My rating: 5 of 5 stars
The Seasons of a Man’s Life (1978) by Daniel J. Levinson (with Charlotte Darrow, Edward Klein, Maria Levinson and Braxton McKee) is a book for every man at any age of his life, but I recommend The Seasons of a Man’s Life for young men who are in high school or in college because this book will help shape and reshape life decisions for decades to come.
At age 35, I first learned of this book from my late mentor Joseph Campbell, who mentioned this book in an interview ages ago, and I wished I had discovered these secrets much sooner.
Often I have been plagued with an anxiety that my life choices were my own and I was a lone island in a sea of men. That anxiety, however, is a false and a misguided one. After reading The Seasons of a Man’s Life I found that I was not only not alone but that at certain key stages of my life biological choices were surfacing—the same it does to most men.
The book is a field guide to a man’s life done as a scientific study over the course of two decades, in the sixties and seventies—and the findings then are as relevant and true as they are today. A man’s life consists of four primary cycles, which are:
1. Childhood and Adolescence: age 0-22
2. Early Adulthood: age 17-45
3. Middle Adulthood: age 40-65
4. Late Adulthood: age 60-?
The three major ages for a man’s life to pivot and turn drastically in one direction or another based on that man’s personal choices are age 30, age 35, and age 40. For me, I would include age 25—hence the age I decided to leave America and travel/work in Asia—but for this post I will focus on the most significant ages of 30, 35 and 40.
Age 30 is a very important biological turning point for men. Most men, like myself, somehow come face-to-face with a decision that they also somehow know will shape and reshape their life for many years to come. Even if all is well and going smoothly up until this point, the biological side to the man’s life will rise up and make the man seriously question everything in his life. The study found there are two choices: (a) the man keeps doing what he is doing and accepts the consequences for better or worse; or (b) the man makes a big change and decides to radically change his life.
At the age of 30, I found myself in a toxic marriage with a woman who did not support my writing—even the smallest amount of encouragement seemed alien to her. I was faced, then, with a difficult decision. Either I continued living in a failed marriage with a woman I could never come to love (how could I love someone who did not love me as a writer—the very essence of who I am?) or I could make a big change and start anew. This was not an easy decision, since we had a daughter involved, but it took me another three years to end the marriage and make a full commitment to my writing career, which I began whole-heartedly at the age of 18.
As I read and reflected on this study of a man’s life, I began to see other men around the age of 30 making career decisions that revolved around this age. Jake Gyllenhaal, at the age of 34 in 2015, is one such man. In an Esquire interview he said that at around the age of 30 he decided to focus on serious films and implement an immersion technique to his acting.
This following text comes from the Esquire interview in May, 2015 and expresses my point perfectly:
“Then something tectonic took place. His priorities shifted and his perspective changed. ‘I woke up one day and I wasn’t in the right room,’ he says. ‘It was like a David Byrne song: ‘That’s not my beautiful house. That’s not my beautiful wife.’
“So, he changed his life, the way men sometimes do around 30. He moved from his native Los Angeles to New York and pursued theatre. He chose smaller budget independent movies, with darker, more challenging themes.”
This kind of life-altering sudden realization was exactly what happened to me at the age of 30. I simply woke up one morning and found myself in the wrong room married to the wrong woman and knew I had to change my life or I would become a living zombie.
All of this has to do with a man’s Dream and the life structure that either does or does not support that Dream,
“The choice of a mate influences, and is influenced by, the overall character of that structure. One man tries to build a structure in which he can pursue his special dream or vision; he marries a woman who shares that dream and wants to join him on the journey toward its realization.
“Another man betrays his dream: seeking to build a structure that is more acceptable to parents or is ‘safer’ in some inner sense, he marries a woman who will value and support this conservatism. At some later time he may blame her, with much or little justification, for her part in leading him away from his dream” (p 55).
The Age Thirty Transition (p 58) is the process the man goes through to change his first life structure he created in his twenties. During this transition he is establishing a new life structure that will carry him through his thirties. If a failed transition occurs at this age, the new life structure usually has devastating effects to the man’s life and psyche and many suicides often happen before the age of forty, because the man fails to see the life structures beyond that age having any real significance to himself, to his dream, or to humanity.
