A “close reading” (critique comments in red) by Rick Garlikov of:
Your Professional Decline Is Coming (Much) Sooner Than You Think
ARTHUR C. BROOKS
It’s not true that no one needs you anymore.”
These words came from an elderly woman sitting behind me on a late-night flight from Los Angeles to Washington, D.C. The plane was dark and quiet. A man I assumed to be her husband murmured almost inaudibly in response, something to the effect of “I wish I was dead.”
Again, the woman: “Oh, stop saying that.”
I didn’t mean to eavesdrop, but couldn’t help it. I listened with morbid fascination, forming an image of the man in my head as they talked. I imagined someone who had worked hard all his life in relative obscurity, someone with unfulfilled dreams—perhaps of the degree he never attained, the career he never pursued, the company he never started. While these are only intended to be examples of unfulfilled dreams or futile efforts, they are part of a seriously limited category in a mistake that will be repeated throughout this essay. The kinds of goals he has in mind are related to material and financial success and recognition, basically fame and fortune to whatever degree
At the end of the flight, as the lights switched on, I finally got a look at the desolate man. I was shocked. I recognized him—he was, and still is, world-famous. Then in his mid‑80s, he was beloved as a hero for his courage, patriotism, and accomplishments many decades ago.
As he walked up the aisle of the plane behind me, other passengers greeted him with veneration. Standing at the door of the cockpit, the pilot stopped him and said, “Sir, I have admired you since I was a little boy.” The older man—apparently wishing for death just a few minutes earlier—beamed with pride at the recognition of his past glories. Those are not incompatible feelings, and the latter does not thereby cancel out or even challenge the former. They only seem to be incompatible to Mr. Brooks because he puts so much stock in recognition, admiration, fame, and financial success.
For selfish reasons, I couldn’t get the cognitive dissonance of that scene out of my mind. It is only cognitively dissonant in terms of the author’s mindset about what is important, not only at the beginning of the essay, but throughout (almost) all of it. It was the summer of 2015, shortly after my 51st birthday. I was not world-famous like the man on the plane, but my professional life was going very well. I was the president of a flourishing Washington think tank, the American Enterprise Institute. I had written some best-selling books. People came to my speeches. My columns were published in The New York Times. So by his ‘professional life going very well’, he seems to mean being recognized and financially supported by many other people: think tank clients/groups hiring him to speak or consult/readers who bought his books, etc. – being popular, and in a way that was able to be monetized and financially successful.
But I had started to wonder: Can I really keep this going? I work like a maniac. But even if I stayed at it 12 hours a day, seven days a week, at some point my career would slow and stop. And when it did, what then? Would I one day be looking back wistfully and wishing I were dead? If maintaining your career in the way you were now was your only aspiration, then probably yes, you might wish you were dead when you figured out that you could no longer do that successfully. Was there anything I could do, starting now, to give myself a shot at avoiding misery—and maybe even achieve happiness—when the music inevitably stops? Find new music or other forms of joy, and, perhaps most importantly, other aspirations. Better yet, already have long ago developed many joys and things of worth to do.
Though these questions were personal (more precisely, they are psychological and emotional),
I decided to approach them as the social scientist I am, treating them as a
research project. He means a “social science research
project”, and that is probably the wrong kind of research. See my Examples
of a Common Kind of Fallacy in the Social Sciences. The problem is a philosophical one about what constitutes a
good or best life, or life well-lived underlying the psychology of satisfaction
about one’s life. It felt unnatural—like a surgeon taking out his own
appendix. More like asking an auto mechanic or plumber
to do it. But I plunged ahead, and for the past four years,
I have been
on a quest to figure out how to turn my eventual professional decline
matter of dread into an opportunity for progress. Many people seek
and desire "professional decline" -- they call it "retirement" and look
forward to it; even to "early retirement". Clearly their
self-worth and joy does not revolve around their jobs or careers.
Here’s what I’ve found.
The field of “happiness studies” this mistakenly assumes that the best life or life well-lived is simply about happiness, particularly happiness as self-reported, which may be a shallow or at best a conventional kind of happiness, or even a false sense of it has boomed over the past two decades, and a consensus has developed about well-being as we advance through life. Consensus doesn’t always or perhaps even often prove true; and it often is a consensus among limited and unimaginative choices, with the best choice not commonly known or suspected even as an option. In The Happiness Curve: Why Life Gets Better After 50, Jonathan Rauch, a Brookings Institution scholar and an Atlantic contributing editor, reviews the strong evidence suggesting that the happiness of most adults declines through their 30s and 40s, then bottoms out in their early 50s. A common pattern is not an explanation, especially not a causal one. Nothing about this pattern is set in stone, of course – which makes it suspicious as a scientific causal pattern. But the data seem eerily consistent with my experience – just meaning that Mr. Brooks’ life seems to fit the pattern, and from what his goals seem to have been, that would make sense, as I will point out later: My 40s and early 50s were not an especially happy period of my life, notwithstanding my professional fortunes – which is presumably a clue that happiness is not particularly tied to professional success, at least not of a particular sort.
So what can people expect after that, based on the data? The news is mixed. 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, and less of even a pattern however. After 70, some people stay steady in happiness; others get happier until death. Others—men in particular—see their happiness plummet. So, science shows that after age 70 some people get happier, some unhappier, and some about the same. That would seem to pretty much cover the possibilities, and would seem hardly surprising to anyone who knows a lot of older people. And in fact, it would not seem surprising to me that someone who gets happier at age 75 and is having a really good time with a spouse, say, might, at age 84 become very unhappy if the spouse dies or if either or both of them become invalid and can no longer do the things they enjoy, and don’t have adequate replacement joys. Indeed, depression and suicide rates for men increase after age 75. And is this also not in line with the advent of infirmities or losses of friends and loved ones, rather than just decline of normal abilities etc?
This last group would seem to include the hero on the plane. It seems to me rather strange to be so concerned about this hero on the plane’s unhappiness and spend four years doing research on patterns of happiness instead of just later contacting him, since you know who he is, and asking him what he was unhappy about? Possibly he wouldn’t know what he was unhappy about, but I suspect he would at least have (had) some clues. From what Mr. Brooks heard of one of his wife’s responses, he doesn’t feel anyone needs him any longer, but in what way, and why does that matter to him? Is he also not doing anything he himself enjoys doing, whether others need it or not? Is his desire to be needed not just a desire to be useful or of service and benefit to others in a way they realize and appreciate, rather than because it brings him fame, fortune, or admiration? Can it not be disheartening at any age to have skills others do not appreciate or feel they need, even if they really do need them and would benefit greatly from them?
It may be difficult for him to articulate the problem precisely, but that doesn’t mean he cannot reasonably explain or identify it, particularly with additional questioning. In The Feminine Mystique, Betty Friedan designated the problem that was plaguing women in suburbia “the problem that has no name”, but she was able to describe the symptoms and attribute some causal reasons for them. That is what is important, since having a name without symptoms doesn’t identify or explain the problem at all. It is not like unhappiness is necessarily so amorphous, that someone cannot be aware of some of its apparent causes at least. In the movie Ryan’s Daughter, Trevor Howard in the role of Father Collins asks Sarah Miles in the eponymous role of Rosy why she is so miserable all the time, given that she has a good life with her new husband, a respected man, played by Robert Mitchum. Father Collins, in exasperation asks her what more she wants, and she replies in frustration “I don’t know! I don’t even know what more there is.” But actually, she knows full well what she is missing and what is wrong with her life, but she simply doesn’t know whether there is a solution possible for that. The sex in her marriage is perfunctory for her husband, he is not good at pleasing her physically, and there is no intimacy in it. She cannot articulate any of that, but she would be able to recognize it if described to her.
She knows the problem but not the answer, or whether there even is an answer. She doesn’t know that sex could be better and/or more intimate, or that a relationship could be more intimate even without sex, but she suspects and hopes there must be something better possible. And she is embarrassed to discuss the problem with the priest, particularly since he has displayed little chance of understanding it, appreciating it, or being sympathetic. In short, the man on the plane probably could have explained far more to Mr. Brooks about his feelings, if contacted later and asked discerning personal questions, than did impersonal psychology social science research about aggregate patterns invalidly interpreted. A few researchers have looked at this cohort to understand what drives their unhappiness. It is, in a word, irrelevance. In 2007, a team of academic researchers at UCLA and Princeton analyzed data on more than 1,000 older adults. Their findings, published in the Journal of Gerontology, showed that senior citizens who rarely or never “felt useful” were nearly three times as likely as those who frequently felt useful to develop a mild disability, and were more than three times as likely to have died during the course of the study. Or maybe they didn’t feel useful because they were developing a disability) or a fatal illness or condition they had trouble adjusting to (or working around. More importantly “useful” in what way, for what, and to whom? Probably no one is useful about everything or perhaps even many things, nor useful to everyone or even everyone they know, but that hardly makes any of us totally useless or on the verge of a terminal illness. So what specifically is involved in feeling not useful or becoming infirm or disabled in ways that make one want to die early?
One might think that gifted and accomplished people, such as the man on the plane, would be less susceptible than others to this sense of irrelevance; after all, accomplishment is a well-documented source of happiness. But at the time or permanently? Surely it makes sense that the initial joy of any given accomplishment for most people at least subsides over time if not vanishing altogether. Fond memories are not normally as strong as the feelings immediately after achieving an important goal. If current accomplishment brings happiness, then shouldn’t the memory of that accomplishment provide some happiness as well? “Some” is not necessarily sufficient or even much; and it should be easy to see that if past accomplishments were not followed up by additional ones, they might only serve as a reminder of subsequent seeming decline and feelings of current inadequacy.
