The career downhill is certain. Are you ready?

She messaged me to inquire about my background and on what basis I pick up articles for teenagers to read every week. Week after week, for nearly four years, I have been curating articles for parents to read it out to their children. Now called The Read Aloud Club, in the first two years, it was just a nameless circulation of a set of article links. So when asked about my background for selecting articles, I didn’t know if I should reply as a mother of two or author of Habits for Thinking or a design thinking professional or mention my past corporate life. No one had ever asked me about my authority to select articles. Being questioned about my background stumped me for a minute. 

She had the right. Being a teacher in her professional life some years ago, she took her role of grand-parenting with conscious efforts. Parents and grandparents are gatekeepers for their children. Interested in the idea of the Read Aloud Club for her grandchild, she wanted to know the background of the curator. In my reply, I showed her the work. It doesn’t matter to talk about other things to support your work when your work can talk the loudest. There were plenty of editions for her to refer to. Later, we spoke. She signed up. Her happiness reflected in her messages to me. She shared pictures of her grandchildren, her family and how this gift was precious. And, one comment that stayed with me was that I should share these articles with other grandparents. It will be useful for people of her age to find talking points with their grandchildren.The word useful lingered in my mind even longer. 

The conversation took me to life after retirement, the life after years of work, money, fame and recognition. Not only retirement, but life after seeing a peak in your career, the life on the other side of the hill. The thought took me to a few lines I had read in an article, “Whole sections of bookstores are dedicated to becoming successful. The shelves are packed with titles like The Science of Getting Rich and The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. There is no section marked “Managing Your Professional Decline.” 

The article, titled your professional decline is coming much sooner than you think, mentions the whole thought process that is required to change when you have peaked at an early career. Downhill not only is inevitable but also happens earlier than most of us expect, what should we do when it comes for us?

In today’s Habits for Thinking, I am bringing your attention to when the expected, i.e. the career downhill comes unexpectedly. I would neither call it a decline, nor a retirement, but a downward slide that one can be prepared for. Let us treat it as the downhill after a peak – it could be a peak in the career, like a high profile position at a young age, or leaving a leadership position due to loss of work or  a successful buyout of your venture or actually retirement. Athletes peak and retire from their profession at an early age. Peaking in a career can be at any time, but what happens when the hill is a downslide. How do you manage the ride? 

1. Peak and career downhill are not age related:

An excerpt from the write up suggests: Entrepreneurs peak and decline earlier, on an average. After earning fame and fortune in their 20s, many tech entrepreneurs are in creative decline by age 30. In 2014, the Harvard Business Review reported that founders of enterprises valued at $1 billion or more by venture capitalists tend to cluster in the 20-to-34 age range. Subsequent research has found that the clustering might be slightly later, but all studies in this area have found that the majority of successful start-ups have founders under age 50. 

While this is true, what is also true is that some people, who are in the business of compounding efforts see success at an age which is much later than sixties. 99% of Warren Buffett’s net worth came after his 50th birthday, and 97% came after he turned 65.1

The father of management thinking, Peter Drucker has written many books; 2/3rd of his writing was after the age of 65. Jim Collins, who had Peter Drucker as his mentor, mentions in The Tim Ferris Show podcast,  “The shelf was all of Peter’s books put out chronologically based on when he wrote them, first editions. And I said, “Where on the shelf is he aged 65?” And the answer was, when you pointed to it, 1/3 of the way across the shelf.” 

So one peak at a relatively young age, whether as the CEO of a company or an entrepreneur, does not preclude you from  high professional achievements later on in life. 

2. The life after peak can be another peak, a different one

Charles Darwin was just 22 when he set out on his five-year voyage. Darwin took enormous pride in sitting atop the celebrity-scientist pecking order, developing his theories and publishing them as books and essays—the most famous being on the Origin of Species, in 1859. But as Darwin progressed into his 50s, he stagnated; he hit a wall in his research. 

Johann Sebastian Bach, born in 1685 distinguished himself as a musical genius. Early in his career, Bach was considered an astoundingly gifted organist and improviser. Commissions rolled in; royalty sought him out; young composers emulated his style. He enjoyed real prestige. But it didn’t last—his career was overtaken by musical trends ushered in by, among others, his own son, Carl Philipp Emanuel.

What’s the difference between Bach and Darwin? Both were preternaturally gifted and widely known early in life. Both attained permanent fame posthumously. Where they differed was in their approach to the midlife fade. When Darwin fell behind as an innovator, he became despondent and depressed; his life ended in sad inactivity. When Bach fell behind, he reinvented himself as a master instructor. He died beloved, fulfilled, and—though less famous than he once had been—respected.

While Darwin stayed attached to his prestige at peak, Bach worked around that status and found a new way of meaningful work, teaching. 

