In his book From Strength to Strength: Finding Success, Happiness and Deep Purpose in the Second Half of Life, Arthur C. Brooks writes that people decline professionally between their late 30s and early 50s.
This is hard to believe or even apply to my own life. (Although he focuses on highly skilled professionals, which is something I’ve never called myself.)
But even if you’re not a surgeon or scientist, Brooks’ point is that we all lose “fluid” intelligence as we age. The upside is we gain “crystallized” intelligence.
When I mentioned this startling thought to my husband, he said, “It sounds like he’s just saying that as you get older, you don’t have the sharpness of youth, but you gain wisdom.”
Although it’s a bitter pill, this makes sense to me. I’m not as good as I used to be at recalling things, like the names of actors, authors, restaurants and the person I met two minutes ago. But I’ve improved my day-to-day living skills, at least it feels that way.
I’m almost 60 and here’s what I’ve gotten better at with age:
Finding things. I can usually find what I’m looking for because I’ve learned to keep things in the same places. I always know where my keys are because I put them in a designated bowl in the kitchen after every use. Whether it’s my basement or my purse, I have a map in my head of where things are stored and I try not to veer from it.
Listening. I used to do way more talking than listening. And even when I thought I was listening, I was really waiting for my turn to say something brilliant. I don’t know what spurred the change, but in the last 20 years or so, I’ve consciously tried to be a better listener. As a corollary, I’ve also learned that most people don’t want advice when they’re struggling, they just want someone to listen.
Waiting. I’m better at waiting in line and sitting in traffic, but mostly I’m better at sitting with my own indecision, murky feelings and shades of gray. I used to think I had to come up with answers right away to anything from a work problem to a relationship conundrum. I’ve learned that it’s OK to just “be” and let the answer unfold. It’s OK not to know.
Moving more slowly. I’m not quite ready to tread gingerly in thick-soled shoes from Walgreens, but I’ve learned not to focus on speed with everything I do. I used to move fast and break things – from drinking glasses to body parts – but age has taught me that it’s OK to slow down. I know now that I don’t have to treat unloading the dishwasher or scaling a stairway like a timed event.
Understanding what matters. When I was younger, I worried more about résumé attributes and concrete achievements. Age has taught me that no one cares where – or if – you went to college, what you do for a living or how much money you make. People worth knowing aren’t interested in the outwards. They care about the inwards, like if you’re reliable, kind and a good listener (see above).
Living in the moment. This phrase is overused, but maybe that’s because the concept is so important. I used to spend too much time thinking ahead to what I needed to accomplish the next day, next week or next year. I keep learning that there aren’t guarantees of the next anything, so I’m better at appreciating what I’ve got right now, even if it’s just a cup of coffee in my hand and a cat on my lap.
I haven’t finished Brooks’ book yet, but I think I’m going to discover that I shouldn’t focus on what I’ve lost with age. I should ponder what I’ve gained. Then I should figure out what to with this hard-earned wisdom.
But I’m in no hurry. I trust that I’ll find what I’m looking for when the time is right.