Maybe not. 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. In 1999, Carole Holahan and Charles Holahan, psychologists at the University of Texas, published an influential paper in The International Journal of Aging and Human Development that looked at hundreds of older adults who early in life had been identified as highly gifted. The Holahans’ conclusion: “Learning at a younger age of membership in a study of intellectual giftedness was related to … less favorable psychological well-being at age eighty.” But this sentence by itself only points out a pattern without a causal explanation. And the ‘surmise’ below seems to me not to be the most likely explanation, and certainly not the only one.
This study may simply be showing that it’s hard to live up to high expectations, and that telling your kid she is a genius is not necessarily good parenting. Just being praised for being smart does not necessarily bestow nor cause expectations of success, especially if it is not followed by some comment such as “you should be a doctor” or “you will probably go on to do great things”, or “you will probably make a lot of money” or some such, which may create some expectations. The recipient of the praise may just accept it as a fact, but not consider it a foundation for something else. Or the person may not even believe they are particularly smart – for any of a number of reasons, such as not “feeling” smart or at least any smarter than anyone else or just feeling normal or lucky to know what they know or figure out what they do or feeling that people that tell them that are just being nice and falsely or mistakenly flattering them. (The Holahans surmise that the children identified as gifted might have made intellectual ability more central to their self-appraisal, creating “unrealistic expectations for success” and causing them to fail to “take into account the many other life influences on success and recognition.” But the man on the plane didn’t ‘fail’ in life; and much of this article is about decline after success, so there was not failure, just possibly not continued or repeated current success at the same level or degree.)
Plus, if the person really is intelligent and/or gifted and finds no way to monetize either of those traits, that can be a depressing failure of society, not of the person to live up to expectations. It is a failure of society to benefit the person who does live up to them. It doesn’t do one any good in terms of fame or fortune to be gifted or intelligent if no one in a position to reward one’s work is aware of it and the people, if any, who do recognize it, are not in a position to reward or further it at the time. People can even be too creative – ahead of their time, as illustrated in the Back to the Future scene where Marty McFly time travels 30 years into the past and plays the guitar at a big dance for his parents’ high school class. When he introduces ‘near future’ rock and roll, the students at the dance all love it, but when he gets into more futuristic heavy metal, they just stare in silence, and when he notices they are not getting it, he stops and says “I guess you're not ready for that. But your kids are gonna love it” – another reason that success or achievement cannot necessarily be measured by approval, appreciation, or adulatory applause at any given place or time. In the early 1990's I learned to create web pages from a book on HTML and offered to create and host web pages for individuals (such as real estate agents) and businesses for a very low price. Almost none of the people I presented the offer to were interested because they basically all asked why anyone would want a web page; there was no point to it, and they were already in the phone book. The few who took me up on it sold houses to buyers who found them on my web pages. One of the realtors brought me her information on a Friday morning, and I had her web page posted by that afternoon. In the evening she received a call from people moving to Birmingham from Atlanta who wanted to look at houses that weekend. By Sunday she had them under contract for a very upper scale home. But most people saw no point in being on the Internet at that time. Your skills don't matter financially if other people don't see the value in them. That is not a reflection on you though.
However, abundant evidence suggests that the waning of ability in people of high accomplishment is especially brutal psychologically. Consider professional athletes, many of whom struggle profoundly after their sports career ends. Tragic examples abound, involving depression, addiction, or suicide; unhappiness in retired athletes may even be the norm, at least temporarily. A study published in the Journal of Applied Sport Psychology in 2003, which charted the life satisfaction of former Olympic athletes, found that they generally struggled with a low sense of personal control when they first stopped competing. 1) There is a cessation of more in an athlete’s life than just stopping competing – there is also the cessation of training and all the other activities involved in preparation for competition, possibly the cessation or diminution of traveling (which may have been enjoyable), and the stopping of daily lifestyle routines that accommodated training, possibly accompanied by weight gain, a more rapid than expected loss of recognition by some fans, as in young people recognizing Michael Jordan mainly as the ‘underwear guy’ for his Hanes ads, loss of whatever feelings accompany competition, whether fears, anxiety, anticipation of success, accomplishment, camaraderie, adrenaline, etc. 2) There is a lot more to it, however, in that the “personal control” is control of work toward a desired goal that is considered worthy by the person and generally by many other people as well. But after achieving that goal, interest can wane in achieving it again, particularly if it requires extreme effort that is not enjoyable in itself and is mentally and/or physically burdensome. And/or at some age or with some other cause of diminished ability, the goal may be too unrealistic or difficult to pursue. And/or the adulation of those who still know and admire your success can become less satisfying, either by being too repetitive and predictable or by becoming further removed in time from your own appreciation and enjoyment of the success. Etc. 3) However, if practicing the sport is fun in itself and doesn’t require particularly arduous training, there may even be relief in giving up competition and one may enjoy the sport even more, as in playing golf or swimming for pleasure. Or 4) one may have other interests one pursues quite happily. After dominating golf as an amateur in the 1920s and winning what is now called the Grand Slam in golf, all four major tournaments the same year, in 1930 at age 28, Bobby Jones retired from tournament golf to pursue his law practice and to earn the money from golf, denied to him as an amateur, through endorsements and instructional films, books, and articles. He had quite a full life apart from playing tournament golf, both while competing and after he quit competing. He not only had a law degree from Emory, but a bachelor degree in engineering from Georgia Tech, and a second bachelor degree in English literature, from Harvard.
Recently, I asked Dominique Dawes, a former Olympic gold-medal gymnast, how normal life felt after competing and winning at the highest levels. She told me that she is happy, but that the adjustment wasn’t easy—and still isn’t, even though she won her last Olympic medal in 2000. “My Olympic self would ruin my marriage and leave my kids feeling inadequate,” she told me, because it is so demanding and hard-driving. “Living life as if every day is an Olympics only makes those around me miserable.”
Why might former elite performers have such a hard time? No academic research has yet proved this, but I strongly suspect that 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. As pointed out already, that can happen. But it is more likely (or maybe even only) going to happen where other goals and interests do not replace the one no longer able to be achieved. One needs something important to fill one’s time and toward which one’s effort is sufficiently satisfactorily directed – something that is either enjoyable in itself or that is a sufficiently accepted or embraced obligation. “Unhappy is he who depends on success to be happy,” Alex Dias Ribeiro, a former Formula 1 race-car driver, once wrote. “For such a person, the end of a successful career is the end of the line. His destiny is to die of bitterness or to search for more success in other careers and to go on living from success to success until he falls dead. In this case, there will not be life after success.” But “success” is relative to specific goals, and the goal doesn’t have to be some kind of victory or the achievement of fame and/or fortune; it can be the goal of improvement or of some personal achievement that may be of no importance to others. Even people with terminal illnesses who have no real hope or chance of recovery can still experience successful days by experiencing things that make their suffering worth enduring or that help them transcend their suffering for the time being.
Aristotle held that “happiness is an activity of the soul in conformity with excellence” where ‘excellence’ also had the connotation of virtue, what I would consider to be excellence of a virtuous sort – e.g., something constructive rather than destructive, evil, or morally empty or meaningless. And I take “in conformity with excellence” to include the activity of the soul in pursuit of excellence even if the excellence itself is not achieved. Improvement counts, and if one can improve, particularly to the best of one’s ability, or, normally, at least to the degree one is satisfied with for what one considers a reasonable application of time and effort for one’s ability, that is itself a worthy achievement. For example, one might have a kind of hobby interest, such as playing a musical instrument or playing golf or bridge, that one wants to improve at, but not devote an unreasonable or undesirable amount of one’s time and energy to nor try to turn into a career.
But I think it helps if the interest one is pursuing is worthwhile and meaningful in some more than merely personal way rather than merely frivolous. That is very difficult to articulate precisely, but, apart from the development of excellence at an activity, we tend to have some notion of which activities actually are important to become skilled at by someone interested in them. It is common, for example, for sports announcers during even relatively important games to point out that if some tragedy has occurred in the world around the time of the game, that puts victory in sports in perspective as not one of the more important things in life, though it is admirable to some extent and a lot of fun for the winners and their fans. We, of course, are often mistaken about whether a pursuit is objectively important or not, such as Chester Carlson’s attempts to invent what later became photocopying of documents (which the CEO of IBM thought a pointless pursuit since “we already have carbon paper to make copies of documents”) or the Wright brothers’, and others’, pursuit of developing a flying machine. And even in something like sports, one can imagine parents who would have wanted the young Jack Nicklaus of the 1950’s to perhaps devote less time to golf and to put work into a developing skills that might be more financially beneficial and helpful toward a successful career.
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. Problems related to achieving professional success might appear to be a pretty good species of problem to have; even raising this issue risks seeming precious. But if you reach professional heights and are deeply invested in being high up, you can suffer mightily when you inevitably fall. That’s the man on the plane. Mr. Brooks doesn’t know that is the problem with the man on the plane. It seems more likely to me that the man had pursuits that were important to him that he successfully achieved but then has not yet found replacements for that seem important enough or equally important. In short he may not have found anything yet interesting and/or worthwhile enough for him to do with his time after having achieved what he pursued previously. Not feeling needed anymore may only be one accompanying symptom, aspect, manifestation, or description of that. One might be useful and appreciated by others for what one enjoys doing or finds satisfying, even if it wasn’t appreciated by others. But one can then miss the appreciation too, or even confuse it for what one found interesting in its own right before finding out it was needed by, or useful to, others. Self-esteem or self-worth should not be confused with praise by others, which is only then a ‘reflected’ worth or esteem, dependent on the view of others, not of one’s self. Maybe that will be you, too. And, without significant intervention, I suspect it will be me.
