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From Strength to Strength by Arthur C. Brooks Book

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From Strength to Strength by Arthur C. Brooks Book Read Online And Epub File Download

Overview: The roadmap for finding purpose, meaning, and success as we age, from bestselling author, Harvard professor, and the Atlantic's happiness columnist Arthur Brooks.

Many of us assume that the more successful we are, the less susceptible we become to the sense of professional and social irrelevance that often accompanies aging. But the truth is, the greater our achievements and our attachment to them, the more we notice our decline, and the more painful it is when it occurs.

What can we do, starting now, to make our older years a time of happiness, purpose, and yes, success?

At the height of his career at the age of 50, Arthur Brooks embarked on a seven-year journey to discover how to transform his future from one of disappointment over waning abilities into an opportunity for progress. From Strength to Strength is the result, a practical roadmap for the rest of your life.

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From Strength to Strength by Arthur C. Brooks Book Read Online Chapter One

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

Who are the five greatest scientists who have ever lived? This is the kind of question people like to debate in nerdy corners of the internet that you probably don’t visit, and I don’t intend to take you there. But no matter how much or little you know about science, your list is sure to contain Charles Darwin. He is remembered today as a man who changed our understanding of biology completely and permanently. So profound was his influence that his celebrity has never wavered since his death in 1882.

And yet Darwin died considering his career to be a disappointment.

Let’s back up. Darwin’s parents wanted him to be a clergyman, a career for which he had little enthusiasm or aptitude. As such, he was a lackluster student. His true love was science, which made him feel happy and alive. So it was the opportunity of a lifetime to him—“by far the most important event in my life,” he later called it—when, in 1831 at age twenty-two, he was invited to join the voyage of The Beagle, a scientific sailing investigation around the world. For the next five years aboard the ship, he collected exotic plant and animal samples, sending them back to England to the fascination of scientists and the general public.

This was impressive enough to make him pretty well-known. When he returned home at age twenty-seven, however, he started an intellectual fire with his theory of natural selection, the idea that over generations, species change and adapt, giving us the multiplicity of plants and animals we see after hundreds of millions of years. Over the next thirty years, he developed his theory and published it in books and essays, his reputation growing steadily. In 1859, at age fifty, he published his magnum opus and crowning achievement, On the Origin of Species, a bestseller explaining his theory of evolution that made him into a household name and changed science forever.

At this point, however, Darwin’s work stagnated creatively: he hit a wall in his research and could not make new breakthroughs. Around that same time, a Czech monk by the name of Gregor Mendel discovered what Darwin needed to continue his work: the theory of genetics. Unfortunately, Mendel’s work was published in an obscure German academic journal and Darwin never saw it—and in any case, Darwin (who, remember, had been an unmotivated student) did not have the mathematical or language skills to understand it. Despite his writing numerous books later in life, his work after that broke little ground.

In his last years, Darwin was still very famous—indeed, after his death he was buried as a national hero in Westminster Abbey—but he was increasingly unhappy about his life, seeing his work as unsatisfying, unsatisfactory, and unoriginal. “I have not the heart or strength at my age to begin any investigations lasting years, which is the only thing which I enjoy,” he confessed to a friend. “I have everything to make me happy and contented, but life has become very wearisome to me.”[1]

Darwin was successful by the world’s standards, washed up by his own. He knew that by all worldly rights, he had everything to make him “happy and contented” but confessed that his fame and fortune were now like eating straw. Only progress and new successes such as he enjoyed in his past work could cheer him up—and this was now beyond his abilities. So he was consigned to unhappiness in his decline. Darwin’s melancholy did not abate, by all accounts, before he died at seventy-three.

I’d like to be able to tell you that Darwin’s decline and unhappiness in old age were as rare as his achievements, but that’s not true. In fact, Darwin’s decline was completely normal, and right on schedule. And if you, like Darwin, have worked hard to be exceptional at what you do, you will almost certainly face a similar pattern of decline and disappointment—and it will come much, much sooner than you think.

The surprising earliness of decline

Unless you follow the James Dean formula—“Live fast, die young, leave a good-looking corpse”—you know that your professional, physical, and mental decline is inevitable. You probably just think it’s a long, long way off.

You’re not alone in thinking this. For most people, the implicit belief is that aging and its effect on professional performance are something that happen far in the future. This attitude explains all kinds of funny survey results. For example, when asked in 2009 what “being old” means, the most popular response among Americans was “turning eighty-five.”[2] In other words, the average American (who lives to seventy-nine) dies six years before entering old age.

