Arthur Brooks has written a thought-provoking article for The Atlantic titled, "Your Professional Decline Is Coming (Much) Sooner Than You Think." Brooks reviews the literature regarding the age at which professional productivity peaks in various fields, as well as some of the research on personal happiness. He closes with some thoughts about how he will approach his work and life moving forward (Brooks has just stepped down as President of the American Enterprise Institute and will be joining the Harvard faculty this summer). Here's an excerpt from Brooks' terrific essay:
What’s the difference between (Johann Sebastian) Bach and (Charles) Darwin? Both were preternaturally gifted and widely known early in life. Both attained permanent fame posthumously. Where they differed was in their approach to the midlife fade. When Darwin fell behind as an innovator, he became despondent and depressed; his life ended in sad inactivity. When Bach fell behind, he reinvented himself as a master instructor. He died beloved, fulfilled, and—though less famous than he once had been—respected.
The lesson for you and me, especially after 50: Be Johann Sebastian Bach, not Charles Darwin. How does one do that? A potential answer lies in the work of the British psychologist Raymond Cattell, who in the early 1940s introduced the concepts of fluid and crystallized intelligence. Cattell defined fluid intelligence as the ability to reason, analyze, and solve novel problems—what we commonly think of as raw intellectual horsepower. Innovators typically have an abundance of fluid intelligence. It is highest relatively early in adulthood and diminishes starting in one’s 30s and 40s. This is why tech entrepreneurs, for instance, do so well so early, and why older people have a much harder time innovating.
Crystallized intelligence, in contrast, is the ability to use knowledge gained in the past. Think of it as possessing a vast library and understanding how to use it. It is the essence of wisdom. Because crystallized intelligence relies on an accumulating stock of knowledge, it tends to increase through one’s 40s, and does not diminish until very late in life.
Careers that rely primarily on fluid intelligence tend to peak early, while those that use more crystallized intelligence peak later. For example, Dean Keith Simonton has found that poets—highly fluid in their creativity—tend to have produced half their lifetime creative output by age 40 or so. Historians—who rely on a crystallized stock of knowledge—don’t reach this milestone until about 60.
Here’s a practical lesson we can extract from all this: No matter what mix of intelligence your field requires, you can always endeavor to weight your career away from innovation and toward the strengths that persist, or even increase, later in life. Like what? As Bach demonstrated, teaching is an ability that decays very late in life, a principal exception to the general pattern of professional decline over time.
Later in the article, Brooks (now in his early 50s) articulates four commitments he has made to himself as he enters the next stage of his career and life.
1. Jump: Be ready to leave something you love and shift to something new that fits your stage of life more appropriately.
2. Serve: Brooks notes that, "An effort to serve others can play to our strengths as we age."
3. Worship: Brooks notes the importance of his spiritual life and how it need not be detached from his work life. He intends to focus on his spiritual life even more moving forward.
4. Connect: Brooks explains that healthy relationships are key to happiness in life, and that one can make time for those relationships without necessarily sacrificing achievement altogether.
I have not done justice to the fascinating article in this short blog post. I hope that I have intrigued you, though, and that you will read the entire essay.