If you had a mid-career crisis this past year, you’re far from alone. In April, more than 4 million Americans quit their jobs, according to the Labor Department, a record number of resignations. The pandemic has forced people to reconsider, well, everything. If you’re among them, there is now a book for that. In ROAR: into the second half of your life (before it’s too late), Michael Clinton, a former publishing executive, offers an actionable roadmap for anyone at a professional or personal crossroads, urging readers to reimagine their lives before a disruption—like, say, a global pandemic—does it for them. It’s like a manual for these times.
Where some career bibles are all about intuition, ROAR (an acronym that stands for Reimagine yourself, Own who you are, Act on what’s next for you, Reassess your relationships) draws on cold, hard data. Clinton partnered with Qualtrics Research to survey hundreds of working adults on how they’re thinking about their future aspirations and dreams in a post-pandemic world. Forty spoke with Clinton, sharing their stories about midlife change for the book. Through these stories of journalists turned business owners and nurses turned coffee roasters, Clinton offers tips on how to “run full gallop into your future.”
I’ve known Clinton for nearly a decade. First when I was a reporter covering the media industry, then as an employee at Hearst Magazines, where Clinton was president and publishing director. In 2020, he stepped down from that role. His story has always intrigued me because he rose to great heights in the media world, yet came from a nearly impoverished background. Clinton, who’s now 68, grew up in a working-class family in Pittsburgh, the oldest of six kids. He was the first in his family to go to college, before moving to New York with $60 to his name. In just 10 years, he would become publisher of GQ magazine, making him the youngest person ever to hold the job at that time. In August, I spoke with Clinton about his life and his book. The conversation has been edited and condensed.
What was it like to become the publisher of a major magazine—to ascend to the top of your profession—at such a young age?
It was heady stuff. It was great stuff. But my background kept me anchored to reality. It’s very easy to get sucked up into the seat. As you get success in a career, your seat can become your identity. I think a lot of men, in particular, get wrapped up in that. Who are you when you’re not in that seat? Because that is a rented seat, you’re going to move out of it at some point. I was meeting Cary Grant and Michael Jordan, having dinner at Giorgio Armani’s house, living a real heady life. But I was conscious that I had to build a whole other identity for myself in terms of who I was.
Did you really have that awareness when you were in the seat or was that something that came with hindsight?
I had that awareness when I was in the seat; it was stimulated by a senior executive in the company. I had a meeting with him and got a little full of myself about some of the things I had just experienced in Europe on a business trip. He said, “Michael, just remember one thing, it is the seat you are in. You’re being invited to Giorgio Armani’s house for dinner because you’re the publisher of GQ.” And it was like: bing, bing, bing, bing. That was an early lesson that I have not only carried with me through my whole career, but I have also passed that lesson on to many people who I’ve mentored.
This book, which is about reassessing your career, really your entire life, and figuring out how to make a change, couldn’t be more relevant considering all the changes the pandemic has wrought. When did you set out to write this book?
It was two years ago. I was making the decision to step out of the day to day of my career and move into a consulting role. At that point, I had done 42 years in the publishing industry. I always believe you should leave on top, at the height of your experience. That takes courage, because I had a great seat and a great position, but I felt the time was right for me to go to a next chapter. Everyone’s going to have to do that at some point. If you work for a company—unless you own the company—you’re going to have to move on at some point in your life. I gave a last presentation to the whole publishing team, and ROAR was born from that. It was a 16-minute talk, and it resonated with the crowd in a very big way. Several people suggested I should write a book. I thought about it over the summer and determined there’s a story here. It happened before the pandemic, but something was already happening in the culture: late Baby Boomers were beginning to step out of their main careers and people in their mid-4os were having what I call a midlife awakening (versus a midlife crisis). They’re out into adulthood 20, 25 years, and asking, Do I really want this career? Am I really in the right marriage? Am I really living in the right place? The pandemic just blew all that up in a big way.
I’m 40, and I identified with this idea of a midlife awakening—
I’m hearing that from a lot of 40-year-olds.
Who did you write this book for?
