Your Professional Decline Is Coming (Much) Sooner Than You Think
Unless you follow the James Dean formula—“Live fast, die young, leave a goodBylooking corpse”—you know that your professional, physical, and mental decline is inevitable. You probably just think it’s a long, long way off.
You’re not alone in thinking this. For most people, the implicit belief is that aging and its effect on professional performance are something that happen far in the future. This attitude explains all kinds of funny survey results. For example, when asked in 2009 what “being old” means, the most popular response among Americans was “turning eighty-five.”
In other words, the average American (who lives to seventy-nine) dies six years before entering old age.
Here is the reality: in practically every high-skill profession, decline sets in sometime between one’s late thirties and early fifties. Sorry, I know that stings. And it gets worse: the more accomplished one is at the peak of one’s career, the more pronounced decline seems once it has set in.
Those playing sports requiring explosive power or sprinting see peak performance from twenty to twenty-seven years of age, while those playing endurance sports peak a bit later—but still as young adults.
No surprise there—no one expects a serious athlete to remain competitive until age sixty, and most of the athletes figured they would have to find a new line of work by the time they were thirty. They don’t love this reality, but they generally face it.
It’s a much different story for what we now call “knowledge workers”—most people reading this book.
Among people in professions requiring ideas and intellect rather than athletic skill and significant physical strength, almost no one admits expecting decline before their seventies; some later than that. Unlike athletes, however, they are not facing reality.
Benjamin Jones, a professor of strategy and entrepreneurship at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University, has spent years studying when people are most likely to make prizewinning scientific discoveries and key inventions. Looking at major inventors and Nobel winners going back more than a century, Jones finds that the most common age for great discovery is one’s late thirties. He shows that the likelihood of a major discovery increases steadily through one’s twenties and thirties and then declines dramatically through one’s forties, fifties, and sixties. There are outliers, of course. But the probability of producing a major innovation at age seventy is approximately equal to what it was at age twenty—about zero.
Great gifts and achievements early in life are simply not an insurance policy against suffering later on. On the contrary, studies show that people who have chased power and achievement in their professional lives tend to be unhappier after retirement than people who did not.
The fact that we can’t store up our glories and enjoy them when they are long past gets to the problem of dissatisfaction—a problem we will confront later in this book. Humans simply aren’t wired to enjoy an achievement long past. It is as if we were on a moving treadmill; satisfaction from success lasts but an instant. We can’t stop to enjoy it; if we do, we zip off the back of the treadmill and wipe out. So we run and run, hoping that the next success, greater than the last, will bring the enduring satisfaction we crave.
The decline problem is a double whammy, then: we need ever-greater success to avoid dissatisfaction, yet our abilities to stay even are declining. No, it’s actually a triple whammy, because as we try to stay even, we wind up in patterns of addictive behavior such as workaholism, which puts strivers into unhealthy relationship patterns at the cost of deep connection to spouses, children, and friends. By the time the wipeout occurs, there’s no one there to help us get up and dust off.
Here is the bottom line.
when it comes to the enviable skills that you worked so hard to attain and that made you successful in your field, you can expect significant decline to come as soon as your thirties, or as late as your early fifties. That’s the deal, and it’s not fun. Sorry.
So what are you going to do about it? There are really only three doors you can go through here:
- You can deny the facts and rage against decline—setting yourself up for frustration and disappointment.
- You can shrug and give in to decline—and experience your aging as an unavoidable tragedy.
- You can accept that what got you to this point won’t work to get you into the future—that you need to build some new strengths and skills.
If you choose door number 3, congratulations. There’s a bright future ahead. But it requires a bunch of new skills and a new way of thinking.
Kick Your Success Addiction
- Do you define your self-worth in terms of your job title or professional position?
- Do you quantify your own success in terms of money, power, or prestige?
- Do you fail to see clearly—or are you uncomfortable with—what comes after your last professional successes?
- Is your “retirement plan” to go on and on without stopping?
- Do you dream about being remembered for your professional successes?
If you answered affirmatively to one of these questions, you are probably a success addict.
As successful as you are in your life and work, you are simply not going to move from old strengths to new strengths until you sort this out.
