HomeOpinion & AnalysisColumnistsIt’s messy in the middle

It’s messy in the middle


The middle is a messy place. Middle income countries, middle management, middle classes, middle children, midlife — pretty much nothing glamorous goes on in the middle!

Opinion: Thembe Khumalo

Thembe Khumalo
Thembe Khumalo

I recently listened to a podcast in which, Scott Belsky, author of Making Ideas Happen discussed how start-up companies enjoy a period of dazzling excitement and energy as they begin, how they learn quickly and fail fast, and later become celebrated successes or spectacular failures, but in between, they experience a period that people hardly ever talk about: the messy middle.

He talked about how stories of entrepreneurship often glamorise the beginning and then celebrate the end, but seldom address the mundane middle season: the time of slow and painful growth, and sometimes even stagnation where endurance and optimisation are critical.

It’s motivating to keep at your business when you are still seeing opportunities around every corner, when the bootstrapping is kind of fun and the dreams of fortune abound, but at some point reality sets in, bills mount and problems become realities and you start to wonder why you thought you could do this in the first place.

That’s the painful, messy middle that comes before the roaring success, and by not acknowledging it, we rob ourselves of the opportunity to prepare for it.

As middles go, one of my pet concerns is middle management. My thesis is that usually the chief executive officer is pretty clear on where the company or entity is going and what needs to be done to get the team there.

After all, that is why he or she is the chief executive officer — his capacity to see long and far is a gift that not everyone is endowed with. Then you have senior management — the executives: unless there is something wrong with the team, the senior management team usually can see the chief executive officer’s vision and are willing and able to run with it. It’s the layer below the executives that can bring a great vision to an abrupt halt.

Middle managers deal with the day-to-day detail of managing people, achieving efficiencies and reporting valuable information from lower levels of employees.

Caught between the executors they lead and the executives they report to, they have influence, but have often been accused of misusing that influence, with the result that the organisation is held back from achieving its full potential.

According to the World Bank, five of the worlds seven billion people live in middle income countries. These countries reach a certain level of development and their problems are no longer considered dire or urgent. Their position on the development agenda becomes questionable and they are no longer top of the list of recipients of development aid. This can be a problem when there is still a lot of work to be done.

According to a United Nations Development Programme report published in 2013, more than 20 countries had at that time been reclassified as middle income, having been bumped up from the list of “poor” ones. But do the people in those countries feel “better”, or do they still feel poor?

Those middle income countries are still home to 73% of the world’s poor people! Perhaps one day Zimbabwe will get bumped up and then we’ll know for sure!

And then you have the middle class. In the musical Evita, the character playing Eva Peron sings: “Who are the middle classes? I will never accept them!”

Neither rich nor poor, middle class families often have high aspirations to become wealthy, but are considered to already be achievers by their poorer relatives. In Zimbabwe, most of our middle class citizens are said to be living in the diaspora, leaving a skewed social hierarchy in their wake.

Many of us have experienced the disconsolate drama of the middle child. The one who is neither the first nor the last and, therefore, acts up in order to create some sort of distinction since birth order failed to deliver any.

Middle child syndrome is actually a real thing. Wikipedia defines it as “the feeling of exclusion by middle children (those with one younger and one older sibling).” It is said that firstborn children develop their leadership potential early in life, take on more responsibility and are, therefore, highly likely to become high achievers.

Notice how 21 out of Americas first 23 astronauts were firstborn sons. Lastborn children on the other hand are supposed to be the creative geniuses in the family, producing a large number of comedians, among other performers: think Jim Carrey, Drew Carey, Eddie Murphy, Rosie O’Donnell and Billy Crystal. Middle children on the other hand are permanently stuck between the responsible leaders, and the rebellious creatives, becoming negotiators and,well people like Madonna and Princess Diana. I was hoping to find a connection between serial killers and middle children, but nope, there doesn’t seem to be one.

But the mess in the middle that you really have to mind, is the mess known as a midlife crisis. A crisis of identity and self-confidence, midlife melodrama includes drastic changes to a person’s lifestyle and sometimes even values.

Sudden interests in things one never cared about before, like leaning to play an instrument or trying a new hobby (think sky-diving, reflexology) after the age of 45 can be a sign that the dreaded midlife crisis is looming.

Often characterised by foolish choices and illogical reasoning, people going through a midlife crisis need to be treated with care and compassion.

Ironically, people who are very close can tend to reflect one another.

So when a partner starts to decline into a midlife crisis, the other picks up on it and begins to have their own!

I’ll leave it to your imagination to figure out what that might look like in your own life.

Like I said — it’s messy in the middle.

Thembe Khumalo is a brand-builder, storyteller and social entrepreneur. Find out more on www.thembekhumalo.com or follow her social media accounts @thembekhumalo

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