The Principle of Psychoprofessional Gravitation can help explain the many cases of people who have done work of world-historical significance yet wind up feeling like failures. Take Charles Darwin, who was just 22 when he set out on his five-year voyage aboard the Beagle in 1831. Returning at 27, he was celebrated throughout Europe for his discoveries in botany and zoology, and for his early theories of evolution. Over the next 30 years, Darwin took enormous pride in sitting atop the celebrity-scientist pecking order, developing his theories and publishing them as books and essays—the most famous being On the Origin of Species, in 1859.
But as Darwin progressed into his 50s, he stagnated; he hit a wall in his research. At the same time an Austrian monk by the name of Gregor Mendel discovered what Darwin needed to continue his work: the theory of genetic inheritance. Unfortunately, Mendel’s work was published in an obscure academic journal and Darwin never saw it—and in any case, Darwin did not have the mathematical ability to understand it. From then on he made little progress. Depressed in his later years, he wrote to a close friend, “I have not the heart or strength at my age to begin any investigation lasting years, which is the only thing which I enjoy.” That statement is consistent with the view that it is the pursuit of an interest, and perhaps a worthy interest, that is important, not the pursuit or acceptance of fame or fortune. It is more like the sadness that accompanies or immediately follows the joy of finishing reading a really exciting and great book without having another one to start or without having any real immediate interest in starting another one although one knows that if one did start reading another one which one has, or if one did have another one to start, it could be just as exciting. I firmly believe that it is the pursuit of a worthy and/or important personal interest (particularly when the pursuit seems to be making interesting progress) that is more important and more satisfying than the achievement of the goal of the pursuit. If so, then any achievement is bound to become a loss, because it is the loss of the quest which one finds so interesting and challenging. I myself enjoy having a challenging philosophical (or sometimes other kind of) problem that I find interesting to think about and try to solve or resolve. That doesn’t mean every philosophical issue interests me; just some do. When I have solved one to my satisfaction and don’t yet have another one that puzzles me in the same stimulating and challenging way, I often find that time depressing, even when I have other good things in my life, unless those other things are enjoyable and sufficiently consuming in a good way too.
Presumably, Darwin would be pleasantly surprised to learn how his fame grew after his death, in 1882. Not if he enjoyed the investigating more than the fame accompanying discovery, especially if the discovery ended his future investigating. While some kinds of knowledge and some pursuits can easily be transferred to new areas once the original goal has been reached, other pursuits might require starting from scratch, which is much harder. Again, the analogy of beginning a new book after finishing a previous one. But that would be relatively easy compared with finishing the last book in one’s native language and then having to learn a whole new language and how to read it in order to begin another book. For example, many people who are quite good at their jobs often work for companies that will decide to incorporate new procedures and/or new software for which the learning curve might be long and/or steep. That can seem to be a lot more trouble than it is worth (and sometimes is a lot more trouble than it is worth – when the new system is worse than the previous one, or is not sufficiently better). From what he could see when he was old, however, the world had passed him by, and he had become irrelevant. That could have been Darwin on the plane behind me that night. Mr. Brooks’ focus throughout his essay so far has been on the achievement of conventional success, basically financial success and high regard from people, with the success being greater with increasing regard (i.e., fame) and increasing monetary profit (i.e. fortune). So, of course, it makes sense to him that the loss of the ability to maintain or increase fame or fortune is the significant loss. For people like Mr. Brooks, with the same narrow focus on what counts as success, that might be true. And for them that problem might even be insurmountable, but for people with other interests to pursue and the ability to still pursue them, even if not to the same degree of success or achievement, that is not a problem.
It also could have been a younger version of me, because I have had precocious experience with professional decline.
As a child, I had just one goal: to be the world’s greatest French-horn player. – clearly a goal almost doomed to failure, even if he had maintained his initial ability and progress. Notice that even in sports where a champion is crowned each season (or in the Olympics, each fourth year), the odds are against any given individual or team winning, just based on the sheer number of talented competitors, particularly when championships depend on a “short series” or individual “lose and you are out” kinds of competitions. Yet players and fans start each new season with a certain amount of hope and fervor – and they enjoy the great play during the season even though their team or favorite player will not win the championship or set any career record. Just from a probability standpoint, cheering for a team to win a championship any given year is bound to result in misery – if the championship, not the other joys and benefits of competition, is all that is important.
And there are times even in sports when a great player or great team will be proud of their great effort and outstanding playing during a loss to a player or team that was better on that day. During the 1975 Boston-Cincinnati World Series, the Reds lost the incredibly exciting extra-inning sixth game that would have given them a 4-2 Series championship if they had won it. But Boston’s victory meant game 7 had to be played to determine the champion. Pete Rose was asked before game 7 if it was going to be hard to recover from that game 6 loss emotionally and psychologically, and he said no – that it was such an honor and a thrill to have played in one of the greatest World Series games ever played, and to have helped contribute to its greatness, as so many players on both teams did, that losing did not diminish the joy of playing and of looking forward to trying to have an equally great game 7.
Or coincidentally in that same year, the same sort of thing happened in the U.S. Open tennis finals where Jimmy Connors played one of the strongest matches of his career but happened to be facing Manuel Orantes on a day when Orantes played like a man possessed. Connors ran Orantes all over the court that day, but Orantes got to every shot he needed to and hit them back well enough to win the match. Connors was clearly in awe after the match in his remarks to the crowd, and he was able to laugh about it even then. Many athletes (and many people who are not athletes) can often laugh at their failures years later and relish telling about them because they realize you have to have been good in the first place to have been in the position to ‘fail’ in that kind of situation.
Some have the gift to laugh at the time, as Connors did. Don Liddle did in this account of his pitch to Vic Wertz in the 1954 World Series game between the Cleveland Indians and the New York Giants that required, and resulted in, one of the greatest and most memorable plays of all time – often known simply as “the catch” (from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Catch_(baseball)):
In the top of the 8th inning with the score tied 2–2, Giants starting pitcher Sal Maglie walked Indians lead off hitter Larry Doby. Al Rosen singled, putting runners on first and second. New York manager Leo Durocher summoned left-handed relief pitcher Don Liddle to pitch to Cleveland's Wertz, a left-handed batter.
Wertz worked the count to two balls and one strike before hitting Liddle's fourth pitch approximately 420 feet to deep center field. In many stadiums the ball would have been a home run, which would have given the Indians a 5–2 lead. However, the Polo Grounds was larger than average, and [Willie] Mays, who was playing in shallow center field, made an on-the-run, over-the-shoulder catch at the warning track [with his back completely to the infield -- https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Catch_(baseball)#/media/File:The_Catch.png and at https://www.google.com/search?hl=EN&tbm=isch&source=hp&biw=1858&bih=977&ei=6zcfXZz0H8e1tAbhzYeQCQ&q=the+catch+willie+mays&oq=the+catch+%28willie+mays%29&gs_l=img.1.0.0i30.2336.12784..17003...1.0..0.134.2110.23j2......0....1..gws-wiz-img.....0..35i39j0.TM6r7vmPWew#imgrc=e06Y_838f-hQpM:] for the out. Having caught the ball, he immediately spun and threw the ball. Doby, the runner on second, might have been able to score the go-ahead run had he tagged at the moment the ball was caught; as it was, he ran when the ball was hit, then had to scramble back to retag. Mays' throw went to second base, holding Cleveland to runners at first and third with one out.
Right-hander Marv Grissom then relieved Liddle, who supposedly remarked to pitching coach Freddie Fitzsimmons, "Well, I got my man." [My recollection of Liddle’s account of that in a TV interview when he was older, was that he said it not to the pitching coach but to the relief pitcher, Grissom, who was replacing him, but I can’t say that for sure.]
Following that 1975 U.S. Tennis Open, people wanted to see whether Orantes could beat Connors again, and a privately financed rematch was held with a purse of $250,000 for the winner. During the rematch, Orantes suffered a severe leg cramp. Under the rules, if he could not continue to play within a certain window of time, he would forfeit to Connors. Connors pleaded with the referee to extend the time, and even worked on Orantes himself trying to massage out the cramp. He didn’t want to win that way. He wanted to try to win playing an Orantes who was playing his best tennis, not playing poorly or forfeiting because of a leg cramp.
Or in comparing playing well versus winning, look at one of the winningest coaches in college football, Nick Saban. Saban, of course, likes to win, but he is never happy when his team wins but played poorly in doing so. I cannot say whether he would be happy if they played perfectly but were beaten by a team that played even better, but I have the feeling he would like that better than poor play resulting in a victory over a team that simply had played worse.
Of course, some losses are harder to take than others, but generally great play is appreciated even in a loss, at least later, if not also at the time. Bobby Jones even called penalties in golf on himself that cost him championships. He said there were more important things than winning.
I worked at it slavishly, practicing hours a day, seeking out the best teachers, and playing in any ensemble I could find. I had pictures of famous horn players on my bedroom wall for inspiration. And for a while, I thought my dream might come true. At 19, I left college to take a job playing professionally in a touring chamber-music ensemble. My plan was to keep rising through the classical-music ranks, joining a top symphony orchestra in a few years or maybe even becoming a soloist—the most exalted job a classical musician can hold. – which is a more reasonable goal than becoming “the world’s greatest French-horn player.”
But then, in my early 20s, a strange thing happened: I started getting worse. To this day, I have no idea why. My technique began to suffer, and I had no explanation for it. Nothing helped. I visited great teachers and practiced more, but I couldn’t get back to where I had been. Pieces that had been easy to play became hard; pieces that had been hard became impossible.
The data are shockingly clear that for most people, in most fields, professional decline starts earlier than almost anyone thinks.
Perhaps the worst moment in my young but flailing career came at age 22, when I was performing at Carnegie Hall. While delivering a short speech about the music I was about to play, I stepped forward, lost my footing, and fell off the stage into the audience. On the way home from the concert, I mused darkly that the experience was surely a message from God.
But I sputtered along for nine more years. I took a position in the City Orchestra of Barcelona, where I increased my practicing but my playing gradually deteriorated. Eventually I found a job teaching at a small music conservatory in Florida, hoping for a magical turnaround that never materialized. Realizing that maybe I ought to hedge my bets, I went back to college via distance learning, and earned my bachelor’s degree shortly before my 30th birthday. I secretly continued my studies at night, earning a master’s degree in economics a year later. Finally I had to admit defeat: I was never going to turn around my faltering musical career. So at 31 I gave up, abandoning my musical aspirations entirely, to pursue a doctorate in public policy.
Life goes on, right? Sort of. After finishing my studies, I became a university professor, a job I enjoyed. But I still thought every day about my beloved first vocation. Even now, I regularly dream that I am onstage, and wake to remember that my childhood aspirations are now only phantasms.
I am lucky to have accepted my decline at a young enough age that I could redirect my life into a new line of work. Yes, that is helpful for starting over; but 1) again, some kinds of knowledge or skills help one achieve more than one kind of success; e.g., a good attorney might win a number of different kinds of landmark Supreme Court cases; a great composer or poet or novelist can write more than one great work. And 2) one doesn’t necessarily have to start from scratch if one has developed other interests and skills along the way and can ‘fall back’ on them or on continuing their pursuit and development. Still, to this day, the sting of that early decline makes these words difficult to write. I vowed to myself that it wouldn’t ever happen again.
Will it happen again? 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? Many people think so. I recently met a man a bit older than I am who told me he planned to “push it until the wheels came off.” In effect, he planned to stay at the very top of his game by any means necessary, and then keel over. But pushing it until the wheels come off doesn’t necessarily mean being the best at his profession, but could mean being the best he can be. That might mean moving the goal posts. When my children were just old enough to learn to play table tennis (ping pong), I would give them a 20-0 lead to see whether they could score one point before I could score 21. As they got better, I reduced the handicap lead I gave them, until they could beat me starting even. That gave them a fun challenge they could successfully meet. When I first learned to play ping pong decently, I was in high school and a new neighbor down the street had a table. I started out pretty much losing to him 21-0, but eventually lost by less and less until I was able to finally beat him. I never regretted the early losses, because my goal at that point was not to win, but to improve, and I always correctly felt I could do better, even when I was being trounced.
When my younger daughter played soccer the first time, she was put on a team with other 8 year olds who had never played before either. They were the only team in that age group in the league who had no previous experience. They lost every game that year, but they never felt bad about it because the goal was not to win (though winning would have been nice) but to improve every day or week. The first objective was to play pretty decently. The next objective during matches was to try to score the team’s first goal – which they did during the third game of the season. Then the objective became to lose by less and less. They almost even tied one game and were thrilled by that. In the third season, they won every game and the championship, but there was no difference in their feelings of success about that than they had the first season, though they lost every game that season, but had learned a lot and improved a lot. Both seasons made them equally happy. It is not about winning, but about doing your best and improving.
Likewise, I started back playing tennis after a fifteen year or so layoff. I had previously torn an Achilles tendon playing, and that tends to make me hesitant to make any sort of jack rabbit starts or to run hard to chase balls down or, worse, to stretch out for any shots, which is what I was doing when I tore it. And I always preferred singles to doubles, except mixed doubles socially just for fun. But competitively, I still prefer singles. But I don’t have the running range any more. Moreover, my goal is to conceive and execute winning shots or shots that set up winning shots, which doesn’t sit well with partners, because that is low percentage play. In singles it doesn’t much matter unless you are playing an opponent who wants exercise more than victory. Otherwise an opponent is happy to have you go for winners or near winners all day long, since you will hit more ‘out’ balls than points you win. Still that doesn’t make for very sociable singles even. So now what I do in my older age is to go to the tennis court by myself with a hopper of tennis balls which I will either drop and hit or, once I am good at doing that for any particular kinds of shots I practice, use in my tennis ball machine that shoots balls over the net for me to hit. The object of each shot is to hit the ball as closely to a given spot as I can, as hard and well as I can, except for finesse shots, such as drop shots or deep topspin lobs. And that is a great deal of fun for me, far more fun than hitting against an opponent, even if I were to win.
When I was younger, I would practice for hours against a tennis wall and I would practice serves by setting up tennis ball cans on the lines or corners to try to hit. There were some days I could sometimes even hit the can serving with my eyes closed, which was fun. But I was never going to win any tournaments or beat anyone who was really good. There was a 90-something year old guy who came to the public courts I played on sometimes. He had been state champion many years in a row when he was young, and he still hit the ball really, really well. But he could barely walk, let alone run, and he had glasses with lenses that looked like the bottoms of glass Coca Cola bottles. One day he came to the court and I was the only one there; I had been hitting against the practice wall. I was in my mid or late 20’s. He asked if I would play and I accepted, of course, so he could play. I knew that I could beat him if I just hit balls out of his reach, but that would have been no fun for either of us, so I tried to beat him by outhitting him, hitting balls within his reach but as hard as I could. It was like hitting against a human backboard. He hit everything back, often enough for winners. He killed me. It was really fun for me, though it may have been too easy for him. Hard to tell whether he enjoyed winning or even playing as much as I enjoyed playing and losing to him so badly. I was really happy with all my shots, but he handled all of them even better.
A few months ago, I suddenly
developed double vision one day – with both eyes open, I saw things vertically
double, one image above or below the other. I have written about it in Power
Point with images at www.garlikov.com/Vision/DoubleImageScenes.ppsx and at www.garlikov.com/Vision/PencilTouchingB.ppsx.
an ophthalmologist who ran tests to make sure it was not caused by a
wasn’t. I was pretty sure, for a number of reasons, I could learn
around it, and either I did learn to do that or it went away. But
either way I
am not seeing double any more. But it did put something of a crimp
in my ‘tennis comeback’ plans against my tennis ball machine, since it
difficult to hit a tennis ball it shoots out when there are two in your
of vision and you can’t tell which is ‘the real one’. (Closing one eye
eliminated the duplicate, but it was not a good work around or solution
for me because I could not judge the speed or distance of the ball at
all with just one eye open. It was worse than seeing
double.) When I had the double
vision, it was difficult enough just dropping a ball and trying to hit
the bounce, but I finally got to where I could do that, and then
able to hit balls the machine shot out. Then finally the double
vision ended. So I have improved my abilities to the
extent I have a good time, but my goals are simply to be able to hit the
I want to be able to hit against the machine, no matter how or where the
machine shoots the ball out to my side of the court. I enjoy that
as much as I
used to enjoy playing friends; sometimes even more because the machine
judgmental about the shots I try and it does not mind when I execute one
perfectly or take too much delight when I hit one out or not get to it
at all. What counts as success to you depends on your goals.
But the odds are he won’t be able to. The data are shockingly clear that for most people, in most fields, decline starts earlier than almost anyone thinks. But as with ‘success’, ‘decline’ is only relative to the goal set or the purpose of the activity. If he is just out to do the best he can, there is no need for ‘decline’ other than to fail to do one’s best.
Moreover, ‘senior’ circuits in sports like golf, or women’s leagues in sports where men have a distinct either biological advantage or an advantage from far more years of experience, exposure, and instruction, are not about being the best at the sport, but about being the best in your class at the sport. An old joke is that a boxer’s manager complains that the boxer is too lazy or not determined enough, and he says “If I had your size, I would have been heavyweight champion of the world!” to which the boxer replied “Then why weren’t you lightweight champ?” Boxing is not about being the best fighter, but about being the best in your weight class. Success is relative to the goal. It is just that in sports, the goal is normally to win a competition. But sometimes it is more than that, such as elegance or skill sets of certain sorts that can be determined apart from wins and losses, such as pitching ERA for a great pitcher on a losing, poor hitting team. Some exceptionally great athletes never won championships.
According to research by Dean Keith Simonton, a professor emeritus of psychology at UC Davis and one of the world’s leading experts on the trajectories of creative careers, success and productivity increase for the first 20 years after the inception of a career, on average. So if you start a career in earnest at 30, expect to do your best work around 50 and go into decline soon after that. But if you start at earnest at age 50, would you then do your best work at age 70? Is it the 20 years of practice that makes you good, or the age you start at with the 20 years of practice?
The specific timing of peak and decline vary somewhat depending on the field. Benjamin Jones, a professor of strategy and entrepreneurship at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management, has spent years studying when people are most likely to make prizewinning scientific discoveries and develop key inventions. His findings can be summarized by this little ditty:
“Age is, of course, a
The author of those gloomy lines? Paul Dirac, a winner of the 1933 Nobel Prize in Physics.
