Who needs a Ferrari when you can pick up a paintbrush?
Remember those days? When a midlife crisis meant swapping your hatchback for a sports car, preferably red, or taking up a boozy, illicit affair?
Not today. In this era of mindfulness, and today’s preoccupation with pursuing a meaningful life, a new antidote has emerged to cure the doldrums of midlife: creativity. Creativity classes and seminars for those in their 40s and 50s are thriving. So are books devoted to creating a meaningful life plan ahead of retirement.
Some experts chalk up the goings-on to the do-it-yourself maker movement, which means that it is easier for older Americans to take up new activities. Others experience creativity as an outlet to combat anxiety and depression. Still more people want to bolster a flagging career or reinvent themselves.
“People see creativity as the solution to the midlife crisis,” said Julia Cameron, the high priestess of the creative movement whose book “The Artist’s Way: A Spiritual Path to Creativity” has sold more than four million copies since it was published in 1992. Requests for her workshops and seminars have doubled in the past year, she said. The book, too, has inspired spinoffs by Ms. Cameron, including, in 2016, “It’s Never Too Late to Begin Again: Discovering Creativity and Meaning at Midlife and Beyond.”
“People find themselves asking, ‘Is this all there is?’” Ms. Cameron said. “And the answer is, ‘No. There has to be more.’”
More, of course, does not mean more things or the outward trappings of youth. Instead, it’s a look inward, to passions and possibilities long thought to have passed.
Creativity helped Ashley Henry, 49, regain an identity tucked away since college. Two years ago, she held a concert in Portland, Ore., to raise money for a mental health organization. “If you asked my friends in high school, they’d tell you I was ‘the singer,’” she said. “My political friends and newer friends didn’t know this.”
Ms. Henry had thrown herself into a career in nonprofit work and politics. When she reached her mid-40s, though, she longed to sing again. So in 2016, when she learned that her favorite jazz club, Jimmy Mak’s, was closing, she decided to get onstage before it was shuttered for good. “That was the universe saying, ‘You have to get this done,’” Ms. Henry said.
She rented the club and hired a singing coach. That night she raised $7,000. Her friends cheered her moxie. So much so that a few of them told her they were inspired to pursue creative projects of their own.
Bill Burnett, the executive director of the design program at Stanford University and an author of the best seller “Designing Your Life,” said he had seen a growing number of midlife professionals use his book to re-engage their creative side. “Many remember something about themselves when they were feeling creative,” he said. “And it feels good.”
The challenge is to bring the experience into everyday life. Most people won’t leave their jobs (even if they fantasize about it) and take up painting in Provence. There are bills to pay, after all, and rookie oil paintings rarely cover the mortgage. Then, of course, there is ego.
“Fear of failure is big if you’re an expert in your field,” Mr. Burnett said. “They question, ‘Why am I going to do something new that I’m terrible at?’ There is the psyche that says, ‘Don’t do that.’” What people want, Mr. Burnett said, is permission.
In 2016, Elana Frankel left her job as the creative director of One Kings Lane, a luxury furniture and home décor company. She took photographs, but wanted something more. “When I was a kid I absolutely loved painting,” she said. So she bought some acrylics and began to paint, using her photographs as inspiration.
Buying more stuff wouldn’t have satiated her curiosity. “For so many people, when they hit their 40s, probably the most important thing is the inner desire to better themselves,” Ms. Frankel, who is in her 40s, said. “I stopped to focus on my needs. And it does not feel like a selfish pursuit.” Now she paints with her two children.
“It feels like a communal activity,” she said.
Ms. Cameron, 70, said she created her 2016 book as a tool kit for her middle-aged friends. “People are looking for structure,” she said. “People need to have encouragement.”
I know this from my own experience. Four years ago, I started a group with some friends that became our creativity salon. It was a conscious endeavor to break free from established routines and the rigors of our jobs. We began by reading “The Artist’s Way” and agreed to talk every Sunday by telephone to foster camaraderie and accountability.
In one exercise, I asked everyone to paint or draw a scene from a photograph. One member pieced together paper collage trees, which she shared with us. In another task, the group was instructed to hand-color a postcard and mail it to a friend. I even suggested we buy red lipstick. Why? It was an exercise in understanding color.
The tasks were designed to take us out of our comfort zones. A walk to work turned into a photography session. Staid routines were interrupted with glassblowing and ballet. We became masters at trying new things, even if we would never be more than novices. I still can’t tap dance well. But I now have the right shoes.
Two decades ago, Lee Weinstein, a former Nike public relations manager, got the idea to create a visual life-plan timeline on a large sheet of butcher paper where he and his wife recorded their future dreams and goals. Over the years, they shared details on Facebook of their planning sessions. Friends asked if they could learn to do it too. “They needed permission to play,” Mr. Weinstein said. “We don’t allow ourselves to do that.”
Mr. Weinstein started teaching workshops to pairs of participants. He advertises on social media; the cost for a workshop is $150 per couple. Ashley Henry, the singer who held a charity concert at Jimmy Mak’s, took his workshop.
In December, Mr. Weinstein published a workbook called “Write. Open. Act: An Intentional Life Planning Workbook.” It was based on his workshop, which has turned into a side business. “Remember when people would go out and buy the Porsche?” Mr. Weinstein said. “I’m not seeing that anymore. I’m seeing people looking for deeper meaning.”
He had a client who started playing the guitar. Doing so made the man feel youthful, and it tapped different parts of his brain. His talent was validated, too.
“I am not hearing people say, ‘I need to buy one more thing,’” Mr. Weinstein said.
Laura M. Holson is an award-winning feature writer from New York. She joined The Times in 1998 and has written about Hollywood, Wall Street and Silicon Valley. A movie producer once held a butter knife to her neck.