Dr. Brian Hollett 

The American work-ethic is known world-wide. We regularly and enthusiastically devote more hours, more days, and more years to our professional endeavors than many in other first-world nations across the globe. But, eventually, our professional work will decline: we will sell our businesses, we will retire, or we will simply lose the drive to push as hard as we once did. We can become something we never thought we would be: irrelevant.

Feelings of not feeling useful have a profound impact on our health too, tripling our risk of premature death and disability. As discussed in a recent article in The Atlantic, even the heights of professional success do not protect us from following this emotional trajectory—in fact, the greater the height the farther to fall. This leaves us with less favorable psychological well-being at age 80 than our “less enterprising” peers. Significant portions of our personal identity can become tied to our own ability to perform and to accomplish, setting us up for psychological anguish as we lose those abilities or the stage on which to showcase them. This phenomenon is also well-observed in former Olympians, who often experience greatly diminished life satisfaction when transitioning away from a career of top-level competition.

This phenomenon has been dubbed by author Arthur C. Brooks as “The Principle of Psychoprofessional Gravitation,” which he explains as

the idea that the agony of professional oblivion is directly related to the height of professional prestige previously achieved, and to one’s emotional attachment to that prestige. Problems related to achieving professional success might appear to be a pretty good species of problem to have; even raising this issue risks seeming precocious. But if you reach professional heights and are deeply invested in being high up, you can suffer mightily when you inevitably fall. 

Without intervention or a plan in place this could be any of us.

It is easy to envision the end of a career in Olympic competition, but many of us fail to see the inevitability of our own inescapable decline. There is a seemingly endless supply of books written about achieving professional success, but almost none on managing our professional decline. The data, as gathered by psychologist Keith Simonton, is pretty clear: “Success and productivity increase for the first 20 years after the inception of a career,” so that if you started in your career at 28 you should expect to be doing your best work at 48 and then a progressive decline in every year after that. It makes you question whether a professional bio boasting “23 years of experience” is an asset or, in truth, a liability.

Drawing examples from the past century, we see that major achievements and innovations were most likely to occur when significant inventors or Nobel laureates had reached 38 years of age. Poets peak at 38, novelists at 44. You want to build an enterprise valued at over a billion dollars? Hopefully you are younger than 34. Ready to launch a successful startup? Don’t attempt that much older than 45.

In a nutshell: After our late 30’s, we experience decreases in fluid intelligence (the ability to reason, analyze, and solve novel problems), while crystallized intelligence (the ability to use knowledge gained in the past) remains more stable. If your profession requires significant fluid intelligence in the forms of analysis or rapid processing (two characteristics most high-level careers share), your professional decline will likely occur sooner than you would hope.

All is not lost, however. Even if decline is inevitable, unhappiness from a lack of usefulness (and the resulting 300% increase in risk of premature death and debility) is not. To combat feelings of being less useful as the end of your career approaches and to prolong your sense of thriving, we offer you some practical tips. (Bonus: these tips are also helpful in earlier stages of life.)

Think BIG. Enjoy accomplishments for what they are in the moment, and then walk away on your own terms. Progressively detach yourself from things you would put on your résumé (success/status/fame/power) and focus on devoting yourself to things that will be shared during your eulogy (faith/family/friends). Even if you’re still building up your résumé, don’t let that process prevent you from living in a way that gives meaning and value to your life today.

Give Back. Become a mentor, find a protege. Find a way to serve using the knowledge and skills you have developed. Be creative and seek to have a positive effect on someone who might otherwise never receive such a blessing.

Dig Deep. Ask the big questions. Read the work of philosophers and theologians. Explore your spiritual self; pursue what nourishes and refreshes your soul.

Dive In. Connect with others in deep relationships. Develop a greater awareness of the bonds you already share with those around you and seek to nourish and grow these relationships.

Be a Blessing. Find a way to make someone’s day. Write a thank you note to someone who affected you (in small or big ways) in your past or in the present. Offer time, encouragement, support, and services to someone who needs assistance.

Live each day as if you are writing your eulogy, not your résumé—in the process, you will help to ensure that the years of your life are not only fruitful, but also many.