Dirac overstates the point, but only a little. Looking at major inventors and Nobel winners going back more than a century, Jones has found that the most common age for producing a magnum opus is the late 30s. He has shown that 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. But again, that may not be (just) a function of age, but a function of the field’s changing – even because of your work – in a way that makes you have to start new research all over again from scratch, possibly discarding many things you already knew, as when a company changes its policies and practices or you get new software that works in a slightly different way from what you used previously. It may sometimes be easier for someone who starts with the new technology and doesn’t know any previous ways they have to unlearn. On the other hand, when I switched from film photography to digital photography, my work got better, even though I was older, because 1) the understanding of photography I had gained worked the same for both mediums (film or digital), 2) digital photography made certain things much easier because feedback was more immediate, and 3) digital photography gave higher quality and more controllable color tones, though something was lost in black and white tones compared with black and white film.
Much of literary achievement follows a similar pattern. Simonton has shown that poets peak in their early 40s. Novelists generally take a little longer. When Martin Hill Ortiz, a poet and novelist, collected data on New York Times fiction best sellers from 1960 to 2015, he found that authors were likeliest to reach the No. 1 spot in their 40s and 50s. Despite the famous productivity of a few novelists well into old age, Ortiz shows a steep drop-off in the chance of writing a best seller after the age of 70. (Some nonfiction writers—especially historians—peak later, as we shall see in a minute.) But, again, it could simply be that part of what makes one a good fiction writer or poet is being innovative plus having practice and experience, so it would make sense that you would be most innovative relative to the culture, when you are starting out with new ideas and are able to hone them. There is a good reason it normally takes far longer to write a novel, compose an orchestral piece, or make movie than it takes to read the novel, listen to the music, or watch the movie; creativity for most people is painstaking and takes time. It is not surprising that one cannot keep coming up with new ideas after having done so to begin with. Being creative does not necessarily mean always being creative; it may mean having certain kinds of ideas that are new or different at the time. In a month or two or three, you could probably view all the plays of Shakespeare and read or hear all his sonnets; you could probably hear all the music of Beethoven. But Beethoven and Shakespeare, as creative as they were, still had certain styles, and those styles themselves cease to be (as) creative, once they become familiar and possibly relatively easily imitated by people with considerable but still less talent. If a Beethoven Symphony number 10 were to be found today, it would likely be a treasure, but not the same piece forged or counterfeited by a modern composer in the style of Beethoven. Even though the music would be identical whether found or forged, the forgery would not be as creative as an original because Beethoven would be composing by his instincts and new ideas, not following an eventually widely known and understood formula.
But it is unreasonable to expect someone with new insights at any stage in his/her life to keep being able to top him/herself and provide continuously different new insights. The example of Johann Sebastian Bach’s in a sense perfecting baroque music which then moved into a different, ‘classical’, style is an example. His talent, gifts, and skills, as considerable as they were, essentially didn’t transcend themselves. Most people’s can’t or don’t. At some point one runs out of new styles even if one can continue to write creatively in one’s own previous or current styles that were new at one time.
Whole sections of bookstores are dedicated to becoming successful. There is no section marked “managing your professional decline.” Maybe there should be. Or more likely, maybe there should be books about what should count as success and what the (best and most reasonable) goals of a well-lived life should be.
Entrepreneurs peak and decline earlier, on average. After earning fame and fortune in their 20s, many tech entrepreneurs are in creative decline by age 30. This also may be because it is more difficult to have ten great ideas than one or two. In 2014, the Harvard Business Review reported that founders of enterprises valued at $1 billion or more by venture capitalists tend to cluster in the 20-to-34 age range. Subsequent research has found that the clustering might be slightly later, but all studies in this area have found that the majority of successful start-ups have founders under age 50. Again, this may not be an aspect of age but an aspect of being new to a field or culture and having a new idea relative to it. Also when you are new to any culture, you tend to notice problems you want to solve or anomalies you want to address in some way which other people who are used to them no longer consider to be problematic or unusual. Age is just a concomitant or secondary factor because people tend to start careers at the same young age.
This research concerns people at the very top of professions that are atypical. But the basic finding appears to apply more broadly. Scholars at Boston College’s Center for Retirement Research studied a wide variety of jobs and found considerable susceptibility to age-related decline in fields ranging from policing to nursing. Other research has found that the best-performing home-plate umpires in Major League Baseball have 18 years less experience and are 23 years younger than the worst-performing umpires (who are 56.1 years old, on average). Among air traffic controllers, the age-related decline is so sharp—and the potential consequences of decline-related errors so dire—that the mandatory retirement age is 56. But are these declines from boredom and burnout due to constant, wearisome repetition or from loss of physical abilities? These numbers alone don’t show which, if either.
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. In my own philosophy ability, I don’t see a decline of analytic ability with age; if anything I have improved and written more with age than I did previously, and have more ideas. Sometimes there is some boredom until I have a new problem to think about or new evidence about a previous problem that makes me have to rethink my previous ideas. I have even had some sort of minor stroke I am told, about ten years ago, but I believe that my analytic skills and to some extent my verbal skills have improved even with that and age. It is true, perhaps, that I don’t remember some things as well, but that is difficult to tell, because as you get older there are just more things to be forgotten, and fewer things that seem important enough to even try to remember. If you forget 5%, say, of the things you have learned, you will forget 500 things out of 10,000 facts or memories, but only 50 out of your first 1000. But having forgot more, you will still know far more, because you will know 9,500 compared with knowing only 950. So yes, you can be more forgetful with age, but also remember more things.
If decline not only is inevitable but also happens earlier than most of us expect, what should we do when it comes for us?
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.” [Interesting this is repeated here. Good ideas often are, and we tend not to notice when we are doing that, especially with age because we have said and done so many things, we don’t tend to remember the contexts of having done it. So we repeat things to people, not remembering we already told them that, though we know we told it to some people at some time.]
But some people have managed their declines well. Consider the case of Johann Sebastian Bach. Born in 1685 to a long line of prominent musicians in central Germany, Bach quickly distinguished himself as a musical genius. In his 65 years, he published more than 1,000 compositions for all the available instrumentations of his day.
Early in his career, Bach was considered an astoundingly gifted organist and improviser. Commissions rolled in; royalty sought him out; young composers emulated his style. He enjoyed real prestige.
But it didn’t last—in no small part because his career was overtaken by musical trends ushered in by, among others, his own son, Carl Philipp Emanuel, known as C.P.E. to the generations that followed. The fifth of Bach’s 20 children, C.P.E. exhibited the musical gifts his father had. He mastered the baroque idiom, but he was more fascinated with a new “classical” style of music, which was taking Europe by storm. As classical music displaced baroque, C.P.E.’s prestige boomed while his father’s music became passé.
Bach easily could have become embittered, like Darwin. Instead, he chose to redesign his life, moving from innovator to instructor. He spent a good deal of his last 10 years writing The Art of Fugue, not a famous or popular work in his time, but one intended to teach the techniques of the baroque to his children and students—and, as unlikely as it seemed at the time, to any future generations that might be interested. In his later years, he lived a quieter life as a teacher and a family man.
What’s the difference between Bach and Darwin? Both were preternaturally gifted and widely known early in life. Both attained permanent fame posthumously. Where they differed was in their approach to the midlife fade. When Darwin fell behind as an innovator, he became despondent and depressed; his life ended in sad inactivity. When Bach fell behind, he reinvented himself as a master instructor. He died beloved, fulfilled, and—though less famous than he once had been—respected. I would argue that it is not about fame or even respect (though recognition and appreciation of anyone’s real and meaningful talent is a nice thing), but about having something worthwhile to do in which one finds value and/or joy doing – something one wants to do or at least fully embraces having to do (in the case of fully acknowledged and accepted obligations).
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. Innovators typically have an abundance of fluid intelligence. This would be true merely by definition, not scientific discovery, if by “fluid intelligence” one meant the ability to be innovative. (It is like saying someone gets A’s because he is an A student or that something is not working because it is broken or defective. None of those are explanations but simply name a quality synonymous with what needs to be explained as the explanation.) And I see no reason to believe it is otherwise true, since one can be analytic, and even good at solving given problems, without also being creative or innovative, or even good at recognizing problems. For example, as above, one might be able to recognize patterns in Shakespeare or Beethoven sufficiently to emulate their work without being able to have been able to create their style to begin with or any new style that is as good. Or, in political life, people on either side often are excellent at analyzing the problems with the policies of others but not be able to solve them and not be able to recognize or to solve the problems of their own policies. Or one can analyze a physics or math problem or an art or architectural design problem but not come up with an innovative solution to it. It is highest relatively early in adulthood and diminishes starting in one’s 30s and 40s. This is why tech entrepreneurs, for instance, do so well so early, and why older people have a much harder time innovating. Or, it seems more likely, it may be that it is easier to have a few innovative ideas rather than to have more, and that once one has given or implemented one’s initial creative ideas, one is ‘done’. One might be what is often referred to in song writing as a “one hit wonder”. Of course, one might have two or eight or some more great ideas, but not a very large or continuing number of them.
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. Yes, wisdom is the application of previous understanding to new problems or ideas, and is not necessarily the same as innovation or wholly new insights or methods.