“During the Age Thirty Transition,” writes the researchers, “the provisional, exploratory quality of the twenties is ending and a man has a sense of greater urgency. Life is becoming more serious, more restrictive, more ‘for real’. He has the feeling: ‘If I want to change my life—if there are things in it that I don’t like, or things missing that I would like to have—this is the time to make a start, for soon it will be too late.’ The Age Thirty Transition provides a ‘second chance’ to create a more satisfactory life structure within early adulthood” (p 85).
The next important age to consider is 35, coming at the end of the Settling Down Period and from this point on to age 40, the man enters what the researchers call “Becoming One’s Own Man”, which contains the “major developmental tasks…to accomplish the goals of the Settling Down enterprise…to speak more strongly with one’s own voice, and to have a greater measure of authority” (p 60).
But this Dream comes with a super-inflated asterisk:
“Those who betray the Dream in their twenties will have to deal later with the consequences. Those who build a life structure around the Dream in early adulthood have a better chance for personal fulfilment, though years of struggle may be required to maintain the commitment and work toward its realization” (p 92).
I can confess to this truth. In my early twenties I formed the Dream of becoming a writer/published author able to work for myself and dedicate a life to writing. Every choice I made since leaving a major bank at the age of 25 involved this question: “Money aside, will this decision make me happy?”
And more often than not the consequences of my decision made me happy, despite having a happiness that included me having to survive hardships and struggles around every turn.
I see why most people give up on their dreams. To continue chasing a Dream in the face of a pragmatic world putting out more obstacles than helping hands, a man must be filled with a madness that other men fear to see or touch. Just ask Don Quixote.
But it is at this thought I recall Brad Pitt as Achilles answering the small servant boy who at the beginning to the film Troy says he would be too afraid to fight the giant soldier, and Achilles responds, “That’s why no one will remember your name.”
It takes this amount of confidence, arrogance and madness to achieve one’s Dream. And most men come up short and put a gun to their head, because they believe their existence means very little to humanity without a Dream to achieve.
The study reveals several men followed over several decades of their lives, but two of these men drastically altered their lives after age 35. One New York executive named “Paul Namson” made millions in business and real estate only to retire to try his hand at writing/publishing full time. He later dabbled in real estate again, buying and selling land down in the Caribbean. He just could not write like he wanted.
By age 45, Namson had not reached the commercial success that he wanted as a novelist, and the researchers offered a reason as to why. They believe it takes at least ten years or more for someone to master their industry/craft. If one takes up writing full time at the age of 35, he can expect little to no result within the first ten years.
The same can be said for the writer beginning at age 20 or 25—one must put in the time, unless you have connections and are the exception. There were writers, however, who made strong impressions early on who later faltered and failed (I can think of David Foster Wallace and his book Infinite Jest off the top of my head—he later killed himself after years of mediocre success following this breakout novel).
The other man in the study was named William Paulsen and after working as a computer operator at “Bowles & White” in Florida for eight years he saw no opportunity for growth. He and his family were living a secure, comfortable life in a big house (p 282). After age 35 he struggled for years with the question of becoming a better man, and later he decided to risk it all for a better title and position with a new company.
At the age of 40, he sold the house, moved to the New York area, where his family lived in a small apartment, found a job working with the space agency working on computer designs for the Apollo missions. A few years later, after a few company changes in the industry, he was jobless, had a serious health condition (likely due to the stress) and his wife was supporting him. He had made a move and failed, and unlike Namson, Paulsen did not have millions stashed away in the bank to fall back on for financial security.
I find this level of biological interaction fascinating—and it seems to act at times as a counteragent to our own well-being. There was no reason why Paulsen needed to make that change, but he took the risk and failed, his family suffering the most from the consequences of his life choice.
And this brings us to “illusions”—a slippery snake that can either protect you with tremendous power or turn on you and strike its poison into your veins with lethal consequences.