3. Being useful is the mantra

The trend of professional decline is also accelerating. Firstly, democratisation of knowledge means many skills can be acquired across age groups. A teenager can make an electronic device like a graduate. Secondly, technological advancement means dependency on people is going to reduce. All of this is nothing new. This has been in the making. Not just people, a whole set of businesses are wiped out by a newer age company. The transition period of change from one cyclical change to another is reducing. So yes, the professional decline, or what looks like a peak today, may lead to a downhill slope tomorrow. 

To prepare for it, there is only one thought that needs to be nurtured. It is a human need to remain meaningfully engaged. The engagement comes from work place, relationships, interactions. A sense of growth, not just financially but emotionally and in knowledge keeps the mental energy intact. When Jim Collins, author of several books, was considering leaving his day job to become an entrepreneur he asked Peter Drucker for advice2.

Drucker replied, “It seems to me you spend a lot of time trying — worrying about if you’re going to survive. Well, you’ll probably survive. And you spend too much time thinking about if you’ll be successful. It’s the wrong question. The question is, “how to be useful?” 

Everyone will face the career downhill at some point in their work life. That is a given. People with a growth mindset will find ways to remain engaged mentally and will find ways to remain useful. People attached to the prestige of the previous peak will find it hard to move forward. 

The grandmother, a retired teacher, can identify this need for ‘being useful’ in her circle of influence. She knows, there is a peak after the peak. 

  1. https://www.collaborativefund.com/blog/standing/
  2. The Time Ferris Show

2 secrets to improve your deliberate practice

A shoulder pain woke me up from months of sleeping. It had been months since lockdown, workouts had shifted inside the living room instead of the gym, the trainer appeared more on mobile screens than in person and I spent more on computer and phone screens than on yoga mats. A nagging pain in my shoulder took me to a physiotherapist. The first session didn’t seem so alarming but right after that session, during my fitness practice at home, I developed a muscle pull in the neck. The physiotherapist advised rest and called me after two days. On my second trip to the hospital, my neck and shoulders were taped with adhesive medical tapes restricting most of my movements. This was still easy and I thought I would be out of this phase within a few days. I was wrong. My neck, shoulder and back had developed stiffness over months of lockdown. It required a couple of months of therapy including many painful needle processes of breaking knots in my muscles that left me immobile at times and in pain. Today I can laugh, my own workouts had become a pain in my neck, literally and figuratively. The numbness of pain woke me up from my sleep. I have been sleeping about my fitness levels all these months, even though I was working out regularly. Lockdown needed me to pay more attention myself and not be dependent on anyone else for improvement. I had lost the alertness towards that and while I was regular, it was not enough. 

We do not focus on everything in life with the same alertness, especially when it becomes a habit. Workout has been a habit for years, thrice a week in the gym, same trainer,being regular became the only yardstick  rather than the form of the body. Sometimes we go into a slumber, even with the best of the habit. That’s what happened to me with my regular workout habit. I had lost focus from a key habit in my workout- ‘improve.’

In today’s Habits for Thinking, I am bringing your attention to a hard habit : the habit to improve. It is easier to pick up a new habit than to improve a good existing habit. That is why it is hard. 

Lack of awareness keeps you from improving:

In the course SHIFT, there are fifteen habits designed to nurture a growth mindset that is alert, creative and confident. ‘To improve’ is one of the fifteen habits. I wrote about the invisibility and shared responsibility about this habit in an article a few weeks ago. What keeps us from improving? One of the reasons is lack of awareness. Lack of awareness is about two types- firstly, one may not know which part of the habit needs to be improved. Secondly, one may not know how to improve. Both these issues stop us from growing further. But the two secret lines that push one to work on improvement are mentioned below: 

Secret 1: The enemy of great is good. 

What is the enemy of the Great? The good. Yes, good is something that really lets you stay where you are. It becomes the roadblock to being great. A good success makes us settle in comfortably, creating inertia to move towards a great success. A great success is achieved with the mindset. The mindset difference is growth vs fixed mindset which we have talked about in detail in earlier post here. 

deliberate practice

The backbone of a growth mindset is the feedback loop.  The feedback tells you where to improve. It helps you understand the details of the situation. And, you single out one focus area at a time and work on improvement. A growth mindset not only doesn’t shy away from feedback, it actively seeks feedback in its work.

This is what separates great athletes from good athletes. This is one reason why great companies have managers with better performance than good companies. The margin between good and great is very thin and is achieved only through continuous improvement. And, continuous improvement can be achieved through deliberate practice. 

