designer, I have been taught that you need more of the “no” people as they challenge you to be better at your work, most especially when you are in crisis. A good friend recently called it “Tough Love”.

Like Michael J Fox said, when things unravel and you are in mid-life crisis, this is when you know what you are made of. Crisis determines what you do, how you do it and how you come through it. Staying still is not an option. Time is ticking away.

A good short article I read periodically as a reality check (


Interested in dealing with your Mid-life Crisis,  I am available for business coaching at


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