“A man’s review of the past goes on in the shadow of the future…Illusions can be tremendously harmful,” writes the researchers, “but they can also inspire works of great nobility and accomplishment. They play a crucial, helpful and hurtful part in the lives of most persons during early adulthood. Some reduction in illusions is now appropriate and beneficial, but it is neither possible nor desirable to overcome all illusions in the Mid-life Transition or even by the end of middle adulthood. Illusion continues to have its place—a mixed blessing, or a mixed curse—all through the life cycle. The best way to avoid illusions is not to want anything very much. And that is hardly a prescription for a full life” (p 192-3).
This is also how you can easily spot the phonies: those men who jokingly tell you that they never wanted what they got. The famed writer who stands in front of an audience and says he never wanted to be a writer. I call bullshit on that every time.
You never hear of a star basketball player telling a reporter he never wanted to play basketball. Nope. Athletes, unlike many artists with false modesty and false humility, will tell you true. These athletes practiced as a child, worked hard, wanted their dream to come true more than anything—and they ended up being successful. The ones who half-ass it are usually the ones who fail. But every person’s Destiny and Dream is different. You have to want to be the best to be the best.
“A man’s Dream is his personal myth,” explains the researchers, “an imagined drama in which he is the central character, a would-be hero engaged in a noble quest…
“As Goethe said, ‘For a man to achieve all that is demanded of him, he must regard himself as greater than he is…
“But when we say that a man is enacting his myth, or pursuing his Dream, we are making plain that his activity has a far more profound meaning. A myth is a construction; it serves his human needs and it reflects meanings stemming from deeper, often unconscious sources in the personality and in the culture” (p 246-7).
Still creative artists are unique creatures, seeking isolation over crowds and desiring more for the process of being rather than the accolades of vanity. But the artist must exist in two worlds simultaneously in order to have a full life.
“The creative artist thus works on the boundary between attachment and separateness,” writes the researchers, “He sees himself as part of humanity, and he cares about the fate of his products in the future of humanity. Art is his occupation. Through it, he participates in society and is attached to society. To be creative, however, he must maintain some degree of separateness. His work must express and please himself, must be true to his own vision…
“He enjoys solitude more, since he has internal company when other persons are absent. He places less value on possessions, rewards and social approval. He lives more in the present and gains more satisfaction from the process of living—from being rather than doing and having. More in touch with his own feelings, he can be more esthetic, sensual, aware” (p 240-2).
And through my love relationship with Axton I maintain my connection to society. Not only does she keep life real and desirable by asking me to focus my attention and energies on her, she also encourages me and supports me emotionally in my career as a novelist. I consider myself a lucky man. Axton pulls me back towards society when I am slipping far from it, as writers must do at times. But she reminds me, with her smile and delicate speech, that there is more to life than words, dreams, illusions. Love is of a far greater importance.
By age 40 to 45 the man looks back on his decision to Become One’s Own Man and reflects on the success of his choices and his life structure and he searches for some “culminating event” that might make sense of his Dream and his decisions over the last decade or so (p 245), and from there he begins planning the next life structure.
The Seasons of a Man’s Life is one of the most important books a man can read to better understand his life structures, his Dreams and the often mind-boggling choices the man finds himself faced with one day when he wakes up and finds that he is in the wrong room.
For me, I am grateful and lucky (more so from hard work and making careful decisions rather than Lady Chance) to find myself waking up each morning next to an extraordinary woman with such beauty and kindness and love that I feel certain I am, after all these years of searching, finally in the right room where you know that dreams can and do come true.
CG FEWSTON has been a Visiting Fellow at Hong Kong’s CityU, and a Visiting Scholar at the American Academy in Rome (Italy). He has a B.A. in English, an M.Ed. in Higher Education Leadership (honors), an M.A. in Literature (honors), and an M.F.A. in Creative Writing & Fiction. He was born in Texas in 1979 and now lives in Hong Kong.
He’s the author of several short stories and novels. His works include A Father‘s Son (2005), The New America: A Collection (2007), Vanity of Vanities (2011), A Time to Love in Tehran (2015), and forthcoming: Conquergood & the Center of the Intelligible Mystery of Being; Little Hometown, America: A Look Back; and, The Endless Endeavor of Excellence.
You can read more about the author on Facebook @ cg.fewston – where he has 350,000+ followers