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There's More To Look Forward To After Peaking Professionally

Jun 19, 2019
Originally published on June 19, 2019 4:20 pm

When it comes to our working lives, there's a point when we're no longer in our prime. But science shows that we hit our peak professionally far sooner than we think we do.

That's the conclusion social scientist Arthur Brooks draws in a new essay in The Atlantic.

His research began after eavesdropping on a conversation on an airplane in 2015. At the time, Brooks felt at the top of his game as the president of the American Enterprise Institute, a Washington think tank, and writing bestselling books. "Things couldn't have gone better," he tells NPR.

On the plane, he sat in front of a man and a woman. The man — who Brooks writes was in his mid-80s — told the woman that he wished he was dead.

"I thought it was somebody who must have been really disappointed about his life," he says. "But then at the end of the flight he stood up and I recognized him as somebody who's really quite prominent and who'd done a lot with his life."

He wondered what the man must have been doing wrong to feel this way.

"I decided to figure out how, after 50, life can get better and more fulfilling," he says. He tells NPR he thinks he found some answers.


Interview Highlights

On data that show our professional abilities decline earlier than we had been hoping

In virtually every field, we find that people decline before they think they're going to decline. There's a reason that the mandatory retirement age for air traffic controllers is 56 years old. They peak out in their ability to do that high-concentration mental work.

It tells us something about the way that the human brain works — something that's very depressing at first but it turns out that it can be illuminating and even really encouraging once you dig a little bit deeper.

On the kinds of intelligence we use in our working lives

People start off their careers relying on their fluid intelligence — that analytic speed, our ability to figure stuff out fast.

The problem is that fluid intelligence naturally starts to decline and precipitously so starting in one's early 30s — and that's the reason that lawyers will feel in their 40s and 50s they'll notice they've missed a step.

People will rage against the decline in their fluid intelligence. But they're missing something really big, which is, that curve may be going down but there's another curve that's going up that's called crystallized intelligence — that's your stock wisdom, that's the vast library that you're accumulating, all the books in your library that are your mind and your ability to use them with wisdom, that increases through your 40s and 50s and 60s and stays high.

Here's the trick: You've got to stop being an innovator and start being an instructor. An instructor is somebody who uses crystallized intelligence, who synthesizes ideas and expresses them in new and interesting ways that people can understand — that enriches other people.

But stop trying to achieve the Nobel Prize-winning paper and start thinking about how others have done things and how the patterns all come together. That is truly one of the great strategies of the happiest people who have ever lived.

On how he is applying the lessons he learned now that he is 55

I started this project because I wanted to know what I should do by about the age of 55. I determined after about 10 years in my position as the chief executive of the American Enterprise Institute it's important to move into something else — and hand the keys over to somebody else. So a new president will be taking over starting July 1. I'm going to go to Harvard and teach at the Kennedy School and work with students and write books.

Dave Blanchard and Courtney Dorning produced and edited this story for broadcast. Emma Bowman adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

How old are we when we hit our prime work-wise, that elusive peak when we have enough experience to know what we're doing and enough energy still to get it done? Arthur Brooks takes on that question in a new essay in The Atlantic. His research and data point to a pretty depressing conclusion that for most people in most fields, professional decline starts earlier - years earlier than we've been led to think.

Arthur Brooks, welcome.

ARTHUR BROOKS: Hi, Mary Louise. It's great to be with you.

KELLY: Great to have you with us. Before we get to the data, is there a story for why you started digging into this?

BROOKS: (Laughter) There is. You know, about four years ago, I was sort of on top of the world professionally. I was - things were going great for me. I was the president of the American Enterprise Institute, a position that I'll have for the next week and a half or so.

KELLY: We'll get to that.

BROOKS: Yeah.

KELLY: A big think tank in Washington...

BROOKS: Yeah, big think tank in Washington, D.C.

KELLY: ...We should say, OK.

