Getting Past Professional Decline

Sometimes, articles addressed towards those in midlife contain insights that are pertinent as well to older adults. Such is the case with an article by Arthur C. Brooks in the July, 2019 Atlantic titled “Your professional decline is coming (much) sooner than you think.” Brooks is speaking to busy adults at the peak of their careers, but it’s also useful for us older adults to think of how we navigated the treacherous shoals that Brooks describes as lying in wait for mid-lifers.

Arthur C. Brooks

Brooks describes himself in 2015, when at age 51 he had achieved considerable success–head of a think tank, author of several best sellers, columnist for the New York Times. Unlike those of us who simply revel in our immediate successes, he was thinking about the future:

“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?”

He started reading the social science research regarding career performance and happiness. He learned that:

  • “…the waning of ability in people of high accomplishment is especially brutal psychologically,” and
  • “The data are shockingly clear that for most people, in most fields, decline starts earlier than almost anyone thinks.”

The last point is well-known to cognitive psychologists but hasn’t been disseminated very widely. Success in many fields depends on what psychologist Raymond Cattell called fluid intelligence–“the ability to reason, analyze, and solve novel problems.” Performance on measures of fluid intelligence peak at different ages depending on the test used; some skills start declining in late adolescence, others not until age 30 or 40. On nearly every measure, our reasoning and analytic skills are in retreat by middle adulthood. Thus, Brooks was right to be concerned with how long he could continue to perform at the top of his game: at age 51, the mental processes that undergird superior performance were already eroding.

Fortunately, Cattell identified a second broad set of abilities that he labeled crystallized intelligence. It consists of applying the information and experience that was accumulated earlier in life, and it tends to increase until relatively late in the lifespan. It is used in such tasks as teaching; unlike those in many fields, teachers often maintain effectiveness well into late adulthood.

Applying this to his position as president of the American Enterprise Institute, Brooks noted:

“While I have not detected deterioration in my performance, it was only a matter of time. Like many executive positions, the job is heavily reliant on fluid intelligence.”

As a result of this analysis, he resigned from that position this past summer. He suggests that the rest of us realize that we, too, won’t be able to sustain peak performance indefinitely. In light of the inevitable drop-off in accomplishment, it’s best for mid-lifers to make plans to move away from tasks requiring fluid intelligence and into those requiring crystallized intelligence. More broadly, Brooks believes “what’s important is striving to detach progressively from the most obvious earthly rewards—power, fame and status, money—even if you continue to work or advance a career.” In other words, move away from investing so much of yourself in your work.

Besides direct recommendations related to our professional lives, Brooks offers other suggestions that are less work-related than they are ways to flourish in the second half of life. They are:

  • serve others
  • explore your spirituality
  • devote time and energy to relationships

For us older adults it’s useful to think back over the years since we were about 50 to look at how we did at transitioning away from professional careers requiring high-power analytic and mental processing skills both to other types of work and to goals that aren’t work-related. Was it a struggle or did it go smoothly? Have we completed the transition successfully, or are we still investing too much of ourselves in holding on to remnants of the intellectual apparatus that has lost its former power? I’ll try to analyze my own passage along this path in a future post.

About Bob Ritzema

I am a fourth-generation American of Dutch ancestry and am trained as a clinical psychologist. In 2012, I retired from Methodist University in North Carolina to return to . Michigan to help family. I maintain a part-time therapy practice in Grand Rapids. I currently worship at Monroe Community Church in Grand Rapids. I can be reached at bobritzema@hotmail.com.
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