It does require an open admission of the truth, however, and a commitment to change: that what you have is a problem and you want to solve it, that what you have been doing isn’t working, and that you want to be happy. This is always the first step in recovery from an addiction, by the way. The first step in Alcoholics Anonymous’s program is “We admitted we were powerless over alcohol—that our lives had become unmanageable.”
If you want to be happy, you have to state your honest aspiration to be happy, to be willing to be a little less special in worldly terms, and thus to stop objectifying yourself. You must state your desire to lighten your load with pride’s opposing virtue: humility.
Like most strivers, you likely spent decades trying to be successful in worldly terms, and now I am telling you to go against those instincts. But once you start on this journey, you will find that a lot of things in your life were there really only to build up your image—to yourself and others—to signify that you were successful and special. Some of these things are physical trophies, “positional goods” that show you are a big deal to the world. These can be houses and cars and boats, of course. But don’t flatter yourself if these aren’t important to you (they aren’t to me), or if your success isn’t the kind that gives you a lot of money. Your trophies might well be social media followers, or famous friends, or living in a cool place by the world’s standards.
The point is that the symbols of your specialness have encrusted you like a ton of barnacles. Not only are these things incapable of bringing you any real satisfaction; they’re making you too heavy to jump to your next curve.
you know that the hardest part is figuring out what you don’t need. You pore over every object as it conjures up memories, and you think “I spent good money on this and might need it again!” Similarly, as you think about shedding the false image of your extremely special self, you will probably experience a fear of regret.
How to do it right is our next topic.
Start Chipping Away
- Ask why, not what
If you are ready to manage your wants—to start chipping away—the first step is to ask what exactly needs chipping. And that raises the question “What is my why?” The bestselling author and speaker Simon Sinek always gives people in search of true success in work and life the advice that they need to find their why.
That is, he tells them that to unlock their true potential and happiness, they need to articulate their deep purpose in life and shed the activities that are not in service of that purpose. Your why is the sculpture inside the block of jade.
- The reverse bucket list
A second way to get started on the task of chipping away is to look at the counsel we get that is making us into dissatisfied Homo economicus, and simply doing the opposite. For example, self-help gurus often give the advice to make an inventory of the bucket list on your birthday, so as to reinforce your worldly aspirations. Making a list of the things you want is temporarily satisfying, because it stimulates dopamine, the neurotransmitter of desire, which is pleasurable.
But it creates attachments, which create dissatisfaction as they grow.
I imagine myself in five years. I am happy and at peace. I am enjoying my life for the most part; I’m satisfied and living a life of purpose and meaning. I imagine myself saying to my wife, “You know, I have to say that I am truly happy at this point in my life.” I then think of the forces in this future life that are most responsible for this happiness: my faith; my family; my friendships; the work I am doing that is inherently satisfying, meaningful, and that serves others.
Next, I go back to my bucket list. I consider how these things compete with the forces of my happiness for time, attention, and resources. I ponder how empty they are by comparison. I imagine myself sacrificing my relationships to choose the admiration of strangers and the result down the line in my life. With this in mind, I confront the bucket list. About each item, I say, “This is not evil, but it will not bring me the happiness and peace I seek, and I simply don’t have time to make it my goal. I choose to detach myself from this desire.”
Finally, I go back to the list of things that will bring me real happiness. I commit to pursuing these things with my time, affection, and energy.
This exercise has made a big difference in my life. It might help you, too.
- Get smaller
A third method that helps break the habit of adding brushstrokes to an already full canvas is to start focusing on smaller things in life. Voltaire’s 1759 satirical novel, Candide, recounts the tale of the young and naïve hero in his adventures with his tutor, the indefatigable optimist Professor Pangloss.
The story is one of horror after horror: war, rape, cannibalism, slavery. At one point, Pangloss even has one of his buttocks amputated. In the end, they retire to a small farm, where they find that the secret to happiness is not the world’s glories, but rather to focus on the little contentments; to “cultivate our garden.”
Satisfaction comes not from chasing bigger and bigger things, but paying attention to smaller and smaller things. Buddhist master Thich Nhat Hanh explains this in his book The Miracle of Mindfulness: “While washing the dishes, one should only be washing the dishes, which means that while washing the dishes one should be completely aware of the fact that one is washing the dishes.”
If we are thinking about the past or future, “we are not alive during the time we are washing the dishes.” We are either reliving a past that is dead or “sucked away into the future” that exists merely in concept. Only to be mindful, therefore, is to be truly alive.
