I seem to have intuited and followed most of Arthur Brooks’s precepts. During my quite successful academic career, I gradually shifted from research to teaching, and from graduate to undergraduate teaching. I retired at 66. Ten years later, I keep my hand in research, but purely for my own intellectual pleasure, and to keep my brain active and healthy. I don’t even have an office at the university; I work at home in my pajamas.
The only item of Brooks’s advice I disagree with is Sannyasa, the “focus on more transcendentally important things.” The material world is wonderful, and I now get to enjoy it in ways I never could before. I will not “leave my office horizontally,” but I may be taken horizontally off a cruise ship.
A demigod of my vocation, John Maynard Keynes, is supposed to have expressed only one regret toward the end of his life: “I did not drink more champagne.” This seems a worthy goal for all economists, indeed for high achievers in all careers, and much more enjoyable than Sannyasa.
I am an 85-year-old male who retired at “the top of my game” at age 62. The retirement decision was based on family considerations: Our married daughter, a soon-to-be mother, lived in Portland, Oregon, and asked that my wife and I move to her town. The first six months of settling into our new home kept me occupied, so I did not feel an identity crisis. But soon I began to wonder whether we had retired too soon, and to feel a bit lost and depressed.
My wife suggested that I return to playing the clarinet. It did not take me long to realize that having the time to rehone my playing skills was a gift. I got engaged in Portland’s music community, and eventually became principal clarinetist in two orchestras. My greatest compliments come from other, often younger musicians who attend my recitals and consistently tell me that I continue to improve.
Arthur Brooks omits an important point about professional decline after age 50. For skill-based professions, waning creativity is outweighed by increasing experience and judgment. Chesley Sullenberger was 58 when he landed a jet on the Hudson River. For heart surgeons like me, the 50s are generally peak years.
Moreover, it is baffling that Brooks picked Darwin as an example of someone who “stagnated” after age 50. Darwin published On the Origin of Species in 1859 at age 50, but he published The Descent of Man in 1871, books on reproduction in plants in 1876 and 1877, and his final book in 1881, the year before his death, at 73. By then, deteriorating health had confined him to his house and garden, so he wrote about earthworms.
A better example of declining creativity would have been Albert Einstein. His “miracle year” came in 1905, at age 26, and he published his theory of general relativity in 1915, at 36. Nothing thereafter came close, and his lifelong ambition, a unified field theory, escaped him.
Lawrence I. Bonchek, M.D.