It’s Sunday as I finish writing this, and I’m reflecting on work on this biblically traditional day of rest. Specifically, I’m thinking about not working, i.e., retirement. The ultimate rest for the dues-paid-in-full working stiff.
I didn’t plan it, but I retired first. Before any start to a career. Through my four-year college degree program that took seven on-and-off years to complete, and a few more years on top of those, I spent my time doing a host of things one associates with a traditional retirement: playing golf, reading, hitting the beach, doing a range of odd jobs to make some money, keeping my “nut” as low as possible to match the lean cash flow, taking classes to keep my brain in the game, writing in my journal, doing some traveling, offering some folks and good causes time and help, reflecting on life past and future, learning a couple of new hobbies, hanging with similarly positioned friends, and observing with secret satisfaction all those other people who spin themselves into a frenzy in their workaday existence.
Of course, retiring first also gave me the benefit of doing it while enjoying the good health that youth typically offers, if not the better money or good sense that senior status typically offers. Today, as a card-carrying sexagenarian—a stage when culture traditionally expects me and my ilk to have hung it up—I find myself looking back on that earlier period. And admittedly, my perspective from my current wisdom-informed worldview is that I was aimless, unambitious, untethered to responsibilities like career-building and family-building, struck with wanderlust, and not too concerned about it all. In other words, I was what society calls a bum. A Young Bum, not a Young Gun like today’s precociously talented youth are dubbed.
So, unplanned, I retired first. Had a good run. Then had enough, couldn’t run anymore, sought a new path, and got to work. (Also, I finally employed a CEO for my brain. More on that below.) In my case, the work was writing. I’ve been writing ever since. Four decades’ worth of words. If only I had charged by the word. I love doing it, I (usually) get paid to do it, and I have no intention of stopping. But what about that “real” retirement? After 40-plus years of working, shouldn’t I and others like me seriously be considering that?
I could. But here’s something I recently learned, with unassailable data to back it up: Folks in their 60s like me (and well beyond) can perform their work—writing, woodworking, scientific research, songwriting, consulting, practicing law, designing, entrepreneurial pursuits and on and on—at their highest level ever during these years. And “highest level” means more productive, innovative, collaborative, knowledgeable, wise, and creative than most younger people in the same positions. The data is quite convincing that those of us who qualified for the American Association of Retired Persons several years ago (they should not be sending out their first membership solicitation when you’re 50, for crying out loud) usually have several more years of continued high performance and further advancement ahead of us.
I could choose to continue my writing work at this stage out of sheer guilt that I had taken a sloppy undeserved retirement before even getting to work and don’t deserve another one. Or I could take the knowledge of likely future productivity and purposeful contribution and ask myself, “Why would I leave all that on the table for an unending series of tee times?”
I glommed onto and grappled with all this and more last year while reading the mind-opening book, Late Bloomers: The Power of Patience in a World Obsessed with Early Achievement, by Rich Karlgaard, the long-time publisher of Forbes magazine as well as entrepreneur, speaker, and confirmed Late Bloomer. (Important note of clarification: By “late bloomers,” Karlgaard does not just mean someone in advanced years who finally accomplishes something. He means someone at just about any mature adult age who ultimately “blooms” with some success or achievement; and the “blooming” can happen multiple times in a life, not just once.)
While the book was inspiring and enlightening in pointing out the positives and strengths people at my age can take with us into the coming years of professional output and personal productivity, it also was nothing short of an epiphany in helping me understand that my “early” retirement, my vagabond period, my wanton youth, maybe wasn’t a sign of purely reprobate behavior after all.
I now see I was, and in some significant ways still am, a Late Bloomer as Karlgaard describes. And I’m just one of countless such Late Bloomers all around us, according to the research. Maybe you can relate. As I look back on it, I’m lucky to have gotten away with a retirement at all, early or otherwise. These days senior folks are working well past the traditional retirement age, for a variety of reasons, oftentimes financial.
I’m fortunate to have the prospect of meaningful work now and into the foreseeable future, COVID and chaos be damned. That “early” retirement will likely end up being the only one of its kind that I’ll experience. Frankly, I wouldn’t enjoy that kind of existence much now anyway—some of it, maybe, but not all of it. My values and experiences then aren’t my values and desired experiences now. It took quite a while for me to understand it, but actually getting to work at something you love doing is one of the greatest blessings you can have. And, if we’re to accept the polling data out there, loving your work is an experience that’s sadly all too rare.
Retirement? No thanks. “Rewirement?” Hmm, sounds interesting. “Refirement?” For sure. Karlgaard explains (all subsequent blockquotes come from his book):
We must stop excessively glorifying precocious achievement [the wunderkind ideal] and seeing human development as a “fast track” on-ramp for early success. Not only is it unjust to the majority of us, it’s profoundly inhumane. It ignores the natural-born gifts that we all possess. It cuts off paths of discovery for our more latent or later-blooming gifts and passions. It trivializes the value of character, experience, empathy, wisdom, reliability, tenacity, and a host of other admirable qualities that make us successful and fulfilled. And it undercuts the majority of us who are potential late bloomers.
