Your Professional Life is Declining and It’s About Time

I have been rummaging around for something to write about for a few weeks now. Our trek around Mt. Blanc starts later this week, so soon, there will be lots to write about soon. Then, a friend sent me this great essay by Arthur Brooks entitled Your Professional Decline Is Coming (Much) Sooner Than You Think. This is a great essay and if you are over the age of 20, I suggest that you read it.

There is lots of wisdom here and a fair amount of positive self-talk. Arthur Brooks is 51 and very accomplished. The essay reads a little like a therapy session for someone approaching the inevitable mid-life crisis. But it is the crisis of the accomplished written from the perspective of one who knows that they have done great things.

I don’t know if I can totally relate to what he is writing here, but he is a wonderful writer and I do think anyone can benefit from his perspective on growing older and going through transitions.

It is interesting that we live in a society that demographically, is growing older. The baby boom bulge still moves through the fair outdistancing in numbers the young generations that follow. Funny, in advertising, movies and media, in general, it is the young who triumph, but this is not a reflection of reality.

But, I digress. Brooks focusses in the essay on an encounter on an airplane with a man who enjoyed glory and recognition but now languishes in relative obscurity. He listens in as the man despairs of his life and the loss of fame and importance:

I didn’t mean to eavesdrop, but couldn’t help it. I listened with morbid fascination, forming an image of the man in my head as they talked. I imagined someone who had worked hard all his life in relative obscurity, someone with unfulfilled dreams—perhaps of the degree he never attained, the career he never pursued, the company he never started.

He is shocked later to realize that the man is not labouring in obscurity, but is world famous! Here’s the rub – those who achieve great things in life are doomed to suffer later obscurity – unless, and this is the theme of the essay – they avoid the trap of not seeing their way into some new version of themselves.

In the essay, he writes about two people who have come down to us as great thinkers and creators – Charles Darwin and J.S. Bach. One Darwin grew increasingly unhappy and dissatisfied with his life the older he got. The other Bach transformed himself from a performer to a teacher. His later years were happy and he continued to work right to the end.

Depressed in his later years, he wrote to a close friend, “I have not the heart or strength at my age to begin any investigation lasting years, which is the only thing which I enjoy.”

The difference between the two was how they dealt with transition in life. Many of the most innovative and creative thinkers actually experience decline relatively early in life. Brooks writes that as a young performer, he was a gifted French-horn player. Early on, he had visions of being a great, famous player. This was not to be. By the age of 20, he already saw evidence that his performing skills were in decline:

But then, in my early 20s, 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 great 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.

While he continued to play professionally for another 10 years, he never recovered the lustre of his early playing days. At the age of 30, he abandoned his musical career and returned to school.

From this time on he started learning a really valuable lesson. Sometimes it is truly wise to leave before you really think you are ready, before you think your time is up. To be able to transition on to the next stage in life, you have to move on, you can’t linger.

This is a really hard thing to do. For so many of us, we are defined by what we do. Our profession can define our lives, our status gives us our value. To move beyond this can mean a loss of self and a loss of status.

I understand this. Maybe this article was written for me. Leaving education at the top of my game has often made me wonder if I did the right thing. There is certainly some status that comes with being a principal. People pay attention to you. You are sought after because you are seen as a leader in the education system. When you leave, that status quickly dissipates.

This is OK if you realize you need to make a transition to another stage of life. You can’t be like the man on the plane or Charles Darwin lamenting that your best years are behind you. You have to remake yourself.

Brooks writes about the four stages in life or ashramas in the Hindu tradition. The key is to move through the stages and not get stuck in the middle. It is the second stage – Grihastha where people can get overly attached to power, fame, status and all that comes with it. In Brooks’ analysis, Darwin got stuck in the second stage and never grew from there.

What I want to learn more about is the third phase – Vanaprastha, meaning retirement or ‘into the forest. Vanaprastha calls for a shift in focus away from the status that defines us earlier in life towards a focus on spirituality, service and wisdom. We can’t make it to this important stage unless we let go, possibly at the height of our status. To hang on only leads to stagnation:

But the wisdom of Hindu philosophy—and indeed the wisdom of many philosophical traditions—suggests that you should be prepared to walk away from these rewards before you feel ready. Even if you’re at the height of your professional prestige, you probably need to scale back your career ambitions in order to scale up your metaphysical ones.

This really speaks to me and maybe this will be a guidepost for the future. I can’t hold on to the past and clinging to what I did before in education results in the frustration of diminishing returns. Education is not my life anymore and I need to progress and focus more on what challenges exist in developing wisdom and learning how to serve better.

Brooks finishes off with four goals that he is going to work on. I think I will borrow these and see where it takes me. First, – Jump – walk away on your own terms. In other words, don’t wait to be pushed out!

Next – Serve – I think I am getting this one figured out. There is no question (as we pack our bags) that there is a true richness to the work we are doing in developing the Climb for Kids project. We leave in a day for 14 days of trekking around Mont Blanc and our group is getting close to the $35,000 mark in funds raised for recreational programming for inner city kids here in Ottawa.

The next two – Worship and Connect – are a work in progress, but I see the wisdom in both of these goals. I really see the need to connect better with people. Not necessarily more people, but connect more deeply with family and some friends. I do need to work on Worship – one of the institutions I have left behind as I transition is the traditional church – here is a goal that needs more attention and thought on my part.

I am writing this post mainly for myself. Like Brooks, I think I am engaging in some positive self-talk. Life is a wonderful journey, but you have to keep moving and continually grow. The sticky point has been reached and I am slowly moving to new ground.

Lots to think about as I saunter through the mountains in the next two weeks.

 

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The Importance of Preparing: Christie Lake Climb for Kids Goes Back to the Mountains

We are leaving in 20 days.

For seven months our group of trekkers have been training, fundraising and learning together to get ready for an epic journey around Mont Blanc. Three countries, 170 km. With only 20 days before we leave my attention is turning towards the mental preparation necessary to do this trek well.

Just like last year in Peru, everything changes when you make it to the mountain. All the planning and preparation comes down to the 14 days we are in the mountains. The word that resonates with me right now is preparation. Educators all know about how to prep, it is what makes all the difference for a successful school year. Getting ready for the Tour de Mont Blanc is like one long prep. We certainly have had the time, now we are moving to the front of the room.

The prep takes place on several levels but I am not going to catalogue it here. That is not interesting at all. But there are elements that are good to write about.

First, training the body is an essential part of the voyage and it is really liberating.

Focussing on your body and seeing it as your vehicle for success is not something we normally do. We usually take our bodies and our physical health for granted. Cars take us to work and even if we work out we seldom see ourselves as the vehicle. I really like the Chase Mountains series of Youtube videos because he is all about prepping for the climb.

The video above is really helpful as he breaks down the type of physical preparation you need to do to be successful on the mountain. Take a look at this video – it is pretty short. The one big thing, the one thing that takes a really long time is mobility – up to 3-6 months! My mobility is terrible, but I have been working at it for months. Recently (too late for sure) I have started doing more yoga. My 61-year old body simply isn’t as mobile as it used to be.

Mobility training, certainly a work in progress

One other person who I follow who really speaks to preparation is Elia Saikaly. I have followed him for years and he has spoken to students in three schools I have worked in. He has lots to say to kids, especially those who struggle to fit in. As a young person, Elia lived on the streets, got kicked out of several schools and rebelled against all authority. His story of turning things around is compelling.

The Unclimbed Series featuring Elia and fellow climber Gabriel Filippi is really interesting. In episode 3, Elia focusses on preparation. This is really worth watching if you plan to take on any really challenging task. You don’t have to be planning for the summit of an 8000m mountain. Your challenge is unique to yourself. The preparation, however, has to be done. It is partly physical, mental and I would say spiritual as well.

It is a comfort to be focussing on the physical. The trip planning and the fundraising are just about done. We are on track to raise $35,000 for Christie Lake Kids and with last year’s campaign, we have raised over $60,000 for inner city kids in Ottawa. One program – STEM education for girls actually started because of the fundraising we are doing.

Preparation allows for transformation. Physical prepping transforms your body and mind. Good program prepping is transforming the lives of low-income kids in Ottawa.

Transformative Recreation® is our unique way to engage kids in having fun, but also a powerful way to help them develop the values & skills that will help them to change the way they look at themselves, their relationships & the world around them.

CLK Website

Good preparation allows you to tell important stories – Elia has done this for years. The Climb for Albinism is a wonderful example of how this can all come together to produce something important and good.

