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.
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.