Monday, July 01, 2019

Your professional decline.

Arthur Brooks, former president of the conservative American Enterprise Institute think tank and New York Times Op-Ed writer, does an essay in the Atlantic in which he contemplates his professional decline, making points that are universally relevant. Some clips:
...happiness of most adults declines through their 30s and 40s, then bottoms out in their early 50s...Almost all studies of happiness over the life span show that, in wealthier countries, most people’s contentment starts to increase again in their 50s, until age 70 or so. That is where things get less predictable, however. After 70, some people stay steady in happiness; others get happier until death. Others—men in particular—see their happiness plummet. Indeed, depression and suicide rates for men increase after age 75...A few researchers have looked at this cohort to understand what drives their unhappiness. It is, in a word, irrelevance.
This is especially an issue in gifted and accomplished people.
...accomplishment is a well-documented source of happiness. If current accomplishment brings happiness, then shouldn’t the memory of that accomplishment provide some happiness as well?...Though the literature on this question is sparse, giftedness and achievements early in life do not appear to provide an insurance policy against suffering later on...abundant evidence suggests that the waning of ability in people of high accomplishment is especially brutal psychologically...Call it the Principle of Psychoprofessional Gravitation: the idea that the agony of professional oblivion is directly related to the height of professional prestige previously achieved, and to one’s emotional attachment to that prestige...the memory of remarkable ability, if that is the source of one’s self-worth, might, for some, provide an invidious contrast to a later, less remarkable life.
In some professions, early decline is inescapable. No one expects an Olympic athlete to remain competitive until age 60. But in many physically nondemanding occupations, we implicitly reject the inevitability of decline before very old age. Sure, our quads and hamstrings may weaken a little as we age. But as long as we retain our marbles, our quality of work as a writer, lawyer, executive, or entrepreneur should remain high up to the very end, right? ...The data are shockingly clear that for most people, in most fields, decline starts earlier than almost anyone thinks...if you start a career in earnest at 30, expect to do your best work around 50 and go into decline soon after that...the most common age for producing a magnum opus is the late 30s...the likelihood of a major discovery increases steadily through one’s 20s and 30s and then declines through one’s 40s, 50s, and 60s. Are there outliers? Of course. But the likelihood of producing a major innovation at age 70 is approximately what it was at age 20—almost nonexistent.
In sum, if your profession requires mental processing speed or significant analytic capabilities—the kind of profession most college graduates occupy—noticeable decline is probably going to set in earlier than you imagine...Whole sections of bookstores are dedicated to becoming successful. The shelves are packed with titles like The Science of Getting Rich and The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. There is no section marked “Managing Your Professional Decline.”
Brooks contrasts the declines of Charles Darwin, who became embittered and inactive after his younger most creative period had passed, with Johann Sebastian Bach, who redesigned his life - as baroque music was being replaced by the "classical" style - moving from being an innovator to being a teacher and instructor.
The lesson for you and me, especially after 50: Be Johann Sebastian Bach, not Charles Darwin...How does one do that? A potential answer lies in the work of the British psychologist Raymond Cattell, who in the early 1940s introduced the concepts of fluid and crystallized intelligence. Cattell defined fluid intelligence as the ability to reason, analyze, and solve novel problems—what we commonly think of as raw intellectual horsepower. ...It is highest relatively early in adulthood and diminishes starting in one’s 30s and 40s...Crystallized intelligence, in contrast, is the ability to use knowledge gained in the past. Think of it as possessing a vast library and understanding how to use it. It is the essence of wisdom. Because crystallized intelligence relies on an accumulating stock of knowledge, it tends to increase through one’s 40s, and does not diminish until very late in life...poets—highly fluid in their creativity—tend to have produced half their lifetime creative output by age 40 or so. Historians—who rely on a crystallized stock of knowledge—don’t reach this milestone until about 60...No matter what mix of intelligence your field requires, you can always endeavor to weight your career away from innovation and toward the strengths that persist, or even increase, later in life...teaching is an ability that decays very late in life, a principal exception to the general pattern of professional decline over time...the most profound insights tend to come from those in their 30s and early 40s. The best synthesizers and explainers of complicated ideas—that is, the best teachers—tend to be in their mid-60s or older, some of them well into their 80s.
Most Eastern philosophy warns that focusing on acquisition leads to attachment and vanity, which derail the search for happiness by obscuring one’s essential nature. As we grow older, we shouldn’t acquire more, but rather strip things away to find our true selves—and thus, peace.
At some point, writing one more book will not add to my life satisfaction; it will merely stave off the end of my book-writing career. The canvas of my life will have another brushstroke that, if I am being forthright, others will barely notice, and will certainly not appreciate very much. The same will be true for most other markers of my success.
What I need to do, in effect, is stop seeing my life as a canvas to fill, and start seeing it more as a block of marble to chip away at and shape something out of. I need a reverse bucket list. My goal for each year of the rest of my life should be to throw out things, obligations, and relationships until I can clearly see my refined self in its best form.
Hindu philosophy—and indeed the wisdom of many philosophical traditions—suggests that you should be prepared to walk away from the rewards of success before you feel ready. Even if you’re at the height of your professional prestige, you probably need to scale back your career ambitions in order to scale up your metaphysical ones.
David Brooks talks about the difference between “résumé virtues” and “eulogy virtues,”...Résumé virtues are professional and oriented toward earthly success. They require comparison with others. Eulogy virtues are ethical and spiritual, and require no comparison. Your eulogy virtues are what you would want people to talk about at your funeral. As in He was kind and deeply spiritual, not He made senior vice president at an astonishingly young age and had a lot of frequent-flier miles....To move from résumé virtues to eulogy virtues is to move from activities focused on the self to activities focused on others. abundance of research strongly suggests that happiness—not just in later years but across the life span—is tied directly to the health and plentifulness of one’s relationships. Pushing work out of its position of preeminence—sooner rather than later—to make space for deeper relationships can provide a bulwark against the angst of professional decline.
The aspen tree is an excellent metaphor for a successful person—but not, it turns out, for its solitary majesty. Above the ground, it may appear solitary. Yet each individual tree is part of an enormous root system, which is together one plant...The secret to bearing my decline—to enjoying it—is to become more conscious of the roots linking me to others. If I have properly developed the bonds of love among my family and friends, my own withering will be more than offset by blooming in others.

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