In Praise of the Aging Mind

When I was a child, I would float in the ocean while my mind wandered to far off lands.  I am not so different now.  I often quiet myself in meditation-like trances, in the shower with water soothing sore places, or on slow walks under low skies.  It seems that my mind touches down wherever it chooses, and when it returns, it comes with the solution to a problem that I had posed.  To this day, I am amazed by the magic, which has grown richer with age.

When I am with friends, we talk about our aging brains.  We can’t do math as well, we lament.  We have trouble learning new languages, especially the technical languages that our children and grandchildren absorb with breakfast.  Our memory isn’t as good.  We can’t find words or remember names.  We are absent minded.  How often do we walk into a room to find something only to find that we don’t remember why we had come?

We worry about our decaying and betraying minds with foreboding and fear, as though we are already in a steady and soon-to-be debilitating decline.  In contemporary America, fear of Alzheimer’s disease seems second only to fear of cancer in its reach.  The big C and the big A.  Even when the fear of dementia is out of consciousness, it seems to be lurking nearby.  We’ve watched our parents fall to it.  We’ve seen friends falter.  We wonder when our time will come.

But most of every day I don’t feel that way.  I learn every day and I revel in the play of my mind.  I trust my mind.  When faced with a problem or an opportunity, there are so many reservoirs of knowledge and experience to draw upon, so many cognitive and emotional templates that I didn’t have when I was young.  I feel less constrained by conventional ideas.  Why worry about convention at this point in life?  Freedom and creativity are far more alluring.

There is a name that the pioneer of psychometric researcher, Raymond Cattell, has given to the type of intelligence that wanes in old age: “fluid intelligence” is the ability to reason and solve novel problems, independent of accumulated knowledge.  It’s the ability to analyze problems that you’ve never seen before, to identify patterns and relationships that underpin these problems and to extrapolate from these patterns by using logic. This is the stuff of logical problem solving, as well as scientific, mathematical, and technical problem solving.  It is the form of intelligence tested by I.Q. exams and generally peaks in the twenties.

Cattell has also given a name to the type of intelligence that most guides me at seventy four: Crystallized intelligence, which is acquired through experience and education.  It shows up in verbal skills, inductive reasoning, and judgment. While fluid intelligence is often considered largely a product of genetics, crystallized intelligence is much more dependent on “a bouquet of influences, including personality, motivation, opportunity and culture.”

Richard E. Nisbett, a cognitive psychologist at the University of Michigan, has long argued that “when it comes to intelligence, experience can outrun biology… Older people,” he argues, “make more use of higher-order reasoning schemes that emphasize the need for multiple perspectives, allow for compromise, and recognize the limits of knowledge.”  Despite a decline in fluid intelligence, complicated reasoning that relates to people, moral issues or political institutions improves with age.  The brain’s most powerful tool is its “ability to quickly scan a vast storehouse of templates for relevant information and past experience to come up with a novel solution to a problem. In this context, the mature brain is especially well equipped, which is probably why we still associate wisdom with age.”

Modern society has virtually jettisoned the idea of wisdom, preferring knowledge and the rapid advance of technological skills.  But I am entranced by the idea of wisdom and consider it the great gift of healthy aging.  If you strip from wisdom its mystical side, it can be defined as the quality of having experience, knowledge, perspective, confidence, and good judgment.

By perspective, I mean the capacity to see events and ideas from a bird’s eye view.  We see and recognize patterns of action and thought in ourselves and in others.  “Oh,” we might say, “I’ve tried that approach before and it never works” or “It only works when combined with kindness or firmness.”  Or with certain kinds of people.  We might note an idea keeps intruding or dominating our thinking but know from long experience that it is more a habit of mind than real problem solving or creative thinking.  Through experience—and reflection—we know the mental and social territory that we dwell in; we know its travails, its traps, its challenges.  And we know the way through the thickets to open spaces.

By perspective, I also mean calm.  A frequent advantage of age is the quieting that comes with experience.  The anxious, internal chatter that clouds the thinking of so many younger people, tends to dissipate.  The intensity dims, too.  This is both loss and gain.  The gain is that you see even difficult or dangerous situations without panic or impetuousness or competitive urges. The idea is to solve a problem not to be the best.  In old age, the focus is less on you, more on solutions.

Let me illustrate my point by observing its opposite.  Take a look at Donald Trump’s failure of wisdom.  He lacks knowledge, perspective, and judgment.  His intellectual style has bogged down in adolescence. He is self centered.  He needs to ‘win’ at all costs, even if winning leads to failure, which it often does.  Most of us, to our great advantage, grow out of this phase

We build our confidence not out of bravado but experience.  You have traveled many pathways in your life, sometimes with success, sometimes not, but you have come to know the territory.  You know it so well that, even when you diverge from your regular pathways, you are pretty sure you can find your way to safety.  The confidence we feel is more realistic, more solid.  We are clearer and more forthright about both our strengths and our limitations.  We don’t need to hope and pretend as much.

I have the good fortune to have many former students, now leaders of nonprofit organizations, who come for advice.  The pleasure that I take in sharing what I’ve learned over the years is hard to express.  The acuity and confidence I feel when helping to advance their careers and their lives is a gift that I have given to myself as much as to them.  It is the gift of giving and it is the gift of play.  I love thinking with others.

I am hardly unique in having knowledge and experience to share.  There are vast amounts of untapped wisdom among my peers, needing only to be recognized and utilized, if only our culture will grant aging intelligence its imprimatur.

 

 

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Completing a Career

This essay is the first in a series of personal explorations into the completion of careers.   Ending a career marks a monumental shift in a life, especially for those who have very much defined themselves through their work.  The essays will address questions like: what does it mean to be done?; how can we say that we have done enough to satisfy the desires and demons from within; how can we feel proud and at peace with ourselves so that we can meet the challenges in the next stage of our lives.

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The year was 2005.  I was sixty-three years old.  I had already had a substantial career.  In the way that novelists have with book jacket bios—truck driver, cowhand, waiter, and drifter—my own winding career had its own cache: historian, therapist, consultant, writer, entrepreneur. I had adjusted well to my failure to become a professional basketball player, a Pulitzer prize winning novelist, and the leader of a social-democratic revolution. But I didn’t feel complete.  I wasn’t sure why.  And the years were whizzing by.

Part of the urgency came from my sense of living on borrowed time.  My father had died from pancreatic cancer at fifty.  I was twenty-six.  I was filled with a childlike sense of magical thinking and believed that I would also died by the age of fifty.  This wasn’t a vague notion.  I believed it with the same certainty that the sun would rise in the morning.  My friends and family still tease me about how well I prepared them for my impending death.  I seem to have survived my fiftieth birthday but at fifty-eight I got cancer, myself.  When the initial surgery failed to capture all those cruel little cancer cells, my conviction about a short life simply reignited.

The next few years again defied my expectations.  I was alive and energetic, and I was faced with the question of what to do with my life.  I had given up psychotherapy.  After almost thirty years, I was too restless to sit still listening to an endless stream of distress and rage.  I had returned to my consulting business, often working with big organizations like State Street Bank and  Honeywell Corporation.  While lucrative, the work felt barren to me.  I really didn’t care about helping rich people get richer.  I did care about supporting the work of the nonprofits to which I also consulted.  Their mission to empower the disempowered, to house, feed, and educate people living in poverty, appealed greatly to me.

If I was going to live, I wanted that ever-present “one more shot” that you hear from people who are not yet ready to cash in their chips.  And I wanted to focus on communities most in need.  I wanted a shot at doing something worthwhile.  Yes, helping couples and families resolve their difficulties had been a good thing to do.  I loved many of the people I worked with and felt gratified when their lives improved—and heartbreaking when they didn’t.  When I complained to my wife that it wasn’t enough, she would remind me of the hundreds of people I had helped and about the thousands of people that my students had helped.  But it still didn’t feel sufficient.

