Sometimes I finish reading something that makes me jump out of my socks. But not today. I am still processing Arthur Brooks’ article in the latest Atlantic, “Your Professional Decline is Coming (Much) Sooner Than You Think.” It’s a candid look at degeneration. Why do I read this stuff? Who likes to read about the obvious? It’s so great to know that there comes a time things deteriorate. Regression, falloff, turn down, decay—take your pick.
As it turns out, it really is must-reading. And not just for folks who are in that period of life when their birthday cards are filled with fart jokes, when the arthritis is rewarding you for all of those years on the tennis court, and when the vision is starting to see other things on the road. I wish I had read some of this before I was twenty-five.
Brooks has been doing a lot of research, and the data reveals that people in most fields decline much earlier than they think. Ugh! For some, the years of productivity last until about 50 and then diminish rapidly. In truth, inventors and entrepreneurs do their best producing only into their 30’s, and then there is the drop-off. Poets peak in their early 40’s. Fluid intelligence does not have a long shelf life.
A couple of years ago, I began approaching men in their third third of life. Every other week, I and a band of brothers connect via Zoom and work through important questions. I began to realize we have to be talking about these things now. There’s not a lot out there to guide people in this last chapter. As Brooks notes, there is no section in bookstores marked, “Managing Your Professional Decline.” Which might explain why so many are lost after their careers are over. It is not hard to find examples of men—and women—who have moved into a deep depression in their early 60’s (the average American retires at 61).
One of the most painful words one confronts is irrelevancy. In a season when one has the accumulated years of education, experience, and resources—when one can potentially be leveraged for his/her greatest usefulness–society tends to begin marginalizing. It’s one of life’s great ironies. And it’s not just with those around us. One can begin to wonder if God feels the same way.
I went on one of those great late afternoon walks yesterday, meditating on Psalm 71. It began just fine. The Psalmist celebrates how God has been his rock and his hope. He has been powerfully used of God, such that his life is a marvel to many. And then cognitive dissonance takes over. A terror comes over him, leading him to plead, “Do not cast me off in the time of old age; do not forsake me when my strength fails (v 9).” Even the psalmist feared God would move on. And suddenly this became my dread. What if God is doing what culture tends to do with those who are older—treat them like square dancers at a rave?
It doesn’t have to be this way. Not by a long shot. Brooks is convinced that if one maps out a road where one jumps, serves, worships, and connects—the most fruitful years might lie ahead. But we will have to begin to strip things off. Accept the natural cadence of our abilities. Climb the second mountain (as David Brooks puts it). Purposefully focus on less professional ambition. Get further down into the substrate—move from vocation to summons. Less about self—more about going deeper with others. Make the shift from the emphasis on doing to being.
Today, looking out at a river that never changes (in contrast to me) I grabbed my journal and began to strategize what really matters in this season of my life. I started asking the deeper questions—
-who am I mentoring? Need to pour into?
-who do I intend to go deep with?
-how can I leverage what God has done in my life?
-where is the place Heather and I need to settle? Up here in the solitude, or back in Portland with relationships? How do I make the years count with Nate and Kate?
-am I okay with becoming less in love with things, achievements, status, personal goals—and more in love with God?
-am I okay–more than okay–with these questions?