These trips need careful prepping. Preparation can lead to something important. What is true for the classroom is equally true for adventures that raise awareness and support Transformative Recreation.

There is lots of video material to look at in this post. It all helps to explain why we prepare. Here is one more, a quick summary of what we have done this year to get ready for Climb for Kids II.

Soon we will have an inReach map up on the Christie Lake Kids website so you can follow us in the trek around Mont Blanc. Hope you follow us. Hope you contribute.

what our Inreach map will look like – it will be updated every day with new waypoints showing where we are going.

When we return, we still start to prep for Year III. Life is all about good prep.

To Be a Pilgrim

Who would true valour see, Let him come hither
One here will constant be, Come wind, come weather.
There’s no discouragement
Shall make him once relent His first avowed intent,
To be a pilgrim

John Bunyan

Pilgrim – person who journeys to a sacred place; a traveller or wanderer.

Lightfoot Companion to the Via Francigena

symbol for the Via Francigena

Retirement is a funny thing. After decades of defining oneself by an occupation, the time comes where your definition needs to come from somewhere else. It is a different journey with fewer signposts.

After two and a half years, I think I am putting some of the pieces together. While there is work from time to time, retirement for me is becoming defined by the sojourn. This was not the plan, but it seems to resonate.

Two years ago I climbed to the top of Mt. Kilimanjaro and entered the world of thin air and extreme trekking. Later, I travelled the old military roads of the Scottish Highlands with my daughter Colleen. The following year, on our first Climb for Kids trek, we climbed the sacred ground around Ausangate in Peru.

Colleen finds the Braveheart Car Park on the West Highland Way

My son Liam and I followed this up by walking the Pathway of the Gods in Amalfi. We also traced ancient Roman ruins at Pompeii and Rome. Very soon, our second Climb for Kids group will be trekking 170 km around Mont Blanc.

Liam and I starting another trek on the Amalfi Coast

Now I am starting to plan for my longest journey, part of the Via Francigena next October. We are also actively planning for Year III of Climb for Kids. The next trek will be an epic climb, but we won’t announce this one until the end of the summer.

I think what is happening here is that in my retirement I am becoming a pilgrim. There is an ‘avowed intent’ that is linking all of these walks. I think the most important intent is to connect or reconnect with people. On my treks in Scotland and Italy, I had the wonderful privilege of travelling first with my daughter Colleen then with my son Liam.

There is a true beauty in reconnecting with your adult children. We all change as we grow older and we all need to take the time to make sure our relationships stay vital and fresh. You can do this really well by walking and talking or sometimes just travelling in silence.

Climb for Kids is a wonderful experience for all sorts of reasons. I wrote about Year II last week and you can see that post here – Communities Move Mountains. This trek is about connecting too. Most importantly I get to travel and plan with my wonderful partner Heather Swail. We did our first high-altitude trek together last year in Peru and we experienced the beauty of the mountain together. After so many years together, it is still possible to learn things about your partner, especially when you are trekking under conditions of high physical stress.

Heather reaches the high pass at 5200 m with her buddy Beth

We have a great group this year and we will learn a great deal about each other as we travel around the highest mountain in Europe. Mountains take you to another place. They help you to hold others who travel with you in higher regard. They help you to gain a greater respect for yourself and for what you are able to do. The mountains truly make you a pilgrim.

There is a really good story that John Muir told about trekking. He never used the word hike and neither do I. He liked the word saunter because of its connection to an ancient practice.

Do you know the origin of that word ‘saunter?’ It’s a beautiful word. Away back in the Middle Ages people used to go on pilgrimages to the Holy Land, and when people in the villages through which they passed asked where they were going, they would reply, “A la sainte terre,’ ‘To the Holy Land.’ And so they became known as sainte-terre-ers or saunterers. Now these mountains are our Holy Land, and we ought to saunter through them reverently, not ‘hike’ through them.

John Muir

A Parable of Sauntering

So this is my saunter. It is defining much of what I do these days, although until now I didn’t know if I had put this together. I still have to start writing about the Via Francigena and I will either soon or after the TMB. There is so much to learn and a world to saunter in. Each journey takes me to another holy land and I guess that makes me a pilgrim.

Acclimatization camp on Mt. Kilimanjaro