The career downhill is certain. Are you ready?

Career Downhill

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

3 thoughts on “The career downhill is certain. Are you ready?

  1. Darwin was born in 1809 (Feb 12)

    The Origin of Species was first published in 1859.
    It was based on the ideas and observations of his voyage from nearly 25 years back – it took him that much time to refine and shape his theory of evolution. And he was a pretty famous chap long before he wrote his masterpiece.

    Darwin was dogged throughout his life by physical ailments. He prevailed over them to continue working and wrote at least six or seven updates to The Origin

    So Darwin may not the best example for a career decline, because his definitive work was published quite late in life and he kept improving on it till much later.

  2. Superb , endearing , fascinating and extremely insightful Vishakha.I simply adore your article’s and read it atleast thrice over

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