On Being Adaptable

We can’t be blind to the deficits of aging, but we needn’t wallow in them.  The important question is how best to deal with decline in ways that bring satisfaction.  The eminent psychologist, Paul Baltes, loved to tell a story about the very eminent pianist, Arthur Rubinstein, that points the way.

Just in case you are too young to remember, Rubinstein may have been the greatest concert pianist of the twentieth century.  He played to sold-out houses well into his eighties, dazzling audiences with his virtuoso renditions of Mozart, Beethoven, Chopin, Stravinsky, and others.  He was known for his extraordinary vitality.  At an age when most musical artists slow down, Rubinstein was giving two concerts a week.  Even in his dotage, one critic wrote, he could “transmit the joy of music.”

One day, when Rubinstein was eighty-one, an awestruck young TV interviewer asked him how he had sustained his virtuosity so far into old age.  First, said the maestro, he plays fewer pieces, and not just fewer: he limits himself to those he loves and is still able to master.  This kind of Selection, Baltes tells us, is the first of a three-part strategy for successful aging.

The second part of the strategy is called Optimization.  Rubinstein practiced each of the selected pieces much more than in the past, and much more than he could if he continued to play a larger repertoire.  At an old age, he could prepare his chosen repertoire better than in his youth.

The third strategy required a kind of slight of hand.  “…to counteract his loss of mechanical speed he now used a kind of impression management, such as playing more slowly before fast segments to make the latter appear faster.”  This is Compensation.

Selection asks us to develop and commit ourselves to obtainable goals.  The goals vary from person to person.  You might want to paint landscapes, to construct a Japanese garden, or to visit exotic, distant places. The key is to carefully align your desires and your resources to attain your goals.  Once you identify your goals and decide you have a reasonable chance of reaching them, you have to commit to them.

There are two types of selection: elective and loss-based.  “Elective selection aims at achieving higher levels of functioning. In contrast, loss-based selection is a response to the loss of previously available resources that are necessary to maintain functioning.” For instance, I now walk to get in shape where once I ran.  Unless we want to give up, all of us need to accept the loss of some goals.  No matter how I dream, I’m never going to play basketball again, to take one absurd example. But I can take long walks and I can write for hours, and they take up the room once occupied by more demanding activities.

Baltes’ emphasizes elective selection. “Selection promotes successful aging in a number of ways. To feel committed to goals contributes to feeling that one’s life has a purpose. Furthermore, goals help organize behavior over time and across situations and guide attention and behavior.”  The very act of committed activity is health promoting.

As with Selection, we each seek optimization in varied and distinctive ways.  To take a simple example, we each need to figure out how best to train our aging bodies to hike a favorite trail or learn to dance the Tango.  We each decide how much time and energy we want to invest to optimize our chances of success.  I say, be realistic—you don’t want to fail and discourage yourself too much—but generally, aim high.

Research does too. “Trying to achieve growth-oriented goals is associated with a higher degree of self-efficacy and leads to positive emotions and enhanced well-being. In old age, when losses are prevalent, it might be of particular importance to sustain growth-related goals for promoting well-being, rather than focusing primarily on losses.”

Compensation need not be as tricky as Rubinstein made it.  It’s about finding alternative methods to achieve your goals.  Let’s say you want to build a beautiful Japanese garden.  When young, you might haul all of the rocks and soil by yourself.  When older, you can hire some young people to do the heavy lifting.  You’d still be the creative force behind the project.  Or, you still want to run a 10K race.  To do so, you might cut down on the training miles and increase the time on the yoga mat.

Compensation requires mental flexibility.  It asks you not to confuse the goal with the method of achieving the goal.  While keeping your goal in mind, think as freely as you can about all the possible routes to get there, and then choose the one that will most likely lead to success.

Baltes urges us not to compromise on our goals too quickly.  “…it might be more adaptive to maintain one’s goal by acquiring new resources or activating unused internal or external resources for alternative means of pursuing goals.”

The SOC model isn’t magic but it’s a damn good project design for living well during our later years.  It asks us to be thoughtful and open minded about what we want to do and what will give us satisfaction.  I’d bet that most of us have kept a lid on our own potential.  Take the lid off for a while, at least in your mind.  Then experiment before committing to goals.  Even the initial commitment may require a leap of faith.  If you’re going down uncharted waters, you can’t be sure about the outcome, but you do put yourself in position to learn what is possible and to grow in certainty.

Eventually, your new path will feel natural.  It will be easier to place your full resources behind it.  We all know how great it feels to put doubts behind and to go full bore towards some goal, however imperfect.  Engaged in that way, we literally lose self-consciousness.  As Arthur Rubinstein is when playing Chopin, we are at one with what we are doing.  We become timeless and ageless.  There is nothing better.