Careers that rely primarily on fluid
intelligence tend to peak early, while those that use more crystallized
intelligence peak later. For example, Dean Keith Simonton has found that
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. But
things that take more knowledge to produce are going to take longer to
able to do than things which require less knowledge than they do
insight. The early criticism of Shakespeare was that he was
being knowledgeable about the classics, and couldn’t/didn’t use (enough)
classic references, figures of speech, and styles, as if somehow
were less important than repeated references to already known
ideas. But I would think that time spent by him studying the
classics would have robbed him of time spent being creative, and
possibly even diverted and diminished his creativity.
Here’s a practical lesson we can extract from all this: 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. Because, of course, innovation is not the sole form of achievement or value in life. If research into happiness or success presupposes (continued) innovation, then, of course, happiness will generally be more and more elusive as one introduces and uses up one’s creative, innovative idea, and, perhaps particularly as one becomes part of the culture one has once transformed.
Like what? As Bach demonstrated, teaching is an ability that decays very late in life, a principal exception to the general pattern of professional decline over time. A study in The Journal of Higher Education showed that the oldest college professors in disciplines requiring a large store of fixed knowledge, specifically the humanities, tended to get evaluated most positively by students. I find this very difficult to believe these days, where the humanities are not as valued as more empirical studies, and where successful teaching is not just about having knowledge but about finding ways, generally requiring creativity and new insight, to bring that knowledge to life for students and to connect with people who do not have the same background and common understanding you have. Good teaching is not just about “pouring” knowledge into students’ heads. And, even further, particularly today as teaching involves more and more use of ever changing technology to deliver the same material and ideas, it is hardly the domain of anyone whose content knowledge or understanding may remain constant (or even accumulate and grow), but whose examples and means of delivery are outdated and have become surpassed. This probably explains the professional longevity of college professors, three-quarters of whom plan to retire after age 65—more than half of them after 70, and some 15 percent of them after 80. (The average American retires at 61.) One day, during my first year as a professor, I asked a colleague in his late 60s whether he’d ever considered retiring. He laughed, and told me he was more likely to leave his office horizontally than vertically. I suspect that was prior to the growth of online teaching and the ever growing need to entertain greater and greater numbers of increasingly poorly educated, less knowledgeable, less logical students with more and more technological eye candy in the name of student enrollment retention. Modern “instructional design” and supposedly “best practice” is becoming more and more entrenched and powerful in universities for online teaching, but seems inexplicably determined to replace the presentation of complex ideas in writing with entertaining videos that are easier for students to digest, though they don’t teach what you want or need them to know. While pictures and videos can sometimes demonstrate visual sorts of ideas and relationships more readily and more effectively than spoken or written words alone, they are not helpful for explaining concepts that require a lot of conceptual understanding, especially if they are merely presenting information “dumbed down” or oversimplified in order not to put off students who don’t want to have to think or to work hard to understand the concepts.
The practice of medicine is facing some of the same burnout issues teaching online does, as it is no longer good enough to be a knowledgeable doctor or nurse; one has to also conform one’s work to modern electronic and digital techniques and formats that are constantly changing and not always conducive to best medical practice or patient care. One has to keep learning new and difficult things that are irrelevant and even counterproductive to the work one is trying to do with the knowledge one has gained over time and study to do it.
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 – only those not conducive to productivity or fulfillment of one’s own goals and interests. In part that is because one’s time becomes more precious as one is aware there may be so much less of it that one might not accomplish what one wants to. And in part because certain kinds of things are not as necessary to continue doing even if they might have been important to do previously. Older people are less likely to suffer fools or requirements that waste their time and more likely and quicker to recognize who and what will.
Our dean might have chuckled ruefully at this—college administrators complain that research productivity among tenured faculty drops off significantly in the last decades of their career. But that may be not because they are less creative (or have less “fluid intelligence”) but because they have already used the 10 or 100 or 500 good, innovative ideas they had and that might be allotted to anyone. Or it could be that solving problems of the past doesn’t help one solve, or even recognize, problems of the present or future. As of this writing early in the 2020 political campaigns, Joe Biden’s pointing out how progressive he was in the past is not impressing those younger people now looking for someone progressive in the present who will solve their current and future problems, rather than their parents’ past ones. It is not that Mr. Biden necessarily has less ability than he did before, but that he does not experience life and its current problems and challenges as younger people do or as less privileged or less advantaged minorities do. It does not matter how good a problem solver one is or how much problem solving ability one has if one is not aware of the problems that need to be solved or at least, in politics, not aware of the problems many voters think need solving. Older professors take up budget slots that could otherwise be used to hire young scholars hungry to do cutting-edge research. The academic wars between teaching and research are not necessarily waged along the battle lines of age versus youth. There are young people who prefer to teach more than to publish; there are older people who still prefer research and who can still be productive because they are driven to do it. But perhaps therein lies an opportunity: If older faculty members can shift the balance of their work from research to teaching without loss of professional prestige, younger faculty members can take on more research. Again, this is not the solution for this particular problem. The solution would be to let people who want to teach and who are good at it emphasize teaching and let those who are good at research and who prefer to do it, do so, regardless of their ages.
Patterns like this match what I’ve seen as the head of a think tank full of scholars of all ages. There are many exceptions (of course there are), but 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. Unless only innovative or new ideas count as “the most profound insights”, I don’t understand what the difference would be between having insights and being a great synthesizer and explainer of complicated ideas. I would consider the early and most important innovative work of Einstein’s to be his synthesizing, understanding, and explanation of complicated ideas. Einstein didn’t do any research into finding new physics phenomena; he better analyzed, understood, and explained what was already known.
That older people, with their stores of wisdom, should be the most successful teachers seems almost cosmically right. No, it doesn’t. Knowledgeable old people who are out of touch with contemporary students are not sought by, nor good for, those students; but neither are young people who are also out of touch. But, of course, teachers of any age who are in touch may be sought, but are not necessarily good for their students. This is just a false dichotomy. No matter what our profession, as we age we can dedicate ourselves to sharing knowledge in some meaningful way. Even when we are young; this is not simply an issue of age but of skill and desire to teach, along with knowledge. And it is not just amount of knowledge but relevance of it. Most older grandparents during the 1980’s marveled that their young grandchildren could work VCRs, when the grandparents were not even able to set the clocks on them, but they were mistaken to think that showed their grandchildren were smarter than they were; it only showed they had more current knowledge or knowledge relevant to contemporary needs or use. Those same grandchildren would not be able to milk the cows the grandparents could or even tell time on a traditional clock face. Different knowledge does not mean ‘more’ knowledge or more intelligence. Older people often have a great store of knowledge that is simply not normally as relevant to contemporary life, (unless the power goes out for any prolonged length of time) as is the knowledge of younger people, even if younger people have far less overall knowledge.
A few years ago, I saw a cartoon of a man on his deathbed saying, “I wish I’d bought more crap.” It has always amazed me that many wealthy people keep working to increase their wealth, amassing far more money than they could possibly spend or even usefully bequeath. One day I asked a wealthy friend why this is so. Many people who have gotten rich know how to measure their self-worth only in pecuniary terms, he explained, so they stay on the hamster wheel, year after year. They believe that at some point, they will finally accumulate enough to feel truly successful, happy, and therefore ready to die. Again, this is a shallow or simplistic explanation, though it might be true for some people. There are at least two other possibilities: 1) one cannot always know or anticipate how much money one might need or want to be able to use for a worthy project, and since one cannot guaranty replacing in the future any money one spends in the present which one has made in the past, it can make sense to keep trying to make more while one can. This is not just about meeting one’s own or one’s family’s needs, but about doing good for any others, including total strangers, who might need or benefit from your help. It is often painful not to be able to afford to help others in need who are not being helped by those who could. 2) Ideally, though not in actual practice, the amount of money one earns is proportional to the amount of good one does for those who buy their goods or services. It is too often simplistically and mistakenly presumed that income is an accurate reflection of contribution. People who believe that is true will therefore try to make the most income because they think it means they are doing the most good for society.
This is a mistake, and not a benign one. 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. It has long been known by many people that material wealth does not necessarily bring happiness or attach only to good people. For example, besides what Aristotle wrote about happiness that is explained above, Jesus said “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” (Matthew 19:25, Mark 10:25, Luke 18:25). Or Matthew 6:24 “You cannot serve both God and wealth.”
At some point, writing one more book will not add to my life satisfaction – it could if it is a book you really want to write, but no, probably not if it is a book for fame or fortune instead of a labor of love; 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. Why not see it as just trying to live the best possible life and figuring out what that means for you – what the criteria for it is for you, what you morally should be doing, and also what you really want to do that is also morally acceptable and worthwhile. When people are doing what they want to that is also right, they don’t need to ask what will add to their life’s satisfaction or ‘fill the canvas of their life' because they already know they are doing it. I need a reverse bucket list. My goal for each year of the rest of my life should be to throw out unnecessary, counterproductive, and wrongful things, obligations, and relationships until I can clearly see my refined self in its best form – which I take to mean until you are doing what is right and also desirable to you in sufficient amounts to make the problems, ills, and evils of life worth enduring. Otherwise I have no idea what it means to see one’s “refined self in its best form.”
And that self is … who, exactly?
Last year, the search for an answer to this question took me deep into the South Indian countryside, to a town called Palakkad, near the border between the states of Kerala and Tamil Nadu. Did you have to climb to a mountain top too? It seems to me unnecessary to go to the ends of the earth to find what ought to be within you. I was there to meet the guru Sri Nochur Venkataraman, known as Acharya (“Teacher”) to his disciples. Acharya is a quiet, humble man dedicated to helping people attain enlightenment but not by writing books or producing videos, presumably even if that would help more people??; he has no interest in Western techies looking for fresh start-up ideas or burnouts trying to escape the religious traditions they were raised in. So he is not dedicated to helping all people attain enlightenment, just some people…. Satisfied that I was neither of those things, he agreed to talk with me.
