Why you can’t just keep doing what you’re doing. Especially after 50.

Willie Nelson, photo by Bob Jagendorf

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.

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  1. Good advice. I got out a giant pad of sketch paper and did a mind map of all the things I thought I was good at and how that might translate into other gigs. It was great to have them all scrawled out on a page in no particular order. Every morning, I got up and looked at the page and said, “What’s hot today?” I spent that morning going down “today’s” rabbit hole. It helped me find a niche I could get paid doing, and enjoyed doing — a right-livelihood. Then I set about sharpening my skills in that area.

    A technique I learned through NLP (Neurolinguistic Programming) was borrowed from the Disney people. Place three cards on the floor: Dreamer, Planner, Critic (or Evaluator). Step behind the first and try out an idea in your imagination — include what you see, hear, feel. Soon, you’ll find yourself mentioning the steps you need to take — that means it’s time to step into the Planner space. The Planner examines what will have to happen in order for your dream to be realized. The planner may want to imagine years into the future and turn back to the present to help determine the steps needed to achieve the dream. When your critical inner voice mentions barriers, it’s time to step over to the Critic space. (The Critic is only permitted to comment on problems with the plan, not problems with the dream.) When you have finished, you can fully examine another idea/dream. You’ve given each idea a full examination from your perspective.

  2. I’m the author of Threescore and More and I find this article to be nonsense. I chronicle in the book how many people are successful post-60 into their 80s and beyond. But articles like this encourage us to cede control and think that every time we lose our car keys we have dementia. If you want to die young, then retire early. But retirement itself is an artifact built on ossified thinking about age. Ageism in the country is one of those biases that’s allowed: There are no parades against it, no protests. I’m 73 and at the top of my game. That’s because I realize that you only grow “old” when you get out of the race, you don’t lose the race because you get old.

  3. Thank you, Alan, yes. Ageism is a slow, poisonous brainwashing throughout modern industrialized cultures, and many prior. There are accounts of various indigenous people assessing that their usefulness to their group had ceased, and going out into the cold to end their lives. Groupthink is the killer, not necessarily age, going back to prehistory and whatever form of dominator hierarchy (instead of nurturing hierarchy) ruled at the time. There are always exceptions. There are always partial truths, and these appear in the article; there are some useful points here. Flexibility and creativity do seem to be great liberators. The individual who is smart will scope out practical info and forge his or her own path with as many data sets as possible from inner and outer resources.

    Another point: Some with lifelong disabling chronic physical diseases are starting to hit their stride in their 70s, particularly those whose research and selfcare levels have started to pay off. Some have found new discoveries in energy medicine/qigong or certain regimens build up over time, resulting in a first-time critical mass of ongoing success and newfound abilities.

    A lifetime of wisdom earning through dogged endurance rocks. It is said Grandma Moses did not start painting until her 70s; one early and undiscovered Abstract Expressionist who “missed” the wave of the ’50s refused to languish with obscurity and had her first big New York gallery opening and “discovery” in her 90s. Henry Roth did not finish and publish his masterpiece “Some Call It Night” until his 80s, if memory serves. There are yoga teachers in their 90s; one person in her 90s just completed amajor marathon run. Biohackers report being healthier than they were in their 50s.

    Of course there are things that sometimes cannot be controlled and affect performance, such as family financial crises that wipe out savings, or kids’ emergencies; these factor into any mix. The Chinese character for “crisis” is said to be the same for opportunity — or, for me, creativity. The wave line between fate and destiny changes each second, and it is possible to surf that line with whatever has rich meaning for us.

    The Great God OPO (other peoples’ opnions) need not be our toxic god: Only if we cave in to that do we lose.