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Your Professional Decline Is Coming (Much) Sooner Than You Think

https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2019/07/work-peak-professional-decline/590650/

theatlantic.com

Your Professional Decline Is Coming (Much) Sooner Than You Think
Here’s how to make the most of it.

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Well-being of adults

Well-being of adults
  • Studies show that most adults' happiness declines through their 30s and 40s, then hit a low in their early 50s.
  • After that, studies show that, in wealthier countries, most people's contentment starts to increase again in their 50s, until about age 70.
  • After 70, some people stay happy, while others get happier until death.
  • Men, in particular, see their happiness decrease after age 75.
  • Researchers set out to find what drives the unhappiness of people after age 75. In short, it is irrelevance.
  • Senior citizens who seldom feel useful are nearly three times as likely as those who frequently feel useful to develop a mild disability.

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The memory of past success

Current achievements provide happiness, but the memory of past accomplishments do not appear to produce long-lasting happiness.


The waning of ability in people of high accomplishment is particularly difficult psychologically. Retired athletes struggle profoundly after their sports career ends. They are prone to depression, addiction, or suicide.

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"Unhappy is he who depends on success to be happy. For such a person, the end of a successful career is the end of the line. His destiny is to die of bitterness or to search for more success in other careers and to go on living from success to success until he falls dead. In this case, there will not be life after success."

Alex Dias Ribeiro

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The principle of Psychoprofessional Gravitation

It is the idea that if you reach professional heights and are deeply invested in being high up, you can suffer greatly when you inevitably decline.

In many professions, we may reject the inevitability of decline before a very old age. But the data are clear that for most people, in most fields, decline starts earlier than expected. According to research, success and productivity increase for the first 20 years after the inception of a career. If you start a career at 30, your best work will be produced around 50, and decline after that.

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How to deal with a professional decline

Some people have managed their declines well.

When the musical career of Johann Sebastian Bach declined, instead of becoming depressed or discouraged, he chose to redesign his life, moving from composer to instructor. In his later years, he lived a quieter life as a teacher and family man.

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Fluid and crystallized intelligence

  • Fluid intelligence is the ability to reason, analyze, and solve unique problems. It is highest in early adulthood and diminishes in one's 30s and 40s.
  • Crystallized intelligence is the ability to use knowledge gained in the past. It relies on accumulated knowledge, tends to increase through one's 40s, and does not diminish until very late in life.

Careers that rely on fluid intelligence tend to peak early, while those that use more crystallized intelligence peak later. Profound insights tend to come from those in their 30s and early 40s. The best explainers of complicated ideas tend to be in their mid-60s unto well into their 80s.

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The reverse bucket list

Many wealthy people keep on working to increase their wealth far beyond what they could possibly spend. They often do it because they get a sense of self-worth from it. However, focusing on acquisition leads to attachment and vanity, which derails the search for happiness.

Instead of acquiring more, we should strip things away. Our lives are not a canvas to fill, but more like a block of marble to chip away and shape something out of. Each year's goal should be to throw out things and obligations until a refined self is revealed.

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The two kinds of virtues

There are two kinds of virtues:

  • Résumé virtues. These are professional and geared toward worldly success.
  • Eulogy virtues. These are ethical and spiritual. They are what you want people to talk about at your funeral. "He was kind and deeply spiritual," not "He made senior vice president and had a lot of frequent-flier miles."



We live a most fulfilling life, especially when we reach midlife, by pursuing virtues that are meaningful to us.

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A guide for the remainder of your life

Acceptance of the natural cadence of our abilities allows the shifting of attention to higher spiritual and life priorities.

  • Jump: Let go when you have reached your peak accomplishment, perhaps before you are completely ready. You don't necessarily have to quit your job, but be content to walk into the next stage of life.
  • Serve: Move from activities focused on the self to activities focused on others. Focus on teaching or mentorship, sharing ideas in the service of others.
  • Worship: Bach said that "the aim and final end... should be none other than the glory of God and the refreshment of the soul." Whatever your metaphysical convictions, refreshment of the soul can be the aim of your work.
  • Connect: Happiness is directly tied to one's relationships. Dedicate more time to relationships, and less to work.

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Quételet, the mathematician turned astronomer who was performing social physics miracles as the central figure of Belgium science, got better in his game by learning probability theory and making use of his polymath brain. His work included estimations and calculations using the available data and his mathematical and statistical skills. Instead of counting everyone to know the population, Quételet used some reasonable estimates and then multiplied the number of births per year with the ratio of the total population to the annual births.

The new methodology was published in Quételet’s books in the 19th century, like Social Physics (1835) and its newer editions, and caught the imagination of the public. Concepts like the Average Man and the Bell Curve (a normal probability of distribution) simplified complex statistics and made it accessible to the world while being easily quotable and comparable.

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Zeno of Citium

“We have two ears and one mouth, so we should listen more than we say.”

Zeno of Citium

Good listening

Good listening doesn't follow a technique as much as being willing to enter into another person's life.

Listening through the screen of your own desires means that you are listening to your own voice and desires. It is the same as not listening at all. Listening demands wiping the slate of your mind clean.

Not knowing what to say

Not knowing what to say when someone confides in you is a daunting feeling. However, we feel that way because we mistakenly think the person reaching out is asking for an explanation.

It is more important just to be there, so the other person doesn't feel alone.

Intelligence is not genius

Intelligence is not genius

Genius is not about having an extraordinarily high IQ, or even about being smart. It is not about finishing Mensa exercises in record time or mastering fourteen languages at the age of seven.

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Geniuses and problem solving

Leonardo da Vinci believed you begin by learning how to restructure the problem by looking at it from many different angles.

In order to creatively solve a problem, the thinker should not use the usual approach that is based on past experience. Geniuses use several different perspectives to solve an existing problem and thereby also identify new ones.

Making your thoughts visible

_Galileo Galilei revolutionized science by making his idea visible with diagrams, maps, and drawings. Einstein believed that words and numbers as they are spoken did not play a significant role in his thinking process.

Geniuses seem to develop a skill to display information in visual and spatial forms, rather than only mathematical or verbal lines.