I told him my conundrum: Many people of achievement suffer as they age, because they lose their abilities, gained over many years of hard work. Is this suffering inescapable, like a cosmic joke on the proud? Or is there a loophole somewhere—a way around the suffering? The first obvious answer is that one only suffers from this phenomenon if one believes abilities once gained ought to for some reason be permanent, and that permanence is necessary for value, instead of their simply having existed and provided whatever good they did for however long they did. But there is no reason to believe that good things cannot only come in small packages but also in short, ephemeral doses. Many great moments and experiences are fleeting; that does not negate or diminish their value, and often makes the memory of them even more cherished.
Acharya answered elliptically, explaining an ancient Hindu teaching about the stages of life, or ashramas. The first is Brahmacharya, the period of youth and young adulthood dedicated to learning. Oh yes, we see so many young people today dedicated to learning! Seriously? Do you know any young people? The second is Grihastha, when a person builds a career, accumulates wealth, and creates a family. In this second stage, the philosophers find one of life’s most common traps: People become attached to earthly rewards—money, power, sex, prestige—and thus try to make this stage last a lifetime. Children also are attached to earthly rewards and material goods, along with popularity which is a kind of prestige. And they want sufficient power to do what they want and sufficient money to have what they want – though often they don’t know that or think about it in terms of earning their own money or attaining more of their own power but simply want their parents to spend more on them or to have the ability and power to help them get what they want if it involves interceding with a third party, or just allow them to do or have what they want when they think it is their parents holding them back.
The antidote to these worldly temptations is Vanaprastha, the third ashrama, whose name comes from two Sanskrit words meaning “retiring” and “into the forest.” This is the stage, usually starting around age 50, in which we purposefully focus less on professional ambition, and become more and more devoted to spirituality, service, and wisdom – which could have been and should have been one’s professional concerns and devotions to begin with. Life shouldn’t be about making money but about making money by doing good, making a contribution to society. This doesn’t mean that you need to stop working when you turn 50—something few people can afford to do—only that your life goals should adjust. No, they should have been right from the beginning, not something you only try to make right at age 50.
Vanaprastha is a time for study and training for the last stage of life, Sannyasa, which should be totally dedicated to the fruits of enlightenment. Why shouldn’t all of life be dedicated to the fruits of enlightenment? In times past, some Hindu men would leave their family in old age, take holy vows, and spend the rest of their life at the feet of masters, praying and studying. There shouldn’t have to be that much to learn by then; maybe these guys just leave their families because they are tired of them. Even if sitting in a cave at age 75 isn’t your ambition, the point should still be clear: As we age, we should resist the conventional lures of success in order to focus on more transcendentally important things. The “as we age” part should either apply to all ages of life or it is unnecessary or false, especially false if it means something like “only after age 50 or 75”.
I told Acharya the story about the man on the plane. He listened carefully, and thought for a minute. “He failed to leave Grihastha,” he told me. “He was addicted to the rewards of the world.” He doesn’t know that any more than you did. Maybe like Darwin, he simply did not have anything available to him that he knew of which interested him or something which would serve others in a way they sought. He explained that the man’s self-worth was probably still anchored in the memories of professional successes many years earlier, his ongoing recognition purely derivative of long-lost skills. Any glory today was a mere shadow of past glories. Meanwhile, he’d completely skipped the spiritual development of Vanaprastha, and was now missing out on the bliss of Sannyasa. But can’t one achieve all the spiritual development possible at some point and then miss the joy of working to achieve it. Maybe it is the pursuit that is more important than the attainment. Maybe what we really enjoy is striving for knowledge and striving to make a contribution, solve a problem, do some good and that continuous fame and fortune only serve, mistakenly or not, as a sign for some people of continuing to do that.
There is a message in this for those of us suffering from the Principle of Psychoprofessional Gravitation. Say you are a hard-charging, type-A lawyer, executive, entrepreneur, or—hypothetically, of course—president of a think tank. From early adulthood to middle age, your foot is on the gas, professionally. Living by your wits—by your fluid intelligence—you seek the material rewards of success – instead of seeking to make the most contribution you can, you attain a lot of them, and you are deeply attached to them. But the wisdom of Hindu philosophy—and indeed the wisdom of many philosophical traditions—suggests that you should be prepared to walk away from these rewards 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. Do you really think that Moses or Gandhi or Martin Luther King, Jr. were trying to build wealth, reputations, and careers they needed to walk away from in order to have satisfaction! Why would they not at all times be grateful for the good they did while still striving to do even more good in the same sort of ways? Of course, if you are only working to make money, achieve power, or gain fame, then because those are at best means to an end, one of course needs to pursue the ends at some point. But if one is working all along to achieve certain worthwhile ends, one doesn’t need to quit work to do that. One is doing it through one’s work. Presumably the teacher who said he would leave the university horizontally rather than vertically enjoyed teaching and found it worthwhile. He didn’t need to retire from it to something else, such as golf, which he may not have enjoyed.
As the old story goes, if you do what you love in order to earn a living then you will never ‘work’ a day in your life – where ‘work’ means doing something laborious and unenjoyable as merely a means to make money to purchase what you want. If you can make a living doing what you want, then you don’t need to do something else to earn enough money so that you can stop doing it in order to do what you want. I did meet a woman one time who took a job that paid only enough money to allow her to hire a woman to stay home and raise her children, but she did that because she did not want to stay home and raise her children. Even though her job was not enjoyable to her, it was apparently far more enjoyable than staying home with her children would have been for her. She would have been better off either doing something she really loved doing in order to have children without having to teach them herself, or she would have been better off if she just enjoyed raising her children. But normally, it would be better to do as it says in Matthew 6: “19 Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth, where moth and rust doth corrupt, and where thieves break through and steal: 20 But lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust doth corrupt, and where thieves do not break through nor steal: 21 For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also” if by “treasures in heaven” we can understand the doing of good things one enjoys or at least accepts and embraces willingly to do.
When the new york times columnist David Brooks talks about the difference between “résumé virtues” and “eulogy virtues,” he’s effectively putting the ashramas in a practical context. 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. Again, this is a false dichotomy; your resume virtues should also be eulogy virtues. They should also reflect what you enjoyed doing. There is not much sadder than someone’s dying right after retiring from a long, unhappy, unfulfilling career of work that s/he only did in order to be able to retire or enjoy the times outside of work.
You won’t be around to hear the eulogy, but the point Brooks makes is that we live the most fulfilling life—especially once we reach midlife—by pursuing the virtues that are most meaningful to us. There shouldn’t be “especially once we reach midlife” in that sentence.
I suspect that my own terror of professional decline is rooted in a fear of death—a fear that, even if it is not conscious, motivates me to act as if death will never come by denying any degradation in my résumé virtues. I don’t understand this, since one can die in full flower of one’s powers and/or youth. There is nothing about ignoring the possibility of decline that therefore also ignores death. This denial is destructive, because it leads me to ignore the eulogy virtues that bring me the greatest joy. No, it is not the denial of decline that is the problem; it is the pursuit of the undesired means in postponement of pursuing the desired ends that is the problem. The denial of death just camouflages the fact you don’t have infinite time to make the switch. But even if you did, that would hardly justify postponing what is worthwhile in order to do what is not worthwhile. Even if working 30 years at something not worthwhile allowed you to spend the next 30 doing something worthwhile that you really enjoyed, wouldn’t it be better to spend all 60 years doing what was really worthwhile that you did enjoy?
The biggest mistake professionally successful people make is attempting to sustain peak accomplishment indefinitely. – only if ‘peak accomplishment’ is in terms of absolute volume and quality of work, not in terms of doing one’s best; and then, only if one’s work is not enjoyable and intrinsically worthwhile in the first place.
How can I overcome this tendency? The Buddha recommends, of all things, corpse meditation: Many Theravada Buddhist monasteries in Thailand and Sri Lanka display photos of corpses in various states of decomposition for the monks to contemplate. “This body, too,” students are taught to say about their own body, “such is its nature, such is its future, such is its unavoidable fate.” At first this seems morbid. But its logic is grounded in psychological principles—and it’s not an exclusively Eastern idea. “To begin depriving death of its greatest advantage over us,” Michel de Montaigne wrote in the 16th century, “let us deprive death of its strangeness, let us frequent it, let us get used to it; let us have nothing more often in mind than death.”
I doubt this is necessary. I do believe that coming to terms with one’s death is possibly important for determining what is most important in life, but I could be wrong about that. But becoming ‘desensitized’ to death seems a mistake. Perhaps being more aware of the inevitability of death and its possible occurrence at any time, is important for living one’s life best.
Psychologists call this desensitization, in which repeated exposure to something repellent or frightening makes it seem ordinary, prosaic, not scary. And for death, it works. In 2017, a team of researchers at several American universities recruited volunteers to imagine they were terminally ill or on death row, and then to write blog posts about either their imagined feelings or their would-be final words. The researchers then compared these expressions with the writings and last words of people who were actually dying or facing capital punishment. The results, published in Psychological Science, were stark: The words of the people merely imagining their imminent death were three times as negative as those of the people actually facing death—suggesting that, counterintuitively, death is scarier when it is theoretical and remote than when it is a concrete reality closing in. Or, as Shakespeare wrote in Julius Caesar:
“A coward dies a thousand times before his death, but the valiant taste of death but once. It seems to me most strange that men should fear, seeing that death, a necessary end, will come when it will come.”