BROOKS: It's a great place. I was writing books that people read. Things couldn't have gone better. But I had an experience where I was sitting in front of a guy - an older gentleman - on a plane. And he was talking to his wife, and I was - I didn't mean to eavesdrop, but I couldn't help but hear. And he was saying he wished he were dead. And I thought it was somebody who must have been really disappointed about his life. But then at the end of the flight, he stood up, and I recognized him as somebody who's really quite prominent and who'd done a lot with his life. And I thought to myself, what's he doing wrong - maybe nothing.

KELLY: Right. If this guy isn't happy...

BROOKS: Yeah, it may be nothing, you know...

KELLY: ...Or feeling in his prime, what happened?

BROOKS: ...But you know, maybe there's some science that's behind it. So I decided to figure out how after 50 life can get better and more fulfilling. And I think I found the answers.

KELLY: There is scientific evidence that our abilities professionally decline...

BROOKS: Yeah.

KELLY: ...Earlier than...

BROOKS: That's right.

KELLY: ...We all had been hoping.

BROOKS: In virtually every field, we find that people decline before they think they're going to decline. There's a reason that the mandatory retirement age for air traffic controllers is 56 years old. They peak out in in their ability to do that high-concentration mental work. And it tells us something about the way that the human brain works, something that's very depressing at first. But it turns out that it can be illuminating and even really encouraging once you dig a little bit deeper.

KELLY: And you also found this varies actually pretty hugely across fields.

BROOKS: Yeah.

KELLY: You write about the difference between something called fluid intelligence and crystallized intelligence.

BROOKS: That's right.

KELLY: Explain.

BROOKS: So people start off their careers relying on their fluid intelligence - that analytic speed or ability to figure stuff out fast. That's fluid intelligence. But it tends to start...

KELLY: So an example being what? What's your job?

BROOKS: A lawyer, for example - if you're in any sort of business, early on, I mean, it's just like clicking, clicking fast. That's something that will distinguish you, that will set you apart, that will make it possible for you to succeed in a big way. The problem is that that fluid intelligence naturally starts to decline and precipitously so starting in one's early 30s. And that's the reason that lawyers will feel - in their 40s and 50s, they'll notice they've missed a step. Now...

KELLY: Could accumulated wisdom - does that point us toward...

BROOKS: Well, that's the important thing.

KELLY: OK, go there.

BROOKS: This is the point that you're making. Now, people will rage against the decline in their fluid intelligence. But they're missing something really big, which is that curve may be going down, but there's another curve that's going up. That's called crystallized intelligence. That's your stock of wisdom. That's the vast library that you're accumulating - all the books in your library that are your mind. And your ability to use them with wisdom - that increases through your 40s and 50s and 60s and stays high if you've got your marbles through your 70s and 80s. And that's what you need to rely on. You need to - here's the key. Here's the trick, Mary Louise. You've got to stop being an innovator and start being an instructor.

KELLY: An instructor.

BROOKS: An instructor is somebody who synthesizes ideas and expresses them in new and interesting ways that people can understand, that enriches other people, that you can bring other people in - you could literally be a teacher. But stop trying to achieve the Nobel Prize-winning paper, and start thinking about how others have done things and how the patterns all come together. That is truly one of the great strategies of the happiest people who've ever lived.

KELLY: So how is all this shaking out for you? We mentioned you are head of a big D.C. think tank...

BROOKS: Yeah.

KELLY: ...American Enterprise Institute, doing great. You're how old, if I may ask?

BROOKS: I'm 55. I just turned 55 years old.

KELLY: Congratulations.

BROOKS: Thank you very much.

KELLY: How are you applying this to you?

BROOKS: (Laughter) I started this project because I wanted to know what I should do by about the age of 55.

KELLY: And here we are.

BROOKS: And I determined that it was after about 10 years in my position as the chief executive of the American Enterprise Institute, it's important to move into something else and to hand the keys over to somebody else. So a new president will be taking over starting July 1. And I'm going to go to Harvard and teach at the Kennedy School and Harvard Business School and work with students and write books. And life is sweet, and I can't wait.

KELLY: Arthur Brooks - he is outgoing president of the American Enterprise Institute talking there about his article "Your Professional Decline Is Coming Much Sooner Than You Think." Arthur Brooks, thank you.

BROOKS: Thank you, Mary Louise. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.