The Death of Ivan Ilych and a Mid-Life Crisis

By Matt Friedman

When I was 16 years old, I read Tolstoy’s short story, The Death of Ivan Ilych. Ivan Ilych grew up in Russia. Like most young men of means, he went to the right school, married the right woman, got the right job, and moved up in the system. But along the way, he lost track of his life and followed a path that took him far from his initial idealistic hopes and dreams. Following an accident that resulted in a chronic injury, he had several weeks to look back on his life. During this process, he came to the sober realization that he had lived his life all wrong. But with death nearly upon him, there was nothing he could do to change this reality.

This story had a major impact on my life. I remember thinking that I had seen people like Ivan who had reached a particular point in their life when they suddenly woke up, reflected on their present situation, and realized they were not happy. In some cases, this scenario evolves into what is often called a “midlife crisis”.

The reason behind each ideological crisis differs from person to person. Some severely regret not achieving goals in their life related to work, personal growth, artistic and creative accomplishments, or supporting their children. Others come to feel they have never given much of themselves in support of others. The good news is, it’s never too late to get involved. At this critical point, most need someone to guide them through the process. Without this helping hand, many will feel regret, accept this feeling as inevitable and fail to change their lives.

At the end of life there should be few regrets and, in particular, we should feel that our life has had meaning and purpose. Therefore, we should help anyone who wants to contribute to find their particular niche. It is also important that you regularly take stock of your life and ask the questions, “Am I happy, am I doing what I want, am I living my life the way I want?” If not, change it.


Published by Matthew S. Friedman & Sylvia Yu Friedman

Matthew Friedman is an international keynote speaker, the CEO of The Mekong Club, and a former United Nations and U.S. diplomat. A leading global expert on modern slavery, Friedman has more than 30 years of experience as an inspirational and motivational public speaker. Check out his latest powerful Penguin Random House memoir, Where Were You? A Profile of Modern Slavery. Sylvia Yu Friedman is an award-winning filmmaker, investigative journalist, international speaker, serial entrepreneur, and advisor to philanthropists. She is the author of three books: A Long Road to Justice: Stories from the Frontlines in Asia (Penguin Random House); Silenced No More: Voices of Comfort Women, the only journalistic account of Japanese military sex slavery during the Second World War, and Heart and Soul: The Life Story of Pastor Augustus Chao. Sylvia is a serial entrepreneur and works with family offices in Asia and the U.S.

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