You can’t skip the second act in life

Brene Brown Second Act

Brene Brown is the speaker behind one of the most popular TED Talks of all-time, and now she’s got a new book coming out — so she’s making the media rounds. Here she is with Fast Company:

Last year, Brown gave a talk at Pixar Animation Studios, where president Ed Catmull (who helped save Pixar with Toy Story) and his team explained that the middle of the creative process is the hardest part. In the script, for example, it’s where the main character must face a tough journey to learn a lesson. That shaped her theory: You can’t skip the second act. “People don’t recount the middle of the story often,” Brown says. “[It has] the most potential for shame. But it’s where everything important happens.”

This is a little bit similar to the whole “Iceberg Theory” of success, which basically states that you only see the top, superficial level — the success — and don’t see all the grind, struggle, hardship, and failure that buffered it. (That would be below the water.) But there’s another interesting application here.

In the emergent science of happiness, there’s a theory around the idea that life happiness is like a U-Curve:

U-Curve Happiness

If you think about this “Second Act” concept here, it’s basically the time where that U-Curve is going down. Your first act is probably 0-22, because that’s the time most of us (first-world, at least) are becoming educated, etc. Your next act is — and obviously this still varies by person and society — your working years, and your final act is when those years start to wind down and there’s supposed to be more of a focus on family and travel and all that. That said, the basic life path is changing right now, even if that’s something no one is considering.

So if you take Brown’s quote above and this chart, you come to a semi-depressing reality.

That Second Act — which are the years most people earn money, have kids, buy houses, deal with their parents’ aging and death, etc. — is the period where everything really happens. And while it can suck from time to time (and heck, it probably sucks a lot of it, especially if basic employee engagement stats are even remotely to be believed), you can’t skip it. It’s the period that should, in theory, take “Act 1” — where you matured — and give it the experience to periodically be successful and then make “Act 3” — the glory years! — all the more sweeter.

Of course, it works differently for everyone.

I struggle with this kind of stuff personally all the time. I’m pretty sure I make less money than most of my friends, and most of my guy friends have kids and I don’t. I’m constantly thinking that I’m “behind” in some way in life, even though logically I understand life isn’t a race. I’m sure other people have felt this way, so maybe there’s a small freeing quality to actually typing it.

But what I try to remember is that no one can skip the Second Act. I have friends who I look at and think, “Wow, they have everything together.” Then you get in a real, organic moment with them and they’ll say work sucks, bills are piling up, romance isn’t there, kids are terrors, mother is falling apart, etc.

Point is: in some way, everyone is out here struggling in between the successes. No one is skipping the Second Act. You can’t. It’s where everything happens. So whenever you’re depressed, try to think about it in these terms: it’s hard, but it’s hard for most people. No one gets to jump over this part, even if we like to present it a certain, curated way to others (thank you, social media).

Ted Bauer


  1. THIS, all day long. Thanks for the good and relevant read (as always), my friend.

  2. The cynic in me (me) looks at this chart and sees happiness directly correlated to retirement; or, at least the end of what most people consider “real” work. Yes, that’s a very simple conclusion, but then I think about all the people I know who have retired and it makes sense. They say they finally have time to do what they’ve always really wanted, which ranges from nothing to traveling the world.

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