Here is the reality: in practically every high-skill profession, decline sets in sometime between one’s late thirties and early fifties. Sorry, I know that stings. And it gets worse: the more accomplished one is at the peak of one’s career, the more pronounced decline seems once it has set in.

Obviously, you aren’t just going to take my word for this, so let’s take a look at the evidence.

We’ll start with the most obvious, and earliest, decline: athletes. Those playing sports requiring explosive power or sprinting see peak performance from twenty to twenty-seven years of age, while those playing endurance sports peak a bit later—but still as young adults.[3] No surprise there—no one expects a serious athlete to remain competitive until age sixty, and most of the athletes I talked to for this book (there aren’t any surveys asking when people expect to experience their physical decline, so I started doing so informally) figured they would have to find a new line of work by the time they were thirty. They don’t love this reality, but they generally face it.

It’s a much different story for what we now call “knowledge workers”—most people reading this book, I would guess. Among people in professions requiring ideas and intellect rather than athletic skill and significant physical strength, almost no one admits expecting decline before their seventies; some later than that. Unlike athletes, however, they are not facing reality.

Take scientists. Benjamin Jones, a professor of strategy and entrepreneurship at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University, has spent years studying when people are most likely to make prizewinning scientific discoveries and key inventions. Looking at major inventors and Nobel winners going back more than a century, Jones finds that the most common age for great discovery is one’s late thirties. He shows that the likelihood of a major discovery increases steadily through one’s twenties and thirties and then declines dramatically through one’s forties, fifties, and sixties. There are outliers, of course. But the probability of producing a major innovation at age seventy is approximately equal to what it was at age twenty—about zero.[4]

That fact no doubt inspired Paul Dirac, the Nobel Prize–winning physicist, to pen a little melancholy verse about how age is every physicist’s curse. It ends with these two lines:

He is better dead than living still

when once he is past his thirtieth year.

Dirac won the prize when he was thirty-one years old, for work he had done in his midtwenties. By his thirtieth birthday, he had developed a general theory of the quantum field, the area in which he had earned his PhD at Cambridge (at age twenty-four). At twenty-eight he wrote The Principles of Quantum Mechanics, a textbook still in use today. At thirty he was a chaired professor at Cambridge. And after that? He was an active scholar and made a few breakthroughs. But it was nothing like the early years. Hence his poem.

Of course, Nobel winners might be different than ordinary scientists. Jones, with a coauthor, dug deeper into the data on researchers in physics, chemistry, and medicine who had highly cited work, as well as patents and various prizes. They found that peak performance is occurring at later ages than in the past, principally because the knowledge required to do cutting-edge work has increased so much over the decades. Still, since 1985, the peak age is not old: for physicists, fifty; for chemistry, forty-six; and for medicine, forty-five. After that, innovation drops precipitously.

Other knowledge fields follow the same basic pattern. For writers, decline sets in between about forty and fifty-five.[5] Financial professionals reach peak performance between the ages of thirty-six and forty.[6] Or take doctors: they appear to peak in their thirties, with steep drop-offs in skill as the years pass.[7] It’s sort of reassuring to have a doctor who reminds people my age of Marcus Welby, MD. However, one recent Canadian study looked at 80 percent of the country’s anesthesiologists and patient litigation against them over a ten-year period. The researchers found that physicians over sixty-five are 50 percent more likely than younger doctors (under fifty-one) at being found at fault for malpractice.

Entrepreneurs are an interesting case when it comes to peak age. Tech founders often earn vast fame and fortune in their twenties but many are in creative decline by age thirty. The Harvard Business Review has reported that founders of enterprises backed with $1 billion or more in venture capital tend to cluster in the twenty to thirty-four age range. The number of founders older than this, they discovered, is low. Other scholars dispute this finding, claiming that the average age of the founders of the highest-growth start-ups is, in fact, forty-five.[8] But the point remains the same: by middle age, entrepreneurial ability is plummeting. Even by the most optimistic estimates, only about 5 percent of founders are over sixty.

The pattern isn’t limited to knowledge work; noticeable age-related decline comes earlier than people think in skilled jobs from policing to nursing. Peak performance is thirty-five to forty-four for equipment-service engineers and office workers; it is forty-five to fifty-four for semiskilled assembly workers and mail sorters.[9] The age-related decline among air-traffic controllers is so sharp—and the consequences of decline-related errors so dire—that the mandatory retirement age is fifty-six.[10]

Decline is so predictable that one scholar has built an eerily accurate model to predict it in specific professions. Dean Keith Simonton from the University of California, Davis, studied the pattern of professional decline among people in creative professions and built a model that estimates the shape of the average person’s career. Fitting curves to gigabytes of data, he created a graph that looks like figure 1.


