The Atlantic has a fascinating piece by Arthur C. Brooks called “Your Professional Decline Is Coming (Much) Sooner Than You Think.” It forces you to face the inevitable: you won’t always be as good as you are now, and no, you won’t keep getting better. Here’s what to do about it.
As Brooks, president of the American Enterprise Institute, writes, the better you are now, the more difficult aging is going to be:
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.
The article includes not just anecdotes but proof of a sort:
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.
Here are some facts you must face.
You will not be as sharp as you once were.
You will not be as quick as you once were.
You will not bounce back from adversity as quickly as you once did.
There is a whole industry dedicated to convincing you that you can hold on to what you have. If you just bike enough miles, eat the right foods, and wrap yourself in the loving bosom of your family, you’ll be able to operate at the same high level you do now. Jeff Bezos does. Barack Obama did. Why not you?
It’s a nice fairy tale. Don’t believe it. Because you are not that one special man or woman who is immune from aging.
You’re smart. So be smart about this.
All is not lost. The point is that you can still do something great, you just can’t keep doing what you’re doing.
Let me be personal here. I was a mathematically talented prodigy and I’ve always been good at mathematical analysis of data. I can’t do that nearly as well or as quickly as I used to.
I could go on four or five trips a month and bounce back from very little sleep. I can’t do that anymore, and if I try, it is not enjoyable.
I was never good at remembering names and faces, and now, I really suck at that. It’s a professional liability.
So much for the bad news. But as I approached my late fifties, I was also able to take stock of my assets. I was a good writer. In fact, I think I’m an awesome writer. Not only that, I’m better than I used to be. I can see the writing problem, whatever it is, and solve it with great facility.
That’s a question of experience. I’ve been doing this so much, for so long, that my brain just works that way.
I’m also a damn good editor. Whatever your writing problem is, I can probably identify it and tell you why you have it and recommend how to fix it, whether that’s an idea problem, a structural problem, or a language problem. I’ve just done it so many times that I have a feel for doing it. (It’s basically the same as solving the writing problem, but with other people’s writing and ideas thrown in.)
Now, this isn’t really about me. Whoever you are, there are things you are good at. These are things you have done so much that you can solve them instinctively.
For example, I know a guy who has built and grown marketing departments. And he’s very good at it. So now he takes a CMO position at a growing company, builds a working marketing department from scratch, gets it running great, and then moves on to the next one. Building marketing for him is like what writing is for me — he knows the right way to do it in his bones, and exercising that skill is enjoyable to him (and valuable to his clients).
My father, who is in his 80s, was an awesome college professor. He loved teaching. He still does. And he still teaches. Teaching is for him what writing is for me and building marketing is for my friend.
We were all fortunate enough to be able to make a good living at what we do well without the need to have the same mental agility and stamina that a 30-year-old has. We use skill instead.
So if you’re in your 40s and 50s, stop ignoring the fact that you are not the same as you once were and embrace it. They say old people can’t handle change. I say, older people must handle change. We have no choice. Our bodies and minds are changing; so are our colleagues’ and customers’ needs.
What will you do now?
Ask yourself these questions:
- What am I really good at, good enough that I can continue to do it with a level of skill that very few others can match, based on my experience?
- Which of those things do you actually enjoy doing?
- Which of those things is there a demand for? (If your skill is building ships in a bottle, it’s less likely to generate revenue than if your skill is finding and documenting bugs in software.)
- How would you shift what you are doing to do more of the things you are good at, enjoy, and can get paid for?
- What’s your business model? Freelance is a great option. There is a gig economy. You may know people who understand your value and would hire you part-time or full-time. But you have to think about how this is going to work.
- What skills will you need to add? Because yes, old dogs can learn new tricks. My dad, the teacher, is now a whiz at Apple Keynote — and he’d barely touched a computer at the time of his retirement.
- How can you boost your network? There are local meetups and associations for every profession, and there are social networks. I love my Facebook groups — what groups are you participating in? The more you give, the more people will think of you when they need help.
Yes, indeed, this requires planning. But unless you want to spend your 50s and 60s on a fixed income, staring at the TV, or hanging around at work feeling one-upped by the young folk and waiting to get laid off, you had better start planning.
You’ve still got a lot to give, and based on my experience and those of many of my older friends, you can enjoy the next act. You just need to get your head out of the sand and prepare for it.