Ponder Your Death
If you were morbidly afraid of snakes and went to a therapist, the most likely course of treatment would be . . . snakes. Exposure therapy has been firmly established as the best way to take on fears and phobias.
The reason is what psychologists call “desensitization,” in which repeated exposure to something repellent or frightening makes it seems ordinary, prosaic, and certainly not scary.
If it works with snakes, it can work with death and decline. In 2017, a team of researchers at several American universities recruited volunteers to imagine they were terminally ill or on death row and then write fictional blog posts about their imagined feelings. The researchers then compared those posts with writings by those who were actually dying or facing capital punishment. The results, published in Psychological Science, were stark: the writing of those temporarily imagining death was three times as negative as that of those actually facing it—suggesting that, counterintuitively, death becomes scarier when it is abstract and remote than when it is a concrete reality.
It is a great irony about succeeding in the modern world that those who specialize in dominating fear—who rise to any challenge, concede no weakness, and meet any foe—are often desperately afraid of decline. But within this very irony resides a magnificent opportunity to beat fear once and for all and thus truly to be the person you have made yourself out to be.
If you ever visit Theravada Buddhist monasteries in Thailand and Sri Lanka, you will notice that many display photos of corpses in various states of decomposition. At first, it seems morbid and disturbing. As we now know, however, it is simply good psychology: it is exposure therapy. “This body, too,” Buddhist monks are taught to say about their own bodies, “such is its nature, such is its future, such its unavoidable fate.”
There is a famous Zen Buddhist story about a band of samurai who ride through the countryside causing destruction and terror. As they approach a monastery, all the monks scatter in fear, except for the abbot, a man who has completely mastered the fear of his own death. The samurai enter to find him sitting in the lotus position in perfect equanimity. Drawing his sword, the leader snarls, “Don’t you see that I am the sort of man who could run you through without batting an eye?” The master responds, “Don’t you see that I am a man who could be run through without batting an eye?”
The true master, when his or her prestige is threatened by age or circumstance, can say, “Don’t you see that I am a person who could be utterly forgotten without batting an eye?”
“There’s no greater misfortune than dying alone,” wrote the Colombian novelist Gabriel García Márquez.
What he meant of course was dying with no one at your side, which does indeed seem a tragedy. But of course, we all make the passage of death alone. As they always say about your possessions, “You can’t take it with you.” But they could just as well mean your friends and family, as far as we know. That’s one of the reasons people find it so frightening.
But this is where the parallel between death and decline stops. With decline, you don’t have to experience it alone. In fact, you shouldn’t. The problem is that many people do decline alone: on their way up they have let their relationships wither, so on the way down they don’t have a human safety net. This makes any change in the second half seem all the more difficult and risky.
Seven Words to Remember
Worship the divine.
There is nothing bad or shameful about the world’s material abundance, and we are right to enjoy it. Material abundance is what gives us our daily bread and pulls our sisters and brothers out of poverty. It reflects the blessings of our creativity and work and can provide comfort and enjoyment to humdrum days.
The problem is not the noun things, but the verb to love. Things are to use, not to love. If you remember only one lesson from this book, it should be that love is at the epicenter of our happiness. Around the year 400, the great Saint Augustine summarized this lesson as the secret to a good life: “Love and do what you will.”
But love is reserved for people, not things; to misplace your love is to invite frustration and futility—to get on the hedonic treadmill and set it to ultra-fast.
Take love up one level and we have worship. The writer David Foster Wallace once said, astutely, “There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship.”
If you love things, you will strive to objectify yourself in terms of money, power, pleasure, and prestige—idols all. You will worship yourself—or, at least, a two-dimensional cutout of yourself.
you love things, you will strive to objectify yourself in terms of money, power, pleasure, and prestige—idols all. You will worship yourself—or, at least, a two-dimensional cutout of yourself.
Once again, this is what the world assures will bring happiness. But the world lies: idols will not make you happy, and thus you must not worship yourself. Take to heart the commands of Moses in the book of Deuteronomy when it comes to idols: “Thus shall you deal with them: you shall break down their altars and dash in pieces their pillars and chop down their Asherim and burn their carved images with fire.”
May you go from strength to strength.