Have you ever heard of the term? I hadn’t until I came across a recent book by Arthur Brooks called “Strength to Strength.” The book is about coming to terms with the realization that we can’t do everything forever and so how do we adjust to those changes while still living our lives.
So, what exactly is the “striver’s curse”? Brooks defines it as a curse affecting those who strive to be excellent at what they do (nothing wrong with that), but often wind up “finding their inevitable decline terrifying, their successes unsatisfying, and their relationships lacking.” Does this definition describe anyone you might know?
All of us, whether newbies, dinosaurs, or in between, understand transitions. We all make them, whether voluntarily or not, throughout our lives. Acceptance can be hard, especially for those who have sought the elusiveness of perfection. Many of us have said that we will work until we drop, whether out of need or desire to be useful and sharp for as long as possible. But Brooks says that a professional decline is inevitable, it’s just a matter of when that downward curve starts to show, regardless of what we think or believe.
I am not saying that peeps should be shoved out of the door at a certain age (an ADEA violation), but transitions are important milestones and should not be dismissed with a cursory wave of the hand, and a “I’m fine, don’t you worry about me.”
We talk about various kinds of addiction (substance abuse, for example), but what about the kind of addiction that way too many of us are in thrall to? Workaholism is just as insidious; it’s abuse of a different kind. We all have pulled overnighters, weekends in trial prep, and an occasional dose of that is different from those of us who find comfort and solace in work to the exclusion of the rest of our worlds. It’s so easy to shut the door on everything and everyone. All of us have been there, to a lesser or greater degree.
Brooks’ thesis is that in every high-skilled profession (and he includes lawyers in that category), “decline sets in somewhere in one’s late thirties and early fifties.” Here’s another zinger: “Among professions requiring knowledge and skill rather than athletic skill and significant physical strength, almost no one admits to facing decline before their seventies — some later than that. Unlike athletes, however, they are not facing reality.” Talk about punches to both the gut and ego. It’s hard to admit that many of us are not as sharp as we used to be.
Brooks suggests a reframing of how we think about our careers and subsequent transitions. He discusses two kinds of intelligence, “fluid” and “crystallized.” You can guess what the terms mean and how they apply to life transitions. Fluid intelligence is “the ability to reason, think flexibly and solve novel problems.” Crystallized intelligence relies on a “stock of knowledge that tends to increase with age and doesn’t diminish until quite late in life, if at all.” That’s institutional or historical knowledge and memory. At some point they intersect on what I would call an axis of life, and then fluid intelligence declines as crystallized intelligence increases. (I learned at least one thing in high school geometry, although my teacher would dispute that.)
Given the ever-changing nature of our profession (not talking about business development here) but about new laws, new cases, new interpretations of those laws and cases, I think that creativity in our profession never ends, at least if lawyers don’t want it to. It may not come as easily, but it’s still there, if desired. It may need a little prompting, however.
All of us dinosaurs will agree that with age comes wisdom, hard-fought as it may be. As Brooks says, “Knowledge is knowing a tomato is a fruit, but wisdom is not putting it in a fruit salad.”
Wisdom is inevitable in a life of missteps, mistakes, and missed opportunities. And it’s that wisdom that make dinosaurs and near dinosaurs so valuable. We mentor, we share our experiences, the valuable and the cringeworthy, in efforts to make the next generation and those to follow better able to avoid our faux pas and to be better lawyers than we could be, especially given today’s technology. Just as advertisers hawk “new and improved” products, we want to produce “new and improved lawyers.” However, it’s not easy to let go of what we have done, what we have been.
If you have never seen the movie “About Schmidt,” do so. It’s the story of a man (Jack Nicholson) who retires from his job as an actuary. He takes meticulous pride in making sure that everything in his files is ready for his successor. Several months later, after visiting his successor, he walks by the company’s garage and sees all his hard work in the company’s trash. So much for imparting his knowledge, so much for valuing his contributions. This clip is very painful and disheartening to watch, but so true. It is a vivid reminder, a visual lesson, that every single one of us has a professional shelf life. Our lives are a series of transitions. The striver’s curse exists for many of us. What do you choose to do about it?
Jill Switzer has been an active member of the State Bar of California for over 40 years. She remembers practicing law in a kinder, gentler time. She’s had a diverse legal career, including stints as a deputy district attorney, a solo practice, and several senior in-house gigs. She now mediates full-time, which gives her the opportunity to see dinosaurs, millennials, and those in-between interact — it’s not always civil. You can reach her by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.