Sufficient for what, though?  I don’t know how to put this in psychological or professional language but I wanted something that touched my soul.  I wanted work that drew from the well of my deepest values.  Only that would permit me to complete my career and to feel that I had done enough.  At the time, I couldn’t articulate this desire very clearly.  It was more like an ache in my heart in need of fulfillment.

In 2005, I saw an opportunity.  I had been engaged with the Boston nonprofit community for some time, consulting to organizations and coaching its executives.  These are dedicated, often gifted people who work long hours for modest pay.  But they have learned their craft in a hit and miss manner, mostly by trial and error.  Maybe they found a mentor along the way, but they rarely find the time or resources for formal education.  I had some experience building training programs, in 1974 founding, with David Kantor and Carter Umbarger, the Family Institute of Cambridge to teach practicing therapists how to work with couples and families.  I believed that I could do the same for nonprofit leaders.

What made the opportunity most compelling was the potential to build a more diverse leadership cadre.  Nonprofits serve people and communities of color in disproportionately high numbers, but only 12-14% of the organizations are led by people of color.  This needs to change.  It is both unjust and ineffective.  The ability to mobilize the resources of organizations and communities depends in part on the credibility of leadership and the rapport among them.  What’s more, the time seemed ripe to make a great impact on nonprofit leadership.  Research now tells us what I knew intuitively in 2005.  The imminent retirement of the baby boomers meant that 70% of nonprofit leaders would leave their jobs within the next five years.  If we could educate and help place young leaders of color in urban centers—now minority-majority cities—powerful social progress could be achieved.

During that first year, Hubie Jones, the dean of Boston’s nonprofit community and a member of my Advisory Board, asked me a simple question: “What’s in this for you, Barry?”  With a little bit of tongue in cheek, I said “It would make my parents proud.”  Once out of my mouth, I realized that I meant it.  My parents had long championed social justice.  That was the religion into which I was born and raised; and the development of the Institute for Nonprofit Management and Leadership (INML) felt to me like a homecoming, a return to direct contact with the values that animated my childhood.  The possibility of feeling whole, bringing together my values and my actions, seemed tantalizingly near.

 

So I began.  I called lots of friends and colleagues, described the new curriculum and asked them to send students.  They did: fourteen that first year, more than half young leaders of color. I loved the teaching.  I loved just getting to know all of the young people who attended classes.  Even without knowing or, in the beginning, thinking, I could build the INML into a substantial force in Massachusetts, the work was satisfying, in itself.  I didn’t have a blazing dream nor great ambitions nor even clear goals.  I just thought that I’d start something that I liked to do and that I believed in.  Now there are over 700 graduates of year-long programs situated in four cities in Massachusetts and Rhode Island with more to come.

Building the INML meant talking and writing about it all of the time.  I had to recruit new students.  In the beginning I met with each prospective student to discover his or her goals and to explain what our program was all about.  Our connection felt—and was— personal.  I had to recruit teachers, board members, philanthropists.  There would be weekly meetings with foundations in which I had to try persuading program officers that the INML was a wonderful investment.  All of this meant that all day, every day, I was talking the language of social justice and diversity, skill and network building and gathering a cadre of strong, well-educated, well-positioned leaders of color.  I bathed myself in a world of language that spoke directly to my values and informed my actions.  I was incredibly active but often it felt like the experience was happening by itself and I was carried along in its surge.

I can’t say that I grasped the full meaning that the INML would have for me right away.  Rather the meaning spread through the days until I had to acknowledge it.  There are about 36,000 nonprofits in Massachusetts serving more than a millions people.  If we could make the leadership even a little better, they would make their services better, which would mean a great deal to those millions.  We could make a difference and I, personally, could live in the world of difference-making.

This, more than anything—joining the fight for social justice and doing so in a way that I had something to offer—was not only satisfying, it also permitted me to complete my career.  I had immersed myself for a decade in the convergence of my values and my activities.  The immersion was sustained.  It was like completing a circle, from childhood to old age:  living my values more deeply, more immediately, and to some effect.  My parents might be proud but, at last, I felt proud.  I felt at one with myself, peaceful and fierce in my work.  And ready to let it go, ready to enter the post-retirement stage of life.