Setiya will be speaking at the 92nd Street Y in New York on Thursday, April 19. For information and tickets, visit 92y.org/events.
Brett Tomlinson: I’m Brett Tomlinson. And this is the Princeton Alumni Weekly’s Q&A Podcast. Are you weary from repetition in your professional life or your personal life? Are you saddled with regret or wondering what might have been? Are you a 40-something shopping for your first motorcycle? You might be having a midlife crisis. And Kieran Setiya has some advice for you, partly drawn from the work of some of history’s great philosophers. Kieran is the author of Midlife: A Philosophical Guide. He’s also a professor of philosophy at MIT and a 2002 Princeton Ph.D. graduate. Kieran, thanks for joining me.
Kieran Setiya: Thank you very much for having me.
BT: Your book, as the title says, is a philosophical guide. But it’s also, I gather, informed by personal experience. For you, what were the signs that you were starting to experience a midlife crisis, or something like one?
KS: I was very happy to call it a midlife [crisis] — I embraced the label immediately. So, yes, midlife crisis. I mean, so part of the background to this was that I had been incredibly fortunate. I got my Ph.D. at Princeton. I got an academic job. I had my head down, working hard, got to the tenure track, got tenure. And there was a point at which I sort of stepped back to take a breath and think about my life in a way, and the shape of my life, in a way I hadn’t done for about 15, 20 years, and realized that although I was going something that I wanted to do and things, my ambitions were being realized in something like the way I had really dreamed, I was struck by the sense that I was just going to keep doing this. And however worthwhile it seemed to teach another class or try to write another essay, I suddenly was aware in a way I hadn’t been of all the things in my life I wasn’t going to do and all the ambitions that had been sort of put on hold for 20 years — but now they were permanently on hold. They were not going to happen.
And I was both sort of emotionally floored by this but also intellectually puzzled because there was this perplexity that I didn’t understand why it was that getting exactly what I wanted, being as fortunate as I had been, how that could be compatible with this sense of malaise or the sense that there’s something empty about what I was doing. That was the point at which I started worrying about my — telling my friends I was having a midlife crisis.
BT: And that seems to be a key element of these midlife feelings, that it’s not about failure, necessarily. I mean, you can be very successful and fulfilled in many ways. And yet, the achievements are starting to kind of lose their luster. Or they seem repetitive or something like that. And then your mind starts to wander. What if I had been a poet or a doctor or something, which is something that you write about in the book.
KS: That’s exactly right. So, I do think there are particular — there are challenges associated with the frustration of your ambitions. And there are emotional adjustments that people make in midlife to the ways in which their life is not what they hoped it would be. And that is one of the themes of the book.
But in a way, the more puzzling phenomenon is the one you’ve described where things are working out pretty well. And yet, nevertheless, one is struck by the sense of loss, of just living the one life you end up having to live and not being able to do all these other things.
So, as you say, in the book I had wanted at various points in my life to be a poet or a doctor, as my dad would say, a real doctor, not a Ph.D. And I was never going to do those things. Those things are not going to happen, and certainly not going to happen in the kind of way I might have dreamed about them earlier. And so, while failure, frustration is something that I talk about in the book, for me the puzzling part was that success could feel like failure. There could be a moment in life in which things were going, in some sense, quite well and yet seemed empty or hollow or to involve a kind of real sense of loss of the alternatives that I now knew I wasn’t going to live. And I suspect a lot of people have that, do have that experience around midlife.
BT: Is it just the natural progression of a philosopher to then turn to, well, I wonder what Schopenhauer has to say about these things?
KS: It was definitely my strategy for — one of my coping strategies was to focus on the ways in which I was finding this experience intellectually puzzling, and to think, well, one thing I could do as a philosopher is focus on that intellectual puzzle, try to think about the question, how could it be that a life of doing things that seem pretty worthwhile to you nevertheless seems to be missing something? What more could a good life involve than just doing consecutively a bunch of worthwhile things, things that seem pretty good? And so, yes, for me, thinking about this philosophically was a kind of diversion from the experience. And that’s sort of what ultimately led to me writing a book about it.
BT: And you find really interesting examples on a variety of questions. Did you have any difficulty finding philosophical texts that applied to each question? Were there any gaps in your research?