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Confidence and freedom

In my last letter I wrote about my desire for freedom and emphasized freedom from constraints.  But as we all know, there is more than one kind of freedom: freedom from and freedom to; and the feeling of being so absorbed that you lose self-consciousness.  You are free because you have escaped all those enervating inner monologues about doing better and doing more.

A key part of absorption is the experience of confidence.  You move through an activity feeling sure of yourself, not even worrying about mistakes, just flowing the way that an athlete moves when he is in a “zone,” the way a piano player’s fingers move across the keyboard, as though they are independent of her mind.  For a moment, there is almost no intention.  It’s just happening.  You’re just happening.

For the most part, we associate this kind of confidence with youth.  They are too young, we say, to understand all that can go wrong, and we envy their innocence.  But confidence is essential to aging as well, and that’s what I want to explore today.  I have been feeling confident in the writing I have been doing.  It has come easy.  Ideas and words are flowing.  I’d like to understand how to sustain it.

Researchers seem to prefer the phrase “self esteem,” and have gone to great lengths to measure it, even to measure its developmental course.  After large, longitudinal studies, for example, Ulrich Orth, PhD tells us that “Self esteem was lowest in young adults but increased throughout adulthood, peaking at age 60, before it started to decline.”  Retirement adds an extra push towards decline.  Good health and success in life help to stem the loss, as can many individual experiences.  But generally, confidence dips in step with aging.  As anyone observing very old people knows, anxiety comes increasingly into the forefront.

Being seventy four years old, and knowing that my health and strength will inevitably continue their downward course, I am particularly eager to remain confident anyway.  I keep asking myself: can health and confidence be separated?  I know that there are limits to how much I can control about my health.  The question is: can I build the discipline to focus on what I can control and on what makes me confident.

Paul Baltes, a developmental psychologist, had some very good ideas about this.  When describing his SOC model, he began with a story about the great concert pianist, Arthur Rubenstein.  Rubenstein had just given a performance to thunderous applause.  A young man approached him with a question: how do you keep playing so well at eighty six?  Rubenstein smiled, sat down carefully, and explained.  “First of all,” he said, “I have narrowed my repertoire a great deal.”  That’s what Baltus calls Selection.  You choose what you can and want to do well and eliminate what you can’t.  “Second,” Rubenstein continued, “I practice that small repertoire all the time.”  Baltus calls this Optimization.  You can sustain your nimbleness and effectiveness within a chosen range of activities.  “Third,” said Rubenstein, “I have tricks.  As you know, I am known for my speed and emphasis at the keyboard.  When I approach fast passages now, I slow down a great deal more than I used to.  That way, when I speed up, the difference between slow and fast is just as great, and I seem to have maintained my speed.”  That’s Compensation.

As I age, I’ll never get better with details and names.  I’ll need my grandchildren to help with my computer and my phone.  It’s unlikely that I’ll develop a flair for dancing or a keen understanding of quantum physics.  All of those arenas make me feel like an idiot and, unless I can laugh about them, sap my confidence.

What, then, is my comfort zone, arenas that build my confidence?  Most of all, I do feel that I see the big picture and the long view.  This is common enough for older people.  If you are sharp, you may have noticed that I have been writing blog posts lately.  They are flowing from my mind, something like the way that Rubenstein’s fingers still flow across the keyboard.  The ease is surprising and wonderful.  And like Rubenstein, I have some ideas about why this is happening.

First, many specific topics fit into a pretty extensive base of knowledge.  I’m an old guy.  I’ve been reading and listening and thinking for decades.  I have accumulated all sorts of ideas about how things work and what motivates people.  There are streams of ideas, impressions, stories floating around my brain, and new ideas fit within the streams.  These streams are waiting to be tapped.  I don’t have to search too far for what an event in the news means to me.  The whole process is so fluid, so automatic that ideas to write about virtually form themselves.  As a result, I have such a good feeling of freedom and confidence when I am at my (computer) keyboard.

And I trust the ideas.  They just feel right.  I also trust them because they don’t have to be exactly “right” or “the best.”  They are mine and that’s enough.  You can’t grow old without becoming at least a little eccentric, and I’m comfortable with that.  That, too, feels liberating.

So let’s return to Baltes.  I have selected an activity, writing, that I’ve been doing for more than fifty years.  I’ve chosen a form of writing—brief essays—that is much easier than the complex essays and books I once wrote.  Like Arthur Rubenstein, if a tad less successfully, I am learning and practicing my craft with discipline. That’s optimization.  I’m not sure what tricks I am using but one may be that I’ve been writing in the spoken voice.  It’s like talking to a friend—or writing a letter to a friend.  A letter on aging.  I don’t have to pretend to be setting the standard for a professional field.  I’m just talking.  That’s compensation.

As I write or talk to friends about my new toy, the blog, I do feel good, even confident.  My hope is that you, too, will look into your own activities, then, in your own way, follow Arthur Rubenstein’s example.  Let me know if it makes you feel more confident and, with confidence, free.