It’s for the 45 to 65 cohort that’s going through a midlife transition—a transition out of the first career and into the second career or into their next meaningful stage. But I’ve been talking to younger adults who’ve read it—not just 40-year-olds, but 30-year-olds. One woman even said, “I’m giving the book to my three 20-something kids, because there are life lessons here as you’re charting your course.”
What happens if you’re not on top? What happens if you’re on the bottom or stuck in the middle somewhere and you want to make a change?
You have a few things to think about. First, do I want to stay in the world that I’m in? If you want to stay in that world, and you’re not making progress or having success where you are, then you’ve got to make a move. If you say, I’ve done 30 years in this industry and I’m done with it, then you need to do an assessment of where you want to go.
Do you need to be wealthy, or have wealth, in order to commit to a change like this?
Absolutely not. There is so much money available to adults for scholarships and Pell grants and foundations that will fund transition. If you really do the homework, you can find financial sources.
If I’m thinking to myself, I want to make a change, what do I do besides read your book? What do I consider first?
First, you have to deconstruct where you think the change has to happen. Where’s your dissatisfaction: Is it in where and how you live? Is it in what you’re doing every day for a career? Is it in the relationship that you have with a person? You’ve got to deconstruct what it is that’s giving you the dissatisfaction.
I interviewed a guy named Mark Kaplowitz for the book. He was a successful banker on Wall Street. In his late 40s, he said I’m absolutely miserable, and he went back to school and got a master’s in adolescent education. Today he teaches in inner-city schools and is fulfilled and happy. A lot of it is going back to your youth, your teenage years, your young adult years, what were the things that you really wanted to do before you got sidetracked?
Some of the people in ROAR who made major life changes did so after a health crisis. But what this book seems to be telling readers is to be proactive about change, to not wait—
Until something else, whether it’s a cancer diagnosis or a restructuring at your company, forces you to make that change.
People don’t spend a lot of time on a plan B. It’s almost like war games. What would happen if my wife left me? What would happen if I got fired from my job? What are the contingency plans?
There’s a chapter about owning your numbers. What are your financial numbers, your health numbers? Do you know what your blood pressure is? Own those things. That’s the foundation to everything else, because that will help you cope and navigate should something come out of left field. I wish we all had the prescription for making sure we had a beautiful life that just sailed us through it all, but shit happens, and so you just always have to be thinking about what’s important to me and how would I navigate that.
The Own Your Numbers chapter really stuck with me. I need to get my blood pressure checked more regularly!
Everyone who’s read the book said that.
It also made me think about men and illusion. This idea that we create narratives for ourselves. Those narratives can help propel us forward. But they can also become fiction. We start lying to ourselves. But numbers—whether it’s a bank statement or a blood pressure reading—are hard to hide from.
Denial is a potent force. I’ll go back to the health thing. We all know guys who, in their 40s, gained weight, fell out of shape, still eat and drink like they were 22. They’re not facing the reality that what they’re doing is damaging to their wellbeing—to their heart, to their cholesterol, to all of that. They’re stuck in an old vision of themselves, as opposed to what is the current reality of their situation. Sometimes a health crisis makes them deal with it, but it’s best to get ahead of it. That gets back to the self-assessment.
Is there any risk of your plan B robbing from your plan A?
Sometimes plan B infiltrates plan A. You might determine that your plan A is not what it’s all cracked up to be, so you might start integrating your plan B into it. The one lesson I would take away from all the interviews for the book is that people who made a pivot in their life put in the time, put in the brain power, put in the practical thinking of how they would do that. And most of them would say it was a two-year journey. From when you think to yourself, I need to make this change to when you actually do it, the average is about two years. It takes time because when you’re a grown adult, and you have lots of responsibilities in your life, you just don’t flip the switch. The people who’ve had the most success are the ones who really thought it through and took the leap. That’s the cultivation of the plan B.
Why should somebody read this book?
First to be inspired by the stories of the 40 people who reinvented and re-imagined their lives to see that anyone can do it at any stage in their life. The second thing is there’s a lot of practical- and real-world advice that can help people get there. People oftentimes get stuck in where they are, and they don’t know how to get out of it. Hopefully, this book will be a bit of a manifesto to help them learn about how to get unstuck.
A version of the introduction to this story, written by Adrienne Westenfeld, appeared in the September issue of Esquire. You can subscribe here.
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