The wunderkind ideal wasn’t so much a factor in American culture and society when I was of an age to have qualified, by age alone if not the exceptional talent. We got to go to college (if you were lucky enough back then to have the family support and enough means to do so) and truly “navel gaze,” as higher ed was designed to be then. Muse about life and your future career, have a few fits and starts, change majors seven times on average.
I recall that a semester of tuition at Louisiana State University cost about $300 back then. You could, without stockpiling debt, flunk out your very first semester, rethink things, then get back to school after waiting a semester and try again. Do better. Hit the books. But not well enough to avoid flunking out one more time. Take a year off for a fascinating job in another country. Then finally graduate cum laude with a customized degree called “Humanities Interdisciplinary.” Do it all guilt free, and not be broke for a decade. All of which I did.
One thing at work back then for me—or not at work, as this case shows—was my brain’s “executive function.”
Eighteen- to twenty-five-year-olds are literally incapable of making responsible judgments, paying sufficient attention, or managing their emotions. Yet at this age they’re being measured and fitted (via tests, grades, and job interviews) for the trajectory of the rest of their lives. This makes no sense.
The incapacities Karlgaard cites are related to brain development, specifically the “executive functioning” that lives in the frontal lobe. The so-called “CEO” of the brain can be slow to fully form, such that the mental maturation process can last into a person’s late 20s or even 30s. I’d like to believe the late-blooming development of my executive function was surely a part of my “retirement”; I didn’t really start buckling down until I reached about 29. Surely other aspects were at play for me, too, such as garden-variety immaturity, chronic laziness, as well as creative curiosity that sent me a-wanderin’ mentally and physically just about anywhere. (I’ve kept a list of all the jobs, odd and otherwise, I held during this timeframe, and I’ve started writing about some of the more, let’s say, “interesting” ones. First one on deck: Sewerage Treatment Plant Operator I… coming soon to a virtual bookshelf near you.)
There is a compelling neurological rationale for taking a year or two off before, during, or after college. People who prolong adolescent brain plasticity for even a short time enjoy intellectual advantages over their more fixed counterparts in the work world. Studies have found that highly accomplished people enjoy a longer period during which new synapses continue to proliferate. The evidence is clear: Exposure to novelty and challenge while the brain’s frontal cortex is still plastic leads to greater long-term career success.
Karlgaard entertainingly cites many fascinating examples of people who did much as I did, most of whom ended up just fine—and in some cases, really fine like J.K. Rowling. These stories about late bloomers, whether the blooming happened in their 30s, 60s, or even 90s, are some of the best parts of the book. I should also mention that his stories of the precocious achievers, many famous ones, who shot to stardom right out of the gate (Bill Gates aside), only to crash and burn, are equally riveting and highly confirmative of the book’s thesis.
Our brains are constantly forming neural networks and patterns—recognition capabilities that we didn’t have in our youth when we had blazing synaptic horsepower. As we get older, we develop new skills and refine others, including social awareness, emotional regulation, empathy, humor, listening, risk-reward calibration, and adaptive intelligence… abilities we acquire up until the end of our lives.
Chapter 4 of the book, titled “The Six Strengths of Late Bloomers,” is simply packed with fascinating information. The deeper explorations of these six strengths are illuminating, but here’s the list: curiosity, compassion, resilience, equanimity, insight, and wisdom. And the key point Karlgaard makes is that each of these is conferred only with time. Diving as deeply as I have been into this recollection of my Decade of Delayed Development (my term, not Karlgaard’s), I’m inclined to give myself some grace and be thankful that Patience (the key word in the book’s subtitle) finally, somewhere, somehow, entered the picture for me.
What about our creativity, our ability to land upon the unexpected insight? Once again, we retain that capability for much longer than previously thought. The idea is that random thinking—seeing beyond the obvious—is connected to creative thinking. When an apple falls from a tree, the creative person doesn’t simply think that apple must have been ripe; like Isaac Newton, she sees the apple fall and pictures the invisible force of gravity.
If this sounds like self-promotion, it is, but for my whole superannuated cohort: Karlgaard’s keen insights and data-driven analyses show why you should hire (or keep) talented people of, let’s just say, ages later than are currently in vogue in ad agencies, marketing departments, social-platform giants, and lots of other places.
One of my favorite quotes from a writer’s standpoint is from Henry David Thoreau: “How vain it is to sit down to write when you have not stood up to live.” I’ve used that thought to support my procrastination on personal writing projects for years, saying to myself, “Hey, buddy, you’re just not ready.” But for this purpose, I’ll paraphrase: “How dumb it is to have a 25-year-old barely out of her art school bubble create real-world advertising reaching out to incontinent seniors on welfare.” Okay, that’s an exaggeration (or maybe not), but you get my drift. And, with that, I’ve ticked off a bunch of bright and talented twenty-something friends and colleagues of mine in the biz. I didn’t mean you!
Why should a sixty-five-year-old or a seventy-two-year-old not work if they want to and their employer finds their contribution to be valuable, at the right level of pay? (Note to CEOs: If your human resources and legal departments can’t figure this out, replace them with ones that can.)
