Is your professional decline coming much sooner than you think?
Well I'm here with Arthur Brooks an economist whose viral Atlantic article says maybe.
Yeah so I wrote this article, and The Atlantic titled it, "Your professional decline is coming much sooner thank you think" Sounds pretty bad. I have to say, but I'd meant it as a way that we can actually look forward to that back part of our careers.
-This is how economists inspire people right? You're doomed!
But it doesn't suck as bad as you thought was going to be. No, the truth is that people have a tendency to think that when they work in idea professions, which a lot of people on LinkedIn do, a lot of people who are watching us do, they think that their professional life is going to be able to go on and on and on and on and their skills are going to stay at their super high level. What made you successful when you were 30 and 35, you'll be able to do till you're 80, 85 and that turns out to be not true. The data are overwhelmingly clear that particularly after 50, 55 that a lot of idea professions people kind of lose their edge a little bit. This is one of the reasons that people burn out, not because they're sick of it, but because they kind of find they're not as good at what they were doing anymore.
OK here's the good news. There's good news.
-I've been waiting for it!
There's a success curve in your what they call your fluid intelligence. And I'm bringing coals to Newcastle by telling this to a psychologist, but the Fluid intelligence is basically your analytic capacity, your ability to innovate. And that actually does peak when you're in your early thirties and then declines after that. But there's another intelligence curve, which social psychologists call the crystallized intelligence curve, that goes up through your 30s 40s 50s 60s stays high in your 70s
-Knowledge, wisdom, social and emotional intelligence
Synthetic thinking, your ability to creatively explain all the stuff that you know, it's being a teacher. So here's the key thing that we got to understand. You're not going to be able to be on the innovation curve your whole life. It's going to decline, it's going to decline sooner than you think.
The key is jumping onto your instruction curve, to jump onto the curve of becoming a teacher, of becoming somebody who explains. And that's a really great thing. If you're basically in the early part of your 30, 35 and you're an innovator and by the time you're moving into your 50s, you're supervising others, you're bringing other people's careers along. You're explaining ideas. In a way, you and I were academics, it's ideal.
-Sort of. Except we did it backward by starting to teach way too young.
That's true, although, you know you think about it, you and I were writing academic journal articles when we were in our thirties and you know the blinding insight, right? That's the fluid intelligence and now what you're doing, you're younger than I am, What we try to do as we get older is synthesize a lot of knowledge and explain in a big way. I wrote this Atlantic piece because I'm trying to use my crystallized intelligence. I'm 55 years old you know and I'm not going to put stuff into test tubes and come up with you know sort of biotech firm.
It's just not going to happen. However I can go into my library and take out certain books and say gather around my friends because I have discovered by combining all the knowledge of these other people being a teacher and each person can do that. We don't have to write Atlantic articles or teach it at University of Pennsylvania but what we can do.
Each one of us in our own way is figure out how sharing knowledge, how developing other people, how bringing together good ideas is our future.
-Don't you think that's a form of innovation?
Yeah it is a form of innovation including crystallized intelligence.
It's an artificial distinction to a certain extent but we do find if you're trying to invent something that nobody's ever thought of before, you're going to get worse at that if you're trying to bring together the ideas that other people have thought of into something that's better and new you're going to get better at that.
-Oh good. That's the only part of creativity I was ever good at anyway, so this is encouraging!
You're a synthetic thinker.
-I've always been. I do have to say you made a very weird decision, at the end of this article, which is you said basically I'm retiring. Yes. And I was so surprised that a social scientist would make a personal decision based on aggregate data because it's possible that you at 72 are still more of a genius than your peers at 22. So how did you make that call?
Well the problem is not how I compare to others it's how I compare myself. This is what's really frustrating in a lot of people who are watching us. It's not that I'm better than the guy in the next cube or worse, it's that I'm not as good as I was last year and that's intensely frustrating to people who are at a high level.
-You can see that though? You can feel it?
I know that I'm actually a lot worse at writing new papers, you know with brand new insights, than I was able to do before, and I know what's coming as well.
-You don't think that's just a self-fulfilling prophecy?
You know it's possible.
-You've read the data and now you're convinced by them. You're a data-driven guy, as am I.
Absolutely. However, I also don't want to play the odds. And so, when I say I'm retiring, I'm simply leaving my executive position running a think tank in Washington D.C. "retiring is retiring" I mean I'm going to be a college professor at Harvard University. I'm going to teach people I'm going to synthesize ideas I'm going to write books about you know ideas that are the synthesis of a lot of other people's ideas. I'm going to live this out. So it's not really retiring, it's basically saying look, I don't want to play and I might I might defy gravity. You know, this stuff might not be right but if I actually believe the preponderance of my evidence it makes sense that I would live according to this so I have a better shot at being happier as I get older. And that's why I did it.
-All right. Well I can't argue with betting on happiness in the long run although I think that if the article undermines everybody else's happiness that would be a very sad thing. But I was surprised. I actually enjoyed it. I found it uplifting. I was even maybe a little bit inspired by your choice to say,
I inspired Adam Grant. That blows my mind.
-I'm reluctant to admit it but it's at least the second time you've done it. And so you know there's hope for economists.
I honestly believe that those of us in the idea business we have two jobs: lift people up and bring them together. Those are our two jobs. And if you can lift people up so they can be better than they were, So they can fulfill their best selves. They can understand their own dignity and potential and you can bring people together. So there's more love. What's not to like? And you just told me I did that for you and you've done that for me too. You're doing it beautifully.
Read Arthur Brooks' full Atlantic article here: Your Professional Decline Is Coming (Much) Sooner Than You Think