Deliberate practice:

Talent Is Overrated: What Really Separates World-Class Performers From Everybody Else. Author Geoff Colvin, wrote: 

Deliberate practice is characterized by several elements, each worth examining. It is activity designed specifically to improve performance, often with a teacher’s help; it can be repeated a lot; feedback on results is continuously available; it’s highly demanding mentally, whether the activity is purely intellectual, such as chess or business-related activities, or heavily physical, such as sports; and it isn’t much fun.

G. Colvin

K. Anders Ericsson, the Swedish psychologist and researcher is best known for coining the term “deliberate practice” as the secret of how people can improve their skills. After decades of studying how superstars are made, Ericsson said the reason why his work has captured the public’s attention in recent years is simple: “A lot of people want to be the very best they can be. The deliberate practice notion has kind of opened up the possibility that people can achieve higher levels of performance than they previously thought possible.”

Deliberate practice is a structured approach with a goal to improve performance. Deliberate practice involves trying to exceed one’s previous limits, which requires full concentration and effort. Consequently, it is only possible to engage in these activities for a limited amount of time until rest and recuperation are needed.

Musicians have been encouraged to practice two hours of playing the instrument with full concentration than practice four hours without the concentration. Because  deliberate practice involves being mindful, it is really hard to practice it for long duration. A writer’s commitment to writing two hours mindfully in the morning results in greater work than writing longer hours with much attention throughout the day. 

Coach or no coach, a deliberate practice is an effort of breaking down the goal into smaller areas, identifying weak points and practising with specific aim for improvement of the weak points. For example, stability is a key form for any athlete. But many good athletes, despite being in the top few in their respective category, may not have worked on stability alone. Deliberate practice means focussing on one area of performance, like stability, and improving overall performance through that. 

Deliberate practice is not only a part of athletic performance. It applies to all types of activities.

Secret 2: The power of 1% gain everyday

The beauty of improvement is it is a one way path, it only goes up, it only gets better. However, the challenge in improving is that the gain is so small that it doesn’t motivate further to continue. It is a small, imperceptible gain in most cases, tough to measure and even tougher to fuel growth. However, one should remember that a 1% gain everyday means a 37times gain in a year. If you had Rs. 100 and you gain 1% everyday, it will lead you to Rs.3770 at the end of the year. That is the value of small gains. 

The recipe to bring in deliberate practice in your life:

Step 1: Meta cognition: Thinking about thinking and learning: identify what you want to improve

Step 2: Set small goals

Step 3: Maintain a log, only you can see the improvement. 

Step 4: Create a loop: feedback to yourself, replan, refocus

Step 5: remember 1% improvement is an improvement. 

Now, let us see how it can be actually practiced. For instance, distraction is a major challenge to our concentration and efforts. If one has to improve their productivity, how about setting up a goal of working without any distraction? 

Step 1: Meta Cognition: thinking about distractions while working

Step 2: Set small goal: work thirty minutes without switching to any other tab on computer

Step 3: Maintain a daily journal. 

Step 4: Increase the time gradually. Practice till you stabilise at the new time. 

Step 5: Remember 1% improvement compounds over time. 

Habits require attention and improvement. This can be achieved only with mindful, deliberate practice. One can identify and improve any activity whether it is writing, strategising, playing music, swimming, or even workouts like mine. The secret sauce is to remember two lines: firstly, the enemy of good is great and secondly 1% gain everyday is powerful.

3 simple practices will make you nurture a growth mindset

Thirty five seconds into Eshna Kutty’s video and I was already thinking why am I in my 40s today. Barely reaching her ankles, her maroon cotton saree’s pallu (the loose end) tucked in her waist made her entire look comfortably glamorous, like her stunning dark, short, curly hair. Here she was on my screen, in her white Puma shoes, hula hooping on a song I had loved in my 30s, ‘Genda phool’ from Delhi 6. 

A few days back, Eshna Kutty’s video was all over the internet. This was not the first time she was wearing a saree and hula hooping but this video launched her as a social media star in a matter of a few hours. And made me gape when it reached my timeline. I don’t know if it is the rigidness of my body or of the mind that makes me envious. It is not the joie de vivre of the 24 year old Eshna, it is not the fact that saree can be so much fun and not only a formal wear,  it is not even wearing sports shoes on a saree, I have done that often, it is not even hula hooping that makes me conscious, all these elements are the spice to her effortless moves. What stood out for me was her ease and comfort around her own imperfections! In a blink-of-an-eye moment, the hoop slips and yet she is comfortable.The envy, though for a fleeting moment, felt like an age-related jealousy, was actually a gentle reminder for me to embrace my own certain imperfection. The raw setting of Eshna video makes it real and if you browse more on her timeline and read her interviews you will realise while she is mastering the art, the art of flow she is comfortable with her own imperfections. 