Why not, indeed? And that “level of pay” part is key. It’s utterly illogical to squeeze out a senior employee who’s fully and richly capable just because she or he has a salary now deemed too high (or ignorantly assumed to be cognitively diminished, over the hill, out to pasture, all washed up). It’s entirely logical to keep the person who’s good and likes their job, and has unique qualities to offer, and just agree to an appropriately lower pay, with maybe some diminished responsibilities or shift in duties (e.g., reducing or eliminating stressful client contact for a creative who can then focus on the brilliant concepting). Sounds like a win-win to me.
I recently returned to the world of freelance following a five-year full-time stint as lead copywriter and creative director on a large agency’s largest account, and I can honestly say that those five years were the best of my career on several levels, like those mentioned earlier: more productive, innovative, collaborative, knowledgeable, wise, and creative. Did I, as of changing my status to lone-wolf freelancer, just because of the number of years on the planet, lose all those abilities overnight? Again, I’m pleading the case not just for me, but for all my chronologically advanced peeps.
Our brains are driven to seek calmness as we age. Columbia University social psychologist Heidi Grant Halvorson claims that calmness is central to happiness. As we age, she says, “happiness becomes less the high-energy, totally psyched experience of a teenager partying while his parents are out of town, and more the peaceful, relaxing experience of an overworked mom who’s been dreaming of that hot bath all day. The latter isn’t less ‘happy’ than the former—it’s a different way of understanding what happiness is.”
What better person to have working in the often hectic and chaotic trenches alongside you than someone who’s calm and growing in calmness every day and who’s been through these fire drills countless times and intuitively understands the patterns associated with them and how to use them to succeed. And not only that, but someone who’s happy, too. And not a watered-down version of happiness, but a wised-up version of what’s truly worth being happy about. Go ahead, tap that sixty-something who retired first, stretched the plasticity of her brain, and gained unique and highly marketable strengths through the whole unintended experience, to the great benefit of her career-long employers.
As we age, we collect and store information. That, and not a “fuzzy memory,” is part of the reason it takes us longer to recall certain facts. We simply have more things to remember. Older people have vastly more information in their brains than young people do, so retrieving it naturally takes longer. In addition, the quality of the information in older people’s brains is more nuanced. While younger people excel in tests of cognitive speed, one study found, older people show “greater sensitivity to fine-grained differences.”
In terms of what Karlgaard and others call “crystallized intelligence”—the cumulative and growing amounts of skill, knowledge, and experiences we acquire in life—those of us in our seasoned years know a thing or two (million). And we tend to see, typically more clearly than those lacking our depth of crystallized intelligence, the nuances, subtleties, and pin-pricks of light in a given situation, which are often right where the sparks of true insights are found—i.e., the kind of lively and actionable insights that really kick a Creative Brief (and creative practitioner) into high gear.
We get smarter and more creative as we age, research shows. Our brain’s anatomy, neural networks, and cognitive abilities can actually improve with age and increased life experiences. Contrary to the mythology of Silicon Valley, older employees may be even more productive, innovative, and collaborative than younger ones.
Okay, so a couple words to all the youthful people, my many friends and colleagues and former colleagues out there, whom I (and Karlgaard) seem to be trashing throughout this piece. To the contrary! What Rich Karlgaard is speaking to and I’m trying to reinforce is the egregious unfairness and incorrectness of what our culture puts by way of expectations and paths forward for our teens, twenty-somethings and beyond.
For the unfortunate majority, however, our latent skills are neither discovered nor recognized nor encouraged until much later, if ever. As a result, most of us are falsely labeled as having less talent or ambition; we’re written off as lazy or apathetic. But in reality, the light simply isn’t shining on [young people’s] true abilities, on the things [they] can do uniquely well. The toxic combination of early pressure and conformity is turning us into machines.
Karlgaard clearly is not arguing for the Beaupre Method of Delayed Advancement through Really Early Reckless Retirement here, and I’m definitely not either. Yes, for sure, let’s consider, hire, unleash the wiser older practitioners out there for everything truly valuable they can offer employers and brands and mentees and communities and industries. Just as important, maybe more important in the longer scheme of things, I think we need to give a whole lot of grace and encouragement and opportunity to those younger ones who seem to be in those early stages of struggling and on whom, like for me once, the “light simply isn’t shining”—yet. Let’s celebrate our next generations’ full range of human ability and possibility. And as Karlgaard posits, let’s give them all diverse timetables and genuine opportunities for individual success and achievement.
I strongly believe, as Karlgaard does, that we need to go back to what it used to be:
In the past, success was not about becoming rich or famous, or about achieving as much as possible as early as possible. Rather, it was about having the opportunity to live to our fullest potential. It was about being appreciated for who we are as individuals.
So enough already with the wunderkind ideal. Let us each, younger and older and in between, be and do our best and keep doing so without looking at the clock or the calendar or the culture’s misplaced expectations. May you, too, be blessed in your work. To my peers who are of such a bent, here’s to a great refirement. And if you’re not, more power to ya. Keep it in the short grass. As for me, I did retirement first, and once was enough.
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