Figure 1. Average work productivity after career inception for creative and scholarly careers[11]

On average, the peak of creative careers occurs at about twenty years after career inception, hence the finding that people usually start declining somewhere between thirty-five and fifty. This is averaged across lots of fields, however, and Simonton found a fair amount of variation. For example, he has looked at the “half-life” of many professions—the age at which half of one’s work has been produced. That would more or less correspond, on average, with the highest point in the graph. A group that closely tracks this twenty-year half-life is novelists, who generally do half their work before, and half after, 20.4 years from the start of their writing careers. Also close to this are mathematicians, who have a half-life of 21.7 years. Slightly earlier are poets, who hit their half-life after 15.4 years. Slightly later are geologists, at 28.9 years.

Let’s think what this means for a moment. Say you are involved in a quantitative field—you are a data analyst, for example. If you finish your education and start your career at twenty-two, you will, on average, hit your professional peak at forty-four and then start to see your skills decline. Now say you are a poet—freshly minted with a master of fine arts degree at age twenty-five. Simonton’s data show that you will burn through half your life’s work by about age forty and be in productivity decline after that. On the other hand, if you are a geologist, your peak will tend to come closer to fifty-four.

For me, early decline is personal

When I started this research, I was especially keen to see if the decline patterns applied to musicians, especially classical musicians. There are some famous cases of classical musicians who go on and on, performing into old age. In 1945, double bass player Jane Little joined the Atlanta Symphony at the tender age of sixteen. She retired seventy-one years later at the age of eighty-seven. (Well, she didn’t exactly retire: she actually died onstage during a concert while performing “There’s No Business Like Show Business.”)[12]

Ms. Little is not the norm, however; most retire much earlier. And arguably, retirement happens too late. In surveys, classical musicians report that peak performance occurs in one’s thirties. Younger players often groan over the prime spots occupied by older players with tenure—orchestras have tenure just like universities—who hang around long after they’ve lost their edge. The problem is, these older players often can’t admit decline even to themselves. “It’s very hard to admit that it’s time,” said one fifty-eight-year-old French horn player in the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra. “We’re expert at denial. We have been successful because we refuse to accept the overwhelming odds at making it in our profession, so early in our development denial is a positive.”[13]

That French horn player wasn’t me. But it could have been, in a parallel life.

As a child, in fact, I had just one goal: to be the world’s greatest French horn player. I practiced my horn slavishly, hours and hours a day, playing in any ensemble I could find. I had pictures of famous horn players on my bedroom wall for inspiration. I went to all the best music festivals and studied with the greatest teachers available to a lower-middle-class kid in Seattle. I was always the best player, the first chair.

For a while, I thought my young life’s dream might come true. At nineteen, I left college to take a job playing professionally in a touring chamber-music ensemble. We played one hundred concerts a year, driving around the country in an oversized van. I didn’t have health insurance and rent day was always nerve-wracking, but by the age of twenty-one I had seen all fifty states and fifteen foreign countries and made albums that occasionally I would hear on the radio. My dream was to rise through the classical-music ranks in my twenties, join a top symphony orchestra in a few years, and then become a soloist—the most exalted job a classical musician can hold.

But then, in my early twenties, a strange thing happened: I started getting worse. To this day, I have no idea why. My technique began to suffer, and I had no explanation for it. Nothing helped. I visited famous teachers and practiced more, but I couldn’t get back to where I had been. Pieces that had been easy to play became hard; pieces that had been hard became impossible.

Perhaps the worst moment in my young but flailing career was at Carnegie Hall in New York City. While delivering a short speech about the music I was about to play, I stepped forward, lost my footing, and fell off the stage into the audience. On the way home from the concert, I mused darkly that the experience was surely a message from God.

Whether from God or not, I didn’t listen to that message. I had no concept of myself apart from “great French horn player.” I would rather have died than given up.

I sputtered along for nine more years. At twenty-five, I took a position in the City Orchestra of Barcelona, where I increased my practicing but my playing continued to deteriorate. After a few years, I found a job teaching at a small music conservatory in Florida, hoping for a magical turnaround that never materialized.

