Your Inevitable Professional Decline

I bet you’ve thought about the progression of your career but have you ever thought about its decline?

In the July 2019 issue of The Atlantic, Arthur Brooks, President of the American Enterprise Institute, writes openly about his decision to retire. It becomes an acknowledgement of his inevitable professional decline.

Brooks writes:

In some professions, early decline is inescapable. No one expects an Olympic athlete to remain competitive until age 60. But in many physically non-demanding occupations, we implicitly reject the inevitability of decline before very old age. Sure, our quads and hamstrings may weaken a little as we age. But as long as we retain our marbles, our quality of work as a writer, lawyer, executive, or entrepreneur should remain high up to the very end, right? Many people think so. I recently met a man a bit older than I am who told me he planned to “push it until the wheels came off.” In effect, he planned to stay at the very top of his game by any means necessary, and then keel over.

But the research paints a different story.

Dean Simonton, a professor emeritus of psychology at UC Davis and lead expert on the trajectories of creative careers, argues that success and productivity increase within the first 20 years of a career, on average. In other words, if you start a career at age 30, “expect to do your best work around 50 and go into decline soon after that.”

The decline varies, obviously, by industry.

Brooks notes that entrepreneurs peak and decline earlier, on average. Many tech entrepreneurs are in creative decline by age 30. According to a 2014 report by the Harvard Business Review, founders of enterprises valued at $1 billion or more clustered in the 20 - 30 age range.

In the MLB, the best-performing home-plate umpires have 18 years less experience and, on average, are 23 years younger than the worst-performing umpires. As a result, the mandatory retirement age for umpires are 56!

Brooks writes:

In sum, if your profession requires mental processing speed or significant analytic capabilities—the kind of profession most college graduates occupy—noticeable decline is probably going to set in earlier than you imagine.

[…]

The biggest mistake professionally successful people make is attempting to sustain peak accomplishment indefinitely, trying to make use of the kind of fluid intelligence that begins fading relatively early in life. This is impossible. The key is to enjoy accomplishments for what they are in the moment, and to walk away perhaps before I am completely ready—but on my own terms.

I am pleased to see that this confirms the theory of deliberate practice, which debunks conventional wisdom that experience and results are linear.

This is often what’s touted in the legal profession, which is why senior lawyers are more expensive than junior lawyers. But if more experience created greater results then how do we explain that information workers get worse with age, not better? [1]

There will come a time where, as a lawyer, my advocacy skills will peak and, subsequently, decline. I can only hope I’ll be as candid and self-aware as Brooks and gracefully get out of the way.

See you next Tuesday.


Reference:

[1] Note: Peak by K. Anders Ericsson. [Ericsson notes that surgeons who are recent graduates consistently outperform experienced surgeons. Why? Because younger surgeons have not yet developed bad habits, are informed of the latest research, and are hungry to improve].