Hugging your own imperfections are the first set of tools of a growth mindset. Carol Dweck, author of the book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success wrote about mindsets. What are mindsets? Mindsets are self conceptions, the way we structure ourself and guide our behaviours. These are views about our own abilities. She has defined that we have two types of mindsets : Fixed Mindset and Growth Mindset. In her book, Dweck talks about how consciously or subconsciously our thoughts affect what we want and whether we can succeed in getting it depending on the type of mindsets we keep. 

She writes: I’ve seen so many people with this one consuming goal of proving themselves— in the classroom, in their careers, and in their relationships. Every situation calls for a confirmation of their intelligence, personality, or character. Every situation is evaluated: Will I succeed or fail? Will I look smart or dumb? Will I be accepted or rejected? Will I feel like a winner or a loser?

Changing our beliefs can have a powerful impact. The growth mindset creates a powerful passion for learning. She continues, “Why waste time proving over and over how great you are, when you could be getting better? Why hide deficiencies instead of overcoming them? Why look for friends or partners who will just shore up your self-esteem instead of ones who will also challenge you to grow? And why seek out the tried and true, instead of experiences that will stretch you?” The passion for stretching yourself and sticking to it, even (or especially) when it’s not going well, is the hallmark of the growth mindset. This is the mindset that allows people to thrive during some of the most challenging times in their lives.

People with fixed mindsets believe their intelligence, talent and abilities are fixed. They take failures as setbacks and avoid challenges. Dweck explains “In the growth mindset, failure can be a painful experience. But it doesn’t define you. It’s a problem to be faced, dealt with, and learned from.”

A fixed mindset leads to a desire to look smart and therefore a tendency to avoid challenges, ignore or avoid negative feedback, and give up easily when faced with obstacles. People with fixed mindset, as a result, may plateau early and achieve less than their full potential. 

A growth mindset, in contrast, believes that intelligence can be developed. It creates a desire to learn and therefore develops a tendency to embrace challenges, persist in the face of setbacks and pick up learnings from their failures. As a result they reach higher levels of achievement.  

If you are wondering which type of mindset you have, remember, we all have parts of both types. One type may be predominant in our behaviour and we need to, through our actions and thoughts, nurture more of the growth mindset. Nourishing a growth mindset is like nurturing peace within oneself. A growth mindset stimulates creativity. It helps in not just a progressive learning culture, but it also builds resilience. See the image at the bottom.

There are several suggestions to work on developing a growth mindset. In this week’s column on Habits for Thinking, I want to bring your attention to three practices which can be moved from ideas and thoughts to action. 

1.   Accept your imperfections:

Eshna Kutty’s ease of accepting her imperfection stood out. When I looked up more on her, I realised she is nurturing growth mindsets in people. In an interview she said: “This was just one video that went viral, but my previous work is also on the same lines. I’ve never really been the person who flaunts perfect moves – it’s more of bloopers, behind-the-scenes, and me just messing up because I don’t want it to feel like this is impossible or this is something that is not meant for the stereotypically unfit body.” 

To acknowledge and accept imperfection is a giant step towards getting better and learning. Not hiding from a weakness gives a vantage point of change and growth. 

2. Focus on the process

Sports programs do that to you. It teaches you to focus on the process. Nobody talks about the goal, that is a common knowledge. What coaches focus on in everyday practice is the process. Each move is analysed and worked upon. For a swimmer it could be the angle of the head when it comes out of water for a breath or for a squash player it could be the way the player has to move back to play out of the back court. 

Focussing on the process does many things. It makes you enjoy the process more, it makes you measure your success in everyday work and it also gives a roadmap to understand when the goal doesn’t end up in a desired result.  

3. Using “Not Yet”

This is something I picked up after wrapping up my failed attempt on entrepreneurship. When suggested – so you are an entrepreneur, instead of answering in a straight no, which I did for sometime I moved to saying it Not Yet with deliberate practice. It changed my energy settings towards more warmth. I had heard Carol Dweck’s talk on the power of Not yet. She had picked this lesson from a school where teachers wrote ‘Not yet’, instead of writing ‘fail’ for those students who didn’t qualify a particular test. Not yet, simply keeps the path to progress open. It keeps the learning ladder standing. 

If you are struggling, try telling your mind I am not there yet. The mind listens. 

Nurture a growth mindset by Vishakha

Eshna reminded me of my personal challenge to share a post of my headstand. Sounds simple, right? I have been trying to learn to stand on my head for a long, long time. It is a shifting goal. To  challenge myself, I had promised to post a picture of a perfect headstand. I am not there yet. But here you go Eshna, my headstand pose in my red brogues. I stood with initial support that you cannot see and only for a few seconds. Perfect? Not yet!