Realizing that maybe I ought to hedge my bets, without telling a soul but my wife (I felt ashamed) I went back to college via distance learning. I never met a professor or set foot in a classroom and earned my bachelor’s degree in economics a month before my thirtieth birthday. For me, graduation day meant walking out to the mailbox in my slippers to pick up my diploma. On the envelope was prominently written DO NOT FOLD. It was folded.

I secretly continued my studies at night, earning a master’s degree in economics a year later. I kept up my practicing and continued to make my living as a musician all the while, hoping against hope that I’d see a comeback in my skills.

It didn’t happen. And so, at thirty-one, I admitted defeat: I was never going to turn around my faltering musical career. But what else to do with my life? I reluctantly went into the family business. My father was an academic; his father was an academic. I abandoned my musical aspirations and started a PhD.

Life goes on, right? Sort of. After finishing my studies, I became a university professor engaged in social science research and teaching—work I enjoyed a lot. But I still thought every day about my beloved first, and true, vocation. Even now, I regularly dream that I am onstage. I can hear the orchestra and see the audience. I am in the zone of blissful musical flow, playing better than ever . . . and I wake to remember that my childhood aspirations are now only phantasms.

In truth, I’m lucky. I now know that my decline was coming, and I just got it a decade or two earlier than is ordinarily the case. As such, I was able to accommodate it early enough that I could redirect my life into a new line of intellectual work. Still, to this day, the sting of that early decline makes these words difficult to write. I vowed to myself that it wouldn’t ever happen to me again.

But of course, the data don’t lie: it will happen again.

Why we decline, and how it affects us

For most people, decline is not just an unwelcome surprise; it is also a huge mystery. We learn early on that practice makes perfect; there is plenty of research telling us that mastery comes from ten thousand hours of work, or some really high number like that. In other words, life has a formula: the more you do something, the better at it you become.

But then you don’t. Progress isn’t a straight line upward, as figure 1 showed. So what explains the downward portion?

One early theory was that intelligence decreases with age. Researchers compared raw cognitive ability (IQ) across people of all ages and consistently found that young people do much better than older people. This led to the view that IQ falls as we age—and thus our abilities decline as well. However, this analysis was fundamentally flawed: it compared better educated people (who are generally younger) with those who grew up with fewer educational opportunities. Looking at individuals over time, researchers find that intelligence decreases are much less pronounced than the older studies showed.[14]

A better explanation involved structural changes in the brain—specifically, the changing performance of the prefrontal cortex (the part of the brain behind your forehead). This is the last part of the brain to develop in childhood and first to exhibit decline in adulthood. It is primarily responsible for working memory, executive function, and inhibitory mechanisms—that is, the ability to block out information extraneous to the task at hand, so we can focus and improve in our core skill. A big, strong prefrontal cortex makes it possible for you to get better and better at your specialty, whether it is making a legal case, doing surgery, or driving a bus.

In middle age, the prefrontal cortex degrades in effectiveness, and this has several implications. The first is that rapid analysis and creative innovation will suffer—just what we would expect when looking at the evidence on decline.[15] The second is that some specific, once-easy skills become devilishly hard, like multitasking. Older people are much more easily distracted than younger people. If you have—or had—teenage kids, you might have found yourself telling them they can’t study effectively while listening to music and texting their friends. Actually, it’s you who can’t do that. In fact, older adults can enhance their cognitive effectiveness precisely by taking their own advice: turn off the phone and music and go someplace completely quiet to think and work.[16]

Another skill is the recall of names and facts. By the time you are fifty, your brain is as crowded with information as the New York Public Library. Meanwhile, your personal research librarian is creaky, slow, and easily distracted. When you send him to get some information you need—say, someone’s name—he takes a minute to stand up, stops for coffee, talks to an old friend in the periodicals, and then forgets where he was going in the first place.[17] Meanwhile, you are kicking yourself for forgetting something you have known for years. When the librarian finally shows back up and says, “That guy’s name is Mike,” Mike is long gone and you are doing something else.

Despite the annoyances, some people deal with decline fairly well. Take the case of Paul Dirac, the Nobel-winning physicist who wrote the sad little poem about physicists being washed up by age thirty. His most important work and most intensely productive years were indeed in his twenties and early thirties. After his midthirties, he was still an active scholar and did some good work, but not like before.