However none of this means that dwelling on death when one is not dying will make death easier than it would have been when one is dying. Feeling terrible when one is seriously ill is one thing that might make death more welcome to someone who is dying than to someone healthy who only imagines dying. It is like suddenly becoming so sick that you at first are afraid you are going to die but then feeling so bad you become afraid you won’t.
For most people, actively contemplating our demise so that it is present and real (rather than avoiding the thought of it via the mindless pursuit of worldly success) can make death less frightening; embracing death reminds us that everything is temporary, and can make each day of life more meaningful. “Death destroys a man,” E. M. Forster wrote, but “the idea of Death saves him.” I don’t know that knowing time is precious means one is less likely to fear not having much of it left. It is important to know time is precious, so that one doesn’t waste it following worthless pursuits. But that has nothing I can see to do with whether one fears death or not. One can, as said on the original Star Trek one time be prepared to die without thus preferring to. One of the most difficult parts of life is knowing which gratifications to defer and which not to. The usual bromide is to “live life as though every day might be your last”, but on the TV sitcom Eight Is Enough that was debunked by the teenager who replied “I tried that once and got grounded for a month.” What you need to do is to live every day as though it might be your last and also as it might not be your last and might instead even be far from your last.
Decline is inevitable, and it occurs earlier than almost any of us wants to believe. But misery is not inevitable, and neither is total decline or the decline to be able to do plenty of good things still, even if not the same things one can do when younger. Accepting the natural cadence of our abilities sets up the possibility of transcendence, because it allows the shifting of attention to higher spiritual and life priorities. Those higher values should always be in the forefront. Then one doesn’t need to make any shifts, and one should not have any regrets about having ignored them until too late.
But such a shift demands more than mere platitudes. I embarked on my research with the goal of producing a tangible road map to guide me during the remaining years of my life. This has yielded four specific commitments.
The biggest mistake professionally successful people make is attempting to sustain peak accomplishment indefinitely of unimportant things, unenjoyable things, worthless things, things that should at best only be means to an end, not ends in themselves, etc., trying to make use of the kind of fluid intelligence that begins fading relatively early in life -- meaning by the definition and comments given in introducing the term in this essay either reasoning, analyzing, and problem solving ability, which should always be used or meaning innovative ability, which is not always necessary or desirable. This is impossible. It is not impossible in the sense of doing the best you can to reason. The key is to enjoy accomplishments for what they are in the moment, and to walk away perhaps before I am completely ready—but on my own terms. Why would you not want to continue to accomplish the most you can that is worthwhile and enjoyable, even if it is not as much as you might have done before? And I still don’t see that wisdom cannot compensate for age.
So: I’ve resigned my job as president of the American Enterprise Institute, effective right about the time this essay is published. While I have not detected deterioration in my performance, it was only a matter of time. Well then by that logic you might also as well kill yourself, since while you may not detect your death now, it is only a matter of time. Like many executive positions, the job is heavily reliant on fluid intelligence. Also, I wanted freedom from the consuming responsibilities of that job, to have time for more spiritual pursuits. But that should have been true all along. In truth, this decision wasn’t entirely about me. I love my institution and have seen many others like it suffer when a chief executive lingered too long. But then the time to leave is when deterioration occurs, not prior to it; and the protocol to put into place is a detection device and alarm – such as vote of a board or failure to meet certain (perhaps objective) standards pertinent to the work of the company and the requirements of leading it: e.g., earnings or number of (new) clients or their satisfaction with the company’s work, etc.
Leaving something you love can feel a bit like a part of you is dying. In Tibetan Buddhism, there is a concept called bardo, which is a state of existence between death and rebirth—“like a moment when you step toward the edge of a precipice,” as a famous Buddhist teacher puts it. I am letting go of a professional life that answers the question Who am I? which should never be what answers that question – one’s profession – unless one’s profession really has intrinsic value and satisfaction.
I am extremely fortunate to have the means and opportunity to be able to walk away from a job. Many people cannot afford to do that. But you are extremely unfortunate to have had a job you want to walk away from as soon as you can afford to and as soon as you realize is not intrinsically worthwhile enough and/or not sufficiently enjoyable in itself. But you don’t necessarily have to quit your job; what’s important is striving to detach progressively from the most obvious earthly rewards—power, fame and status, money— which you should never have attached yourself to as ends to begin with even if you continue to work or advance a career. The real trick is walking into the next stage of life, Vanaprastha, to conduct the study and training that prepare us for fulfillment in life’s final stage. Or the real trick is to know that from the beginning and try to find, as one TV commercial puts it “your passion” or your calling that is both satisfying to you and that is worth doing, morally and otherwise.
Time is limited, and wrong professional ambition crowds out things that ultimately matter more. To move from résumé virtues to eulogy virtues is to move from activities focused on the self to activities focused on others. I never realized that resume virtues had to be selfish. Hmmm. This is not easy for me; I am a naturally egotistical person. Well, yes, that could be a problem for living the best possible and most worthwhile life. But I have to face the fact that the costs of catering to selfishness are ruinous and how old are you that you are just figuring that out?! —and I now work every day to fight this tendency. How admirable. [Note: sarcasm.] Really, how shameful to have to ‘work’ at not being egotistical or selfish.
Fortunately, an effort to serve others can play to our strengths as we age. Remember, people whose work focuses on teaching or mentorship, broadly defined, peak later in life. I am thus moving to a phase in my career in which I can dedicate myself fully to sharing ideas in service of others, primarily by teaching at a university. My hope is that my most fruitful years lie ahead. Compared to what you seem to describe as your past years and pursuits, yes, your most fruitful years should lie ahead (if you don’t die first); they are at least not likely to be any worse than you seem to think your past ones were to you.
Because I’ve talked a lot about various religious and spiritual traditions—and emphasized the pitfalls of overinvestment in career success—readers might naturally conclude that I am making a Manichaean separation between the worlds of worship and work, and suggesting that the emphasis be on worship. That is not my intention. I do strongly recommend that each person explore his or her spiritual self—I plan to dedicate a good part of the rest of my life to the practice of my own faith, Roman Catholicism. But this is not incompatible with work; on the contrary, if we can detach ourselves from worldly attachments and redirect our efforts toward the enrichment and teaching of others, work itself can become a transcendental pursuit. And should have been all along!
“The aim and final end of all music,” Bach once said, “should be none other than the glory of God and the refreshment of the soul.” Whatever your metaphysical convictions, refreshment of the soul can be the aim of your work, like Bach’s. Refreshment of your own soul and contribution to the benefit of others.
Bach finished each of his manuscripts with
the words Soli Deo gloria—“Glory to God alone.” He failed, however, to
write these words on his last manuscript, “Contrapunctus 14,” from The
Art of Fugue, which abruptly stops mid-measure. His son C.P.E. added these
words to the score: “Über dieser Fuge … ist der Verfasser gestorben”
(“At this point in the fugue … the composer died”). Bach’s life and work merged
with his prayers as he breathed his last breath. This is my aspiration. [Pun
intended?] It would be better for your work to merge with your prayers
for all your breaths, not just your last -- all the aspirations of your
lungs, not just their last, should serve the aspirations of your heart
and merge with the prayers of your soul.
Throughout this essay, I have focused on the effect that the waning of my work prowess will have on my happiness. But an 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. Only if one seeks relationships (which not everyone does) and has access to good ones. Intimacy can be a wonderful thing, though intimacy may not be compatible with ‘plentifulness’. But surely bad company is worse than no company at all and some people do not crave companionship of others, at least not much of it. 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. Deeper relationships are good in themselves, with or without personal or professional decline.
Dedicating more time to relationships, and less to work, is not inconsistent with continued achievement. Dedicating more time to relationships within work is also not inconsistent with achievement in the first place. “He is like a tree planted by streams of water,” the Book of Psalms says of the righteous person, “yielding its fruit in season, whose leaf does not wither, and who prospers in all he does.” Think of an aspen tree. To live a life of extraordinary accomplishment is—like the tree—to grow alone, reach majestic heights alone, and die alone. Right?
Wrong. 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. In fact, an aspen is one of the largest living organisms in the world; a single grove in Utah, called Pando, spans 106 acres and weighs an estimated 13 million pounds.
The secret to bearing my decline — to enjoying it — as well as enjoying your health and prosperity 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. Better you all should prosper. You need not wither as they prosper unless their prosperity was previously held back by yours. And if it was, then it is likely you will not find their prosperity will be worth your withering to you in the future any more than you were willing to sacrifice your prosperity for their benefit in the past. As long as you see yourself as ‘withering’, you are not likely to like it by seeing others prosper, even if you love them and want them to prosper.
When i talk about this personal research project I’ve been pursuing, people usually ask: Whatever happened to the hero on the plane?
I think about him a lot. He’s still famous, popping up in the news from time to time. Early on, when I saw a story about him, I would feel a flash of something like pity—which I now realize was really only a refracted sense of terror about my own future. Poor guy really meant I’m screwed.
But as my grasp of the principles laid out in this essay has deepened, my fear has declined proportionately. My feeling toward the man on the plane is now one of gratitude for what he taught me. Still sounds egocentric to me – that his suffering was a boon to you, changing your fear to gratitude for being able to have learned of his misery. I hope that he can find the peace and joy he is inadvertently helping me attain. I hope he can do better than that, and simply find something he enjoys doing that is worthwhile.