KS: Well, one thing I was struck by was how little philosophers had really talked about the midlife crisis. I mean, the term “midlife crisis” is relatively recent. It comes from a 1965 essay by a psychoanalyst Elliott Jaques. So, it’s not surprising that philosophers hadn’t talked about the midlife crisis by name. But there was surprisingly little philosophical reflection in the philosophers I was familiar with about the sort of temporal shape of a human life. And my sense is that when philosophers think about how to live, they tend to gravitate towards the question, what are my obligations? What should I do? Which is just purely forward-looking. Or to questions about what a good human life looks like, a kind of question about the shape of life as a whole asked from a perspective outside it. And I found that there was relatively less direct philosophical reflection on the predicament of sort of being in the middle, having lived enough of a life that you can’t ask what’s a good human life overall, or enough has gone wrong and enough is already constrained that your options are now limited. And that part of your task is to figure out what to do next. What are my obligations? What should I do? But a central part of the philosophical reflective engagement that many people are sort of confronted with in midlife is not about what to do but how to feel about the past, how to feel about the shape your life has taken. And that was something I felt had been neglected in the philosophical tradition.
So, I had to be resourceful both in finding philosophers whose ideas could be sort of brought to bear on these questions. So, as you mentioned, Schopenhauer is one of them. John Stuart Mill is another. Aristotle is another. But also finding ideas in contemporary philosophy, sort of ideas that philosophers like Susan Wolf and Derek Parfit, who were active in the last — and are active right now, finding ideas in those philosophers that could be sort of retooled or applied to the kind of in-the-middle predicament that I was struggling with.
BT: Personally, I’m in the wheelhouse for this book. I’m 41, and it’s planted a lot of seeds for me to think about when I’m on the treadmill — the literal treadmill, not the metaphorical one that you talk about. But, one of the takeaways that I think is particularly interesting is the way that our goals can have this negative effect on our lives and the distinction between a telic mindset and an atelic one. So, I was hoping you could speak a bit about that.
KS: Sure. For me, this was really, of all the ideas in the book, the one that both has been most important to me and the one I struggle with most. So, there’s a kind of idea that I pick up on from Schopenhauer that there’s something sort of self-defeating in the pursuit of goals. He thinks this is just an inevitable feature of human life, that when you’re pursuing a goal, you have the frustration of not having achieved it yet, which is terrible. But if you didn’t have goals, your life would be empty. And it will be a kind of abyss of boredom.
And in some ways I think that argument is overstated. But I think he’s pointing to something real, which is that when you engage in the pursuit of a goal, or you have a project, you are always in a situation where the satisfaction you’re aiming at is either in the future, the goal you hope to achieve, or as soon as it’s achieved that goal is now done, and it’s in the past. And there’s a further kind of self-defeat in that your engagement with meaningful goals, things that matter to you, when you pursue them to completion, is in a way an attempt to sort of expel them from your life, to finish them and get rid of them. And there does seem something self-undermining about that way of structuring your life.
For Schopenhauer, as I said, this is inevitable. But I think in fact that what he’s neglecting is the distinction between two kinds of activities. So, this is the telic-atelic distinction, where telic activities are ones that have this goal-directed structure. So, it might be walking home. Or it might be getting a promotion at work. Or it might be having kids, where there’s something you’re aiming at in the future that the activity is directed towards. But, not all activities are like that. There are also what I call atelic activities that don’t aim at an endpoint.
So, it could just be going for a walk. Or it could be parenting. Or it could be, for me, working and thinking about philosophy, or listening to music. And the interesting thing about atelic activities is that because they don’t aim at a future goal, they don’t generate this sense that satisfaction is at a distance. They’re realized in the present as much as they ever can be realized. And they don’t have this self-defeating character that your engagement with them sort of extinguishes them. So my diagnosis of one kind of midlife crisis, and the one that was central for me, is that it involves an excessive investment in and kind of obsession with goals, with getting things done, with achievements. And that is a kind of distortion whereby you’re likely to feel a kind of emptiness in the present because the things that give meaning to your life are always aimed at something future and in a way aimed at their own extinction. And so, for me a big part of adjusting to and trying to feel happier with the way my life is has been to try to reinvest in, or invest more fully in, atelic activities and sort of the ongoing process of what I’m doing in a way that dispels this sense of repetition and one achievement or failure after another, that this sort of telic, type-A, project-driven mindset can generate. And that’s a sort of ongoing — the attempt to make that shift in my own emotional life is a sort of ongoing struggle.
