The article I’m working off in this post requires a deep dive… (links at the bottom of this post) its lengthy and skims over a lot of data and ideas. Its also provocative in ways that you might make someone “dislike” it before they really dive into it. The major premise of the article is that most of us will experience a steep decline in fluid reasoning after age 50. Fluid reasoning (for those not familiar) is basically your ability to problem solve… in a unique situation how well do you make leaps of understanding and connect seemingly unrelated ideas to find a previously unknown way out of an untread predicament.
For the sake of the article its tied to ingenuity and innovation and the author (Arthur C Brooks who, at the time he wrote this in 2019, was the President of the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), a public policy think tank in Washington, DC., and is now a professor of public leadership and management practices at Harvard) is making the case that for people in leadership and creative positions will peak at age 50 and experience a sharp decline in effectiveness after that age as a matter of biological development (in other words… its out of their control). He will go through data on what age do people win literary awards, write great music, make scientific breakthroughs, etc. You will get insulted (if you are over 50) but don’t let him scare you off. His point is valuable, and he makes a lot of astute and helpful points along the way – each one worthy of an hour or two discussions. If his provocative premise is a decline in fluid reasoning after 50, his conclusion is this: your skills are shifting – so shift your expectations and job to match those shifting skills, and he will then compare how this was done in the life JS Bach versus Charles Darwin:
“What’s the difference between Bach and Darwin? Both were preternaturally gifted and widely known early in life. Both attained permanent fame posthumously. Where they differed was in their approach to the midlife fade. When Darwin fell behind as an innovator, he became despondent and depressed; his life ended in sad inactivity. When Bach fell behind, he reinvented himself as a master instructor. He died beloved, fulfilled, and—though less famous than he once had been—respected.
The lesson for you and me, especially after 50: Be Johann Sebastian Bach, not Charles Darwin.”
We’d all like to imagine that we will defy the odds. That isn’t how the odds work. And there is great wisdom in reminding ourselves of our mortality and what is simply a fact of nature: our skill sets change. A major league baseball player’s eye no longer catches the spin of the stitches… and they can’t hit the ball anymore. For me… a pesky disk in my back made my doctor tell me I had to stop running and really should not lift anything heavy… for the rest of forever. What? I’m only 45!! Apparently that argument doesn’t change anything. Facts are facts. This doesn’t have to be “bad”. It a matter of how we learn to live within this new world we didn’t ask for… can we alter our expectations for ourselves? Can we recognize the need to change what we expect of similar people around us?
There is a really popular refrain from an old Dylan Thomas poem that reads “Do not go gentle into that good night. Rage, rage against the dying of the light.” (Did you know that Bob Dylan changed his last name to Dylan in honor of Dylan Thomas… that’s a lot of Dylan.) This refrain is popularized in movies and funerals (or at least, movie funerals). Its one of those “excepted as universally wise” refrains. But is it, wise I mean, for us to rage against the dying of the light?
I’m not an either/or kind of guy. I like to “hold ideas in tension” so I’m not saying let’s throw out the idea of not succumbing to death… but do we really want to make our life about raging against the inevitable? Who benefits from this? You cannot fight death. You can seek life. I have always liked the idea of recognizing that there is a moment when we want to start paddling downstream and stop forcing ourselves to go forward in unlikely ways that requires nature to become our enemy.
What does it mean for us to recognize, and even accept our limits (or shifting gifts… lets even stop calling them limits)? What does it mean to live within the world presented to us rather than continually trying to force a different reality? What would it mean to question the polarity of options of “passive acceptance or rageful fighting” as if there is no middle way? There is in fact a whole world of opportunity where we allow ourselves the grace of shifting talents, gifts, and possibilities – and then play within those. Brooks notes that highly intelligent people are prone to less happiness in mid-to-late life, likely because since childhood their keen intellect has been central to their identity… and the didn’t imagine that keen intellect might fade in the same ways a pitching arm, or a running backs legs do. We cannot fight nature… what we can do is learn, and live to learn, within these inevitabilities so that our happiness is not tied to “defying the odds”.
I’m living in a season of telling myself not to expect fish to fly and giraffes to swim. (They can swim – giraffes that is, but not well – so don’t ask them to be lifeguards at the pool.) If I know premise A to be true, then I need to play by the consequences of that reality. I’m usually better at the first part than the second. I want to make all things work. I want to defy the odds. But that’s not how the odds work… and we live with some toxic American myths that tell us “you can do all things” and that the highest good to force your way through where no way exists…. We are told stories that revere and set the standard at the larger than life concepts like Paul Bunyan and John Henry. Stories that teach us to work ourselves to death.
You, we, deserve more than rage… and unending work. Don’t you? What does it mean for you to shape a life more like Bach than Darwin… more like peace than rage?
Links for further readings, the article on the decline of innovation reasoning:
Link for Dylan Thomas’s poem (which I still like even if I question its wisdom):
author’s additional note:
Acknowledging that I have not lived this journey but have lived alongside this journey hundreds of times I want to say this is not an accusation and is meant to be the exact opposite of “out with the old and in with the new”. Its about recognition and appreciation. I experience in people the grace of naming things. When we name a reality and realize we aren’t the only ones experiencing this we can sometimes finally breathe and say: “ok. This isn’t just about me.”
Not everyone feels that grace but so many people do and I think Brooks’ article (when you sift through some of the data that can get insulting as if its saying people over 50 aren’t worthwhile… which is not where he is taking us but on how to reclaim worth by being realistic about expectations and goals) is about being willing to offer ourselves the grace of admitting we aren’t the thinkers and innovators we used to be. And that’s ok, let’s find the gifts of experience and wisdom and the time for mentoring and guiding, and the intentional paring back of life to enjoy what is, rather than rail against what is no longer.
Our world will get smaller.
We will lose independence.
We will lose intellectual skills.
Our work will become someone else’s
(often without the gratitude and recognition we wish for… see the Charles Darwin story)
This is not something we can stop.
But we can change how we choose to relate to that journey.
The consequence of this for me are wide-ranging but I didn’t have time to do it all in the article itself but one of the things I am telling my church leadership right now is “we have to stop worrying about who is no longer here or what we can no longer do”. We have to be the church with who shows up and the means available to us. And when we make that pivot I think we will be much more hopeful about tomorrow. (The exact point Brooks’ make about happiness through mid-life.)