He made the best of it, though. In what can only be regarded as a work of late-in-life genius, at seventy, Dirac left dreary Cambridge and accepted a professorship at Florida State University. He spent his later years taking in the sun and swimming; at FSU each day he would eat lunch with colleagues and then take a nap. He did continue to publish papers—without any dramatic results. His last paper deals with a research question he was never able to answer and ends with these honest words: “I have spent many years searching . . . and have not yet found it. I shall continue to work on it as long as I can, and other people, I hope, will follow along such lines.”[18]

Unfortunately, his equanimity is the exception to the rule. Take the case of Linus Pauling, the only individual to win two different Nobel Prizes in distinct fields. Like Dirac and so many others, his greatest insights came in his twenties. In his thirties he wrote his most famous book, The Nature of the Chemical Bond, which summarized his work from the previous decade. He won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1954 for his work on chemical bonds, which he had done decades earlier.

Pauling continued to do research in science after his great discoveries but began to spend more time on public activism in, some believe, an effort to stay in the limelight. After World War II, Pauling turned his attention to antinuclear crusading. As a Nobel-winning chemist and contemporary of the scientists who developed the atomic bomb, the anti-war movement in the United States and Europe elevated him to a position of major prominence.

Pauling was awarded a Nobel Peace Prize in 1962 for his work to abolish nuclear testing during the height of the Cold War. For obvious reasons, this made him a controversial political figure: to some he was a hero; to others, a scoundrel. The latter group highlighted the fact that he also won—and accepted—the Lenin Peace Prize from the Soviet Union in 1970.

Pauling’s hunger for relevance then led him to promote faddish, quasi-scientific ideas. He promoted eugenics, believing that people with certain genetic conditions, such as sickle-cell disease, should be prominently tattooed as a warning to potential mates. More famously, he became obsessed with his own theory that vitamins could cure a host of diseases, even cancer, and massively extend life. He promoted what he called “orthomolecular psychiatry” to treat mentally ill patients with massive doses of vitamins.

Most likely, you have been told that high doses of vitamin C can prevent colds; this theory comes from Pauling’s famous writings from the 1970s, which have been scientifically debunked many times, as were virtually all of his later ideas. Indeed, as Cambridge professor Stephen Cave documents, Pauling came to be known as something of a quack in mainstream medical circles and spent a good deal of the last decades of his life bitterly denouncing his many critics in science journals.[19]

The agony of irrelevance

I have no doubt that what made decline so hard for Pauling was that as his abilities declined, so did his relevance to the public. And whether we are famous or not, almost nothing feels worse than becoming irrelevant, or even useless, to others who once held us in esteem. I have heard this lament again and again as I did research for this book. For example, I talked to a rare-book dealer in New York. He loved his profession and enjoyed his career. But now . . . well, I’ll let him speak for himself.

I’ve been a rare-book dealer for my entire life; in business by twenty-four. I’ve been blessed—Bob Dylan, John Updike, J. M. Coetzee, Woodward and Bernstein, endless estates—Waugh, Pound, Churchill, Roosevelt. Twenty years ago at a dinner party folks would hang on what I had to say, anecdotes of travel in search of textual treasures, dealmaking. But over the last dozen years, I’ve seen myself through the eyes of the people across the table. What do they see? I guess I’d have to say “ yesterday.”

I spoke to a fifty-year-old woman working in a high-responsibility administrative post at a major university.

If they ever refine software enough to reduce human error to the point where human eyeballs are no longer needed to double-check the work, I’m out of a job. I figure I’ve got about five to ten years left. . . . I do try to hide my decline, for the time being, while I’m at work, even though I know I can’t hide it forever. I want time enough to make changes without losing my income, but if I get fired one day, oh well. Life goes on, or it doesn’t.

Or consider this, from a prominent female journalist in her fifties:

Many days I lack motivation to dive into another ten hours of very hard work. The cost of lost sleep or too much travel takes a toll on our bodies. We used to rebound quickly. Not anymore. The true decline happened a lot to my colleagues in their forties. From my outsider’s view it looked like a weariness had set in. Trudging out the door to another city council meeting/highway crash/murder/tax story—all things they had done one hundred times over the years. They were tired.

In 2007, a team of academic researchers at the University of California, Los Angeles, and Princeton University analyzed data on more than a thousand elderly people. Their findings, published in the Journal of Gerontology, showed that senior citizens who never or rarely “felt useful” were nearly three times as likely as those who frequently felt useful to develop a mild disability and more than three times as likely to have died during the course of the study.

You might reply that memories of past relevance should be enough for us. That is a common assumption people make as they try to accumulate a lot of money, power, and prestige—that they can “make it” once and for all. Life is a treasure hunt, this thinking goes—go out and find the pot of gold, and then you can enjoy it and be happy for the rest of your life, even after your glory days are past. Go get rich and retire early. Go get famous and bask in the experience after it is past. In my profession, go earn tenure and you will be all set. Then, when the success wanes, you can enjoy the memory of what you accomplished.

