THE MANAGERIAL MIDLIFE CRISIS Look back. Look ahead. Look inward. Try not to get too depressed. It's just a phase you're going through.

(FORTUNE Magazine) – The promises end here. Or at least here's where you stop believing them. ''Work hard, kid, give us your best, and you'll get one of the top jobs.'' Sure. ''Marry, start a family, make the money to keep them happy, and they will love you and be unfailingly grateful.'' Right. ''Things are going to get better, just you wait and see.'' Uh-huh. Welcome, old clear eyes, to the rock 'em, sock 'em midlife transition. Damnable uncertainty plagues the entire experience. It may, for example, be impossible for you to tell when you are launched on this particular passage, if you ever are. You're suddenly convinced that you're no longer on the fast track, or that the track leads nowhere, or that no one appreciates you, or that you're losing your marbles. But unlike at puberty, there are no bodily changes dramatic enough to signal that your mind is being taken over temporarily by forces beyond your control. You aren't the only one who's confused. Even behavioral scientists cannot ^ agree on the nature, timing, and extent of the phenomenon. In particular, they cannot agree on whether the typical 40-ish executive goes through anything as disruptive as a psychological crisis. Perhaps the best-known authority on the subject is Yale psychology professor Daniel J. Levinson -- he wrote the best- seller The Seasons of a Man's Life; his research was the basis for the even bigger best-seller Passages. Levinson found that of the 40 men he studied, including ten executives, more than 30 experienced ''tumultuous struggles within the self and with the external world'' beginning in their late 30s or early 40s. Nor are executive women excepted from the turmoil. Levinson -- who has lately been studying women's development in adult life, his sample including a number of businesswomen -- concludes that females often go through an even tougher psychological transition than males do, and at the same age. He attributes much of it to the changing definition of their roles in society. On the other hand, consider the findings of professors Michael P. Farrell and Stanley D. Rosenberg of the State University of New York at Buffalo and the Dartmouth Medical School, respectively, who examined the experience of 300 men age 38 to 48 representing all income groups. One finding: subjects who had made it into the managerial class tended to weather the transition into midlife better than lower-status males, often without any psychological disruption at all. That could, however, merely mean that the crisis is yet to come. Rosenberg reports that follow-up interviews with these managers indicate they've had a surprisingly rough time in the decade since the original study was conducted. This comports with what seems a common impression among business types that the crisis really hits in the late 40s. If you begin to do the midlife beguine -- or the beguine begins to do you -- know that you're likely to proceed through fairly predictable stages, at least according to some of the experts. William Yabroff, a professor of psychology at Santa Clara University who helps Silicon Valley companies counsel employees on the passage, offers about the most clear-cut formulation: ''The transition begins with an ending -- disenchantment with what one has achieved. It goes to a midpoint, where there's a real sense of loss. Then there's a new beginning.'' You probably have lots to be disenchanted about. On the personal side, the list typically includes waning energy -- particularly, in men, waning sexual ! energy. The prospect of taking care of your aging parents also weighs on your mind, along with the impossibility of getting along with your adolescent children. Work, too, offers plenty of opportunities for dissatisfaction. At this point in even a fast-track career, promotions come more slowly, if they come at all. Instead of the unbounded horizon of job possibilities that seem to await you in your 20s, you face years of just rolling on in the same old rut. If you keep your job, that is -- an increasingly nagging question in this era of continuing managerial layoffs. Counselors say that executives at midlife often express deepening worry about the obsolescence of their technical skills, especially compared with those of younger people at the company. These execs forget that by this time they are being paid for their managerial abilities. Even success won't insulate an executive from the growing feeling that nothing means as much as it used to. Notes Atlanta psychologist Roderick Gilkey of his midlife patients, ''I seem to get a lot of executives just after they've been promoted.'' A common executive plaint, according to therapists: ''Damn it, I ought to be happy. Why aren't I?'' California psychologist Yabroff says that a manager's response to mounting midlife feelings of disenchantment typically takes one of three forms. He may suddenly get busier -- working harder or plunging into community activities. He may try to escape into drink, drugs, erotic adventure, or some giddy combination of the three. Or he may go in a more spiritual direction, sometimes seeking meaning in religion. ''My midlife transition was something I went through in terms of finding a new value system,'' reports a 51-year-old man who at 45 gave up a job as an executive with a FORTUNE 500 company. ''My value system had been a material one -- a big saltbox colonial house, expensive vacations, Mercedes. I wanted to start over.'' He got a divorce, earned a degree in counseling, and now works as an adviser to executives whose careers are in trouble. As a manager becomes disenchanted, coworkers may notice a withdrawal from the usual hearty give-and-take or bouts of irritability sometimes igniting into rage. The crisis sufferer may be undergoing what psychoanalysts call the return of the repressed: impelled by weird energies, he rehearses again all those conflicts with parents or other menacing authority figures that he thought he had settled long ago. He also begins to wrestle with the Ultimate Bummer: the realization that he is going to die, realio, trulio. WITH THE DESCENT to the midpoint of the crisis, disenchantment can become depression. James A. Wilson, a psychologist at the University of Pittsburgh who counsels executives in his private practice, notes, ''For some of these high achievers, it's the first depression they've ever experienced, and it's all the more frightening for that.'' The afflicted manager may also suffer a decreased ability to concentrate and deficiencies in memory that sometimes border on disorientation. One psychologist tells of an executive in the throes of a midlife crisis who was charged with introducing an up-and-coming subordinate to a large company audience. He forgot to. He was then asked to introduce the rising star at a board meeting. He began his introduction, and then forgot the man's name. Another practitioner tells of executive patients who, sitting in business meetings, forgot their own names. At this juncture, the company stands to lose the executive if it isn't careful. He has to be convinced that he is not losing his mind, that it happens to others too, and -- probably harder to put across -- that it's not a result of his situation at work. This may be a good time for a sabbatical, if the company is enlightened enough to offer them. The individual has to back off, to retreat, and to grieve for what might have been. While it may last for a few months, people do get through this dark night of the soul. What lies on the other side, ideally, is a process psychologists call integration -- the putting together of aspects of the self heretofore in conflict or neglected -- and the exploration of new opportunities. Executives may, for example, discover a hitherto unexplored capacity for nurturance. Helping to bring younger people along, sharing what they know, they become better managers. Says the chief executive of a metalworking company who at 48 went into a severe depression, ''I took six months off and then bounced back. As a result of my midlife crisis, I have more sympathy for people and can understand why they don't do well in their jobs. I also looked at my values -- I now rate family and self higher than business success.'' Those who successfully negotiate the crisis learn a measure of acceptance, both of what has happened and what will happen. True, the dreams of youth are gone, along with some of the possibilities of youth. But in their place, hard won from the summer of life, resides some understanding, which just may be the beginning of wisdom for the autumn and winter.