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Mike Tyson On Moving On

Today I saw a headline in Sports Illustrated that caught my attention. Mike Tyson describing his life after retirement as “empty”. Maybe you have to get past the fact that it’s Mike Tyson in the article, but say what you want, this is a very real and deserved topic to talk about. He described spending his life being dedicated to boxing. And not just boxing, but the whole life he built related to boxing. Once he retired, he not only lost his lifelong career but lost his identity too.

We spend our life starting in childhood deciding what we want “to be when we grow up”. As we grow older we are expected to fine tune our desired career path and work towards making it happen. Then we spend the next 30-40 years working. Then, often abruptly, we retire. We’re expected to celebrate the joyful time, but is it that easy?

For most adults, especially in American society, work isn’t just about income; it’s about livelihood. It gives us a sense of purpose. We spend more time at our jobs than we do in any other part of our life. Our co-workers become like family. When we meet new people the first question often asked is, “what do you do?”. Our career becomes incredibly integrated into every corner of our life. For it to suddenly end, regardless of it’s through a layoff or termination, planned retirement, or due to illness or injury, we are suddenly left having to find a new identity.

Erik Erickson described eight stages of psychosocial development people go through throughout a lifespan from infancy to late adulthood. Erickson wrote that each stage has a conflict to be faced and resolved in order to age with a strong sense of self. If we aren’t able to resolve the conflict we are likely to carry a sense of inadequacy as we move forward with our life into the next stage. Many of the stages, once resolved, gradually lead into the next stage. For example, during adolescence we face “identity vs. role confusion”, where we use everything we’ve learned in the previous stages to help us build on our identity. Then we take that identity with us as we move into “infancy vs. isolation” and start seeking relationships that prevent feelings of isolation. We take the security of intimacy that comes with strong and close personal relationships with us as we face “generativity vs. stagnation”, which just so happens to be the time we face or prepare for the end of a career. We need to have a sense of purpose and know we’re moving forward and having something meaningful to contribute to the world. We start considering the legacy we want to leave. A major challenge is accomplishing generativity while leaving behind a significant piece of our identity. This is something we simply aren’t usually prepared to accept and we certainly aren’t encouraged to talk about.

Finding an outlet to talk about and process feelings that come up during each stage of our life is important. Just like with all theories of human development, Erickson’s is not without flaw or debate. Our lives are much more complex than moving from neatly packaged life stages and it isn’t fair to place such emphasis on resolving each one in order to avoid feelings of inadequacy. But there is no question that spending a lifetime developing an identity tied in with a career is likely to create emotional chaos when it’s time to end the career. Finding yourself feeling empty, like Mike Tyson experienced, doesn’t mean you aren’t joyful about your future or proud of your accomplishments. It just means it’s a good time to reach out to talk.

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