By this standard, the man on the plane I wrote about in the introduction should have been the happiest guy in the world. He was rich, famous, and respected for what he had done long ago. He had won the race! The same goes for Darwin and Pauling. But they weren’t happy, because that model is all wrong. It is based on a completely misbegotten model of human striving. In fact, had the man on the plane had an “ordinary” life—had he never accomplished something extraordinary—he might not have felt so miserably irrelevant today.

We might call this the “principle of psychoprofessional gravitation”: the idea that the agony of decline is directly related to prestige previously achieved, and to one’s emotional attachment to that prestige.[20] If you have low expectations and never do much (or do a lot but maintain a Buddha-like level of nonattachment to your professional prestige), you probably won’t suffer much when you decline. But if you attain excellence and are deeply invested in it, you can feel pretty irrelevant when you inevitably fall from those heights. And that is agony.

Great gifts and achievements early in life are simply not an insurance policy against suffering later on. On the contrary, studies show that people who have chased power and achievement in their professional lives tend to be unhappier after retirement than people who did not.[21]

Even simply being identified early on as gifted can lead to problems, according to Carole and Charles Holahan, psychologists at the University of Texas at Austin.[22] They looked at hundreds of elderly people who had been publicly identified as highly gifted early in life. The Holahans’ conclusion: “Learning at a younger age of membership in a study of intellectual giftedness was related to . . . less favorable psychological well-being at age eighty.”

The Holahans’ study may simply be showing that it’s hard to live up to high expectations, and that telling your kid she is a genius is pretty bad parenting. However, there is also evidence that high accomplishment affects people negatively when it finishes. Consider the case of professional athletes, many of whom struggle greatly after leaving their sports careers. Tragic examples abound, involving addiction or suicide; unhappiness in retired athletes may even be the norm, at least temporarily. I asked 1996 Olympic gold medal gymnast Dominique Dawes about how life feels after competing and winning at the highest levels. She told me that she enjoyed her normal life, but the adjustment wasn’t easy, and still isn’t. “My Olympic self will ruin my marriage and will leave my kids feeling inadequate,” she told me bluntly. “Living life as if every day is an Olympics only makes those around me miserable.” Dawes’s post-Olympic life has been specifically engineered to avoid the pitfalls people face after ultra-high achievement; she has a good marriage, kids, and is very serious about her Catholic faith. She doesn’t live in the past. Many other stars have not fared so well.

The fact that we can’t store up our glories and enjoy them when they are long past gets to the problem of dissatisfaction—a problem we will confront later in this book. Humans simply aren’t wired to enjoy an achievement long past. It is as if we were on a moving treadmill; satisfaction from success lasts but an instant. We can’t stop to enjoy it; if we do, we zip off the back of the treadmill and wipe out. So we run and run, hoping that the next success, greater than the last, will bring the enduring satisfaction we crave.

The decline problem is a double whammy, then: we need ever-greater success to avoid dissatisfaction, yet our abilities to stay even are declining. No, it’s actually a triple whammy, because as we try to stay even, we wind up in patterns of addictive behavior such as workaholism, which puts strivers into unhealthy relationship patterns at the cost of deep connection to spouses, children, and friends. By the time the wipeout occurs, there’s no one there to help us get up and dust off.

That leads many achievers into a vicious cycle: terrified of decline, dissatisfied with victories that come less and less frequently, hooked on the successes that are increasingly of the past, and isolated from others. And it’s not as if the world is overflowing with resources to help you. No one feels sorry for a successful person. The suffering of a striver with a comfortable life invokes the image of the world’s smallest violin.

And yet it is real.

Where we go from here

Here is the bottom line, fellow striver: when it comes to the enviable skills that you worked so hard to attain and that made you successful in your field, you can expect significant decline to come as soon as your thirties, or as late as your early fifties. That’s the deal, and it’s not fun. Sorry.

So what are you going to do about it? There are really only three doors you can go through here:

1. You can deny the facts and rage against decline—setting yourself up for frustration and disappointment.

2. You can shrug and give in to decline—and experience your aging as an unavoidable tragedy.

3. You can accept that what got you to this point won’t work to get you into the future—that you need to build some new strengths and skills.

If you choose door number 3, congratulations. There’s a bright future ahead. But it requires a bunch of new skills and a new way of thinking. 

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