BT: And telic activities can reside sort of within atelic activities. You mentioned the example of parenting, where you’re taking the kids to practice or feeding dinner and helping with homework. But they all kind of fit in this larger activity of parenting which is not a goal that ends at a specific point.
KS: No, exactly. So, one of the things that’s important to emphasize about this distinction is that we’re always doing both. We’re always simultaneously engaged in the atelic activity of parenting, for instance, and doing specific telic activities like helping your son with his homework or driving the kids to school or planning a birthday party or whatever it might be. And so, the idea is not that one can sort of stop engaging in telic activities. It’s that your evaluative focus, your sense of what matters and where you’re finding value, can shift from the particular achievable results towards the ongoing process that underlies all of those particular projects, the telic activities. And it’s that kind of shift in your sort of orientation to what you’re doing that I think is really important, not just in midlife. It’s just an important reorientation to life.
Because one is always engaged simultaneously in these telic project activities and the atelic activities, the shift is one that’s available in many areas of life. So, you can reorient yourself in this way in your relationship with your children but also — and for me this was a big part of it — in your relation to work or vocation or professional activity, sort of shifting away from a kind of way of thinking about, for me, doing philosophy on which it’s about finishing the next book, getting tenure, the sort of professional structure that academic life gives to it, towards the thought that what I really want to be doing is just engaging with and thinking about these kinds of questions. And that’s the incredible privilege of being able to be a philosopher and do philosophy that’s sort of obscured when all I’m focusing on is the next thing to get done.
BT: And the structure of the book, I guess you can call it a self-help book, but not in the traditional sense in that there aren’t, you know, bullet-pointed lists of seven easy ways to avoid a midlife crisis. It’s more — you make the analogy of an elementary school math test. You’re presenting these ideas, and you’re showing your work. And I think at least I came away with the sense that philosophy is more accessible than I had realized, that there is something really engaging about philosophy. Was that a part of your goal, to bring philosophy to a lay audience?
KS: Yes, definitely. For me, this was the first time I had written a kind of trade book, a general audience book. And the reason for that was largely because in thinking about philosophical ideas that seemed relevant to my midlife crisis, I was finding them helpful. And I thought, if this is helpful to me, it might be helpful to other people. And if so, I should try to find a way to communicate it to people who wouldn’t otherwise be reading philosophy journal articles. That was a big part of what I wanted to try to do in the book. And I’m happy with the label “self-help.” And I think the book is sort of framed as, in many ways, attempts to sort of extract from philosophical ideas their usable, practical impact, the way in which they could change how you orient yourself to your life.
On the other hand, there is something uncomfortable about it, too. And I think philosophers often shy away from the self-help label because, well, for me, part of it is that there’s something absurd about occupying the — or pretending to occupy the role of a self-help guru who has it all figured out when, if people could see my own life, they would be able to tell very rapidly that I don’t have it all figured out. And so, I’m attempting to give self-help advice from the perspective of someone who’s struggling to take even his own advice about how to live. And so, there’s a certain awkwardness about that. But there’s also, I think, a kind of philosophical — a kind of idea that emerges really only in the 18th century of philosophical reflection on the good life as being more abstract and sort of detached from practical questions about how to make one’s own life better. And some of it is, and that’s completely fine. But I don’t think it needs to be. I think there are untapped resources in even the kind of philosophy that you would study in graduate school for reflecting in a way that could be consoling and illuminating on the sort of situation of life’s struggles that most people are facing. And I do think it’s really valuable for philosophers to find ways to communicate that as broadly as they can.
BT: I imagine you have friends and family members in the middle-age demographic as well. Have you become the midlife expert/adviser in your friend group?
KS: It’s funny. As I said, people who actually know me can tell — have two sources of evidence about my wisdom. One is this book. And the other is actually seeing how I live my life. So, I think they’re getting very mixed signals about whether I’m a good person to turn to for advice in that, the problems in the book about regret or the sense of missing out, and the problem of being sort of too project-driven, are ones that I felt compelled to write about because I really struggle with them. And so, I think if you’re a friend rather than someone who’s just reading the book because you bought it in a bookstore, the sense that I, Kieran, might not have this all figured out is more vivid to you.
