In The Atlantic:
Your Professional Decline Is Coming (Much) Sooner Than You Think
Here’s how to make the most of it.
by ARTHUR C. BROOKS JULY 2019 ISSUE
“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.
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.
For selfish reasons, I couldn’t get the cognitive dissonance of that scene out of my mind. It was the summer of 2015, shortly after my 51st birthday. …
Who is this?
Flight from California to DC, “courage, patriotism, and accomplishments many decades ago,” an idol to airline pilots. I’m guessing … Chuck Yeager, now 96.
But, the first wife of the great pilot who broke the sound barrier in 1947 died in 1990, and his second wife is 41 years younger. Also, he lives in the Lake Tahoe area so he would be more likely to fly to DC out of Reno rather than LA.
Buzz Aldrin, age 89, lived mostly in California, although he’s had 3 wives and left for Florida perhaps before 2015.
So, forget the pilots.
Brooks was head of the conservative American Enterprise Institute until recently, so perhaps a Republican politician: John McCain, Bob Dole, or G.H.W. Bush? All of them were guys who came close to dying in combat in the service of their country.
The problem with being an executive is that you naturally rise up to higher and higher levels of executive command until the Peter Principle kicks in.
For example, Charles de Gaulle was one of the greatest men of the 20th Century until in 1968, under the pressure of the student riots, his courage cracked and he secretly fled to exile with French armed forces in West Germany. His right hand man Georges Pompidou came to get him and explained a simple deal to extricate themselves: offer the Communist workers higher wages and then crush the college students. Pompidou’s plan saved France.
I was not world-famous like the man on the plane, but my professional life was going very well. …
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? 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?
… I have been on a quest to figure out how to turn my eventual professional decline from a matter of dread into an opportunity for progress. …
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.”
Presumably, Darwin would be pleasantly surprised to learn how his fame grew after his death, in 1882. 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.
Uh … actually, Darwin was more of a late bloomer. He probably came up with the idea of natural selection in 1837 but didn’t publish it until after Alfred Russel Wallace came up with it independently in 1858. He published Origin of Species in 1859 at age 50.
Darwin was not terribly healthy. One theory is he suffered from Chagas Disease that he contracted on the Beagle’s round-the-world voyage in the 1830s. But he soldiered on. Perhaps his next three most important books were published from age 59 to 63:
1868: The Variation of Animals and Plants under Domestication
1871: The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex
1872: The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals
That’s a pretty impressive late-middle age. Maybe Verdi or Michelangelo or Barzun or Frank Lloyd Wright or Franklin had a better old age, but still …
Darwin published five more books, of a more technical nature, before his death at age 73 in 1882.
From Charles Darwin’s autobiography, written when he was 67 in 1876 (if you need to remember Charles Darwin’s age at any point, he was born the same day as Abraham Lincoln, February 12, 1809):
I have said that in one respect my mind has changed during the last twenty or thirty years. Up to the age of thirty, or beyond it, poetry of many kinds, such as the works of Milton, Gray, Byron, Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Shelley, gave me great pleasure, and even as a schoolboy I took intense delight in Shakespeare, especially in the historical plays. I have also said that formerly pictures gave me considerable, and music very great delight. But now for many years I cannot endure to read a line of poetry: I have tried lately to read Shakespeare, and found it so intolerably dull that it nauseated me. I have also almost lost my taste for pictures or music. … I retain some taste for fine scenery, but it does not cause me the exquisite delight which it formerly did. …
This curious and lamentable loss of the higher aesthetic tastes is all the odder, as books on history, biographies, and travels (independently of any scientific facts which they may contain), and essays on all sorts of subjects interest me as much as ever they did. My mind seems to have become a kind of machine for grinding general laws out of large collections of facts, but why this should have caused the atrophy of that part of the brain alone, on which the higher tastes depend, I cannot conceive. [Bold mine-SES]
Okay, but being the 19th Century’s greatest “machine for grinding general laws out of large collections of facts” was no small thing, Chuck, as I suspect you fully appreciated.
Anyway, I’m reminded of this by commenters who suggest that All I Really Need to Do is become a Linux maven in my 60s or whatever so I can save $500 per year on my computer.
Nah, I just want a computer that won’t get in the way of me grinding out general laws out of large collections of facts without me having to get distracted by having to learn new technologies.
Granted, most of my laws are less like Darwin’s Law of Natural Selection and more like Sailer’s Law of Female Journalism, but still …