Managing your professional decline

Person in a parachute over hills

Arthur C Brooks has written a highly thought-provoking piece on why you need to pay attention to how you will manage the decline of your career.

According to research by Dean Keith Simonton, a professor emeritus of psychology at UC Davis and one of the world’s leading experts on the trajectories of creative careers, success and productivity increase for the first 20 years after the inception of a career, on average. So if you start a career in earnest at 30, expect to do your best work around 50 and go into decline soon after that.

The article suggests decline is inevitable, and comes earlier than you might expect. That’s particularly so, “if your profession requires mental processing speed or significant analytic capabilities”. I’m not sure all of this is down to a decrease in cognitive ability.

Coincidentally, Jeffrey Zeldman has written about how the longer he works as a designer, “the harder it becomes.”

I’m heading towards what I think is the middle of my career. I’ve been alive long enough to see my life goals change, and my assumptions about my future life goals turn out to be wrong.

I’m also now old enough to appreciate what a young person brings to the table at work. What I thought that was has probably changed over time, too.

Coming towards the middle of my career, I have a bit more wisdom than I did ten years ago. But I lack the spark that enabled me to think more radically about how to solve big problems. Sometimes I think of that past version of me as being naive and arrogant. Yet part of me also misses having that spark.

Perhaps this is an inevitability of experience. As we gain more experience, so we also gain more experience of failure. Because we are loss averse, failure looms larger in our minds than success does. We also begin to understand that problems are usually much more complex than they first appear.

This may explain why people appear to become become more conservative and jaded as their career grows longer. A fresher mind might think, “Why don’t we try [radical but slightly unrealistic solution]?” The jaded mind sees only the problems with that, and falls back on what experience has shown works: “This his how things are done here.”

Neither one mindset nor the other is right. Teams need a balance of both.

But I can well imagine how disturbing it must be when your professional performance declines.

The article provides a way out. It effectively suggests that as you become older, your mindset shifts, and your life goals must change. Sometimes that means changing your career too.

It mentions the example of what happens to Formula 1 drivers and other athletes after they retire, often at a very young age. The smart F1 drivers have planned their next careers already. Some go into business or broadcasting. Think of Martin Brundle, who had a lengthy and relatively successful career as a driver, but has subsequently had an even longer and more successful career as a broadcaster.

But it also brings to mind the example of Murray Walker. Thought of as the voice of F1, he broadcast from the 1940s until the 2000s. For the first few decades that was a side hustle. But when he became the BBC’s full time commentator in 1978, he was in his mid 50s and coming to the end of a successful career as an advertising executive.

For the rest of us, it seems as though teaching may be an option.

While I plan on working until I drop dead, I always thought it was unlikely I’d still be a web designer into my 70s or even my 50s. That had already influenced some of my career decisions. Now I know I should start thinking about it even more seriously than I already was.

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