On the other hand, I do have more conversations with friends about midlife and what they’re going through. And I find that very satisfying and enjoyable. I get lots of book recommendations. And I definitely — I think the telic-atelic distinction is probably the idea from the book that most often people say they’re using, that they’re finding helpful in their own life or helping them to realize something that was problematic in their own perspective on what they were doing. So, occasionally people do tell me that they’re finding that helpful.
I mean, the other thing to say about this is that, in some ways, the conversations with friends played more of a role in the origin of the book than in the aftermath because one of the things I was realizing when I was writing it — and it was connected with this idea of wanting philosophy to be of use to people and to connect with people’s lives — was that the actual conversations I was having about how to live, with friends, before I was writing the book, very often were about how to manage my time, how to deal with the fact that too much of my life is devoted to stuff that needs to happen. Like, I need to deal with the kids. I have aging parents. When do I have time for me? And how do I find time for the things that actually make life worth living in the first place? And what I was realizing in those conversations was that there was a lot of reflection actually going on in people’s lives about how to live that philosophy wasn’t yet connecting with.
BT: What does a day in your life look like today? I mean, how is it different from your life before you started this project?
KS: Well, there are two sorts of answers to that question. So, one is I started meditating. That was the main practical difference. And a day in my life sometimes involves me meditating now. It should — I would like it to always involve me spending some time meditating. And I find that useful in helping to sort of train my mind to be less project-directed, able to attend to the present, able to attend to the value of ongoing activities, and less less scattered or sort of projected towards the future. So, that’s one thing that in practical terms is a difference in what I do.
The other side of that, I suppose, is that I’m trying — the experiment of when people ask me what I’m working on, of not feeling like I have to have the answer in terms of a project. So, this comes up in interviews. I may now be ruining one of your later questions. But sometimes people ask, what are you working on next? What’s the next project? That’s a question that people, academics, ask each other all the time. And I’m trying to get comfortable with the idea that the answer is, I’m not focusing on any particular project. I have some things I’m thinking about, topics I’m thinking about. And who knows? As a side effect of thinking about them, I may write something. Or I may teach a class on something. But that’s not the first orientation I have to philosophical reflection. And it’s awkward because it involves frustrating people’s expectations of what an answer to this question would look like. But it’s also, more importantly, a kind of real challenge for me not to quickly try to reformulate my interests in terms of what’s going to come out of them, what they will yield in terms of intellectual products.
BT: Well, I won’t specifically ask about your next project. But I will ask, has this changed your outlook as a philosopher in that, I mean, do you hope to write for a general audience again?
KS: I think so, yes. I mean, the one thing I definitely learned from trying to write a book that was accessible and fun to read was that the editorial voice in my head when I’m writing professional [philosophy] — when I’m writing journal articles for colleagues, is a real pain. I mean, the voice in your head when you’re writing philosophy for philosophers is constantly nagging you to clarify and make distinctions and giving you lists of objections that you need to address. And the editorial voice in my head when I was trying to write this book had its own ways of being a pain. But it was much more about where is this going exactly, or this seems like a lot of detail. I’m not really very interested. Or, “faster, funnier” was the slogan I had in my head. Get to something interesting and engaging quickly. You can’t bore people with too much detail. And so, one thing I’m now experiencing going back, or sort of having the question about what I’m going to do, is whether to reinternalize the editorial voice of the journal editor and go back to writing journal articles, or instead to spend more time thinking about writing for a general audience.
And I’m really just genuinely torn. I think I kind of want to do both. But, they definitely pull in different directions. So, a thing I have been doing is writing more short, public philosophy pieces. I have a piece on the meaning of life that’s going to come out soon. And I have been writing book reviews for the TLS. And that’s a very fun kind of philosophical writing because you get to do some — you get to engage with arguments at some level of detail. But again, much more of the writing process, is concerned with making things both accessible and entertaining. And I definitely would like to keep doing that.
BT: Well, Kieran, thank you so much for joining me. I’ve really enjoyed it.
KS: Thank you so much for having me. It was great to talk.
BT: Kieran Setiya’s book is called Midlife: A Philosophical Guide. If you’re in the New York City area, he’ll be speaking at the 92nd Street Y on Thursday, April 19. For information and tickets, visit 92y.org/events.
Our thanks to Daniel Kearns, broadcast engineer at the Princeton Broadcast Center, where we recorded this interview via Skype. The music in this podcast is licensed from FirstCom Music.