Published in the San Diego Union-Tribune, July 15, 2019
I had lunch with a client, 52, smart, talented, former CEO of a startup, who got laid off from a semi-hot company and now has to decide what comes next. He is meeting people, networking, considering his options. Over sushi I asked him what he wanted to do, where did he see himself in five years. Let it suffice that his answer was more than a bit muddled.
I think this guy is wickedly talented. But I shared his angst. Was he over the hill, did he want to do another startup, one more at bat, one more swing for the fences, or did he want a nice job at a fully funded public company where he probably would not be overly challenged, but would definitely be well paid?
This area of puzzlement tends to arrive around age 50 and becomes massively painful around 70 (trust me here, I know whereof I speak). It is called the “Principle of Psychoprofessional Gravitation” — which is the idea that the agony of professional oblivion is directly related to one’s emotional attachment to that prestige.
In one of the greatest scenes in American movies (Sunset Boulevard), Gloria Swanson, playing an aging, over-the-hill, formerly famous movie star, walks slowly down the grand stairway of a mansion, preparing for her close-up. Standing at the bottom, the unsuccessful screenwriter, William Holden, says, “You used to be in silent pictures. You used to be big.” Swanson looks at him with disdain and says, “I am big. It’s the pictures that got small.”
So I have turned for guidance to Arthur C. Brooks, retiring president of the American Enterprise Institute. We all know about the aging Hall of Fame athlete who stays too long on the stage, and after finally leaving the game sinks into depression. But Brooks says this syndrome is not limited to athletes. It is pervasive and he says, “The biggest mistake professionally successful people make is attempting to sustain peak accomplishment indefinitely.”
It is argued that accomplishment is a well-documented source of happiness. But it seems that memories of past glories do not continue to bring happiness. I won the debating cup three years in a row in high school, but so what as a memory. That was then, this is now — and that is exactly what the studies show about Olympic athletes when they stop competing. Take the Springsteen song, “Glory Days” — “He could throw that speed ball by you” — but not now.
It is most painful when you have seen the stars, reached the top, (the Nobel Prize), had an outrageous success, and “yet wind up feeling like a failure.” Brooks talks of his own lost dreams of wanting to be the greatest French horn player. He was fabulous when he was 19, but then decline set in. He can’t explain why, but at 30, he tossed in the towel, knowing that he would never be great enough. That dream was dead, time to reinvent another one.
This reinvention theme haunts the serial entrepreneur. You are either chasing the not yet fulfilled dream — or even more dangerously, trying to do it again, wanting to prove for sure that the first success was not a fluke. But there is damn little time left. The Harvard Business Review reported that founders of enterprises valued at more than $1 billion cluster in the 24 to 38 range. Statistically, you are probably a dead man walking after 50. Brooks quotes Alex Ribeiro, famous Formula One race car driver: “The end of a successful career is to either stop driving or hit the wall at 200 mph.”
Take air traffic controllers. Their mandatory retirement age is 56. If your job requires mental processing speed or significant analytic capabilities, you are already on the decline earlier than you know it.
Brooks finds a potential explanation in the work of British psychologist,Raymond Cattell, who studied the difference between “fluid intelligence and crystallized intelligence.” Fluid is what the hotshot 25-year-old tech entrepreneur fires up. Crystallized, on the other hand, is “the ability to use knowledge gained in the past.” The warhorse remembers the Kentucky Derby, even though he can barely trot today. This argues for acceptance of a role as mentor to the younger horses.
Brooks turns finally to Eastern philosophy. Rather than seeing my life “as a canvas to fill, I am starting to see it more as a block of marble to chip away at.” I admire those words, but I will confess, and I am not unique in this way, that most of us still want one more swing, one more at bat, even though we acknowledge we can barely see the pitcher’s mound anymore. What we really want is to hear the roar of the crowd.
Rule No. 618: