Intelligence is both Fluid and Crystallised

intelligence and professional decline

Over 45? Feeling increasingly irrelevant at work?

I recently read a wonderful long essay in The Atlantic by Arthur Brooks entitled:

“Your Professional Decline Is Coming (Much) Sooner Than You Think”

Depressed yet?

Well, within this in-depth and thought-provoking article, let me today highlight one area where awareness of what it says may actually give you cause for great optimism.

Intelligence is both Fluid and Crystallised

When we feel pessimistic and even depressed, often it is due to feeling a lack of choice to change either our circumstances or how we relate to them.

As Frankl would say:

Between Stimulus and Response There Is a Space.
In That Space Is Our Power To Choose Our Response

As we age, particularly in our professional lives, it is easy to begin to feel less and less relevant, hence to feel we have less choice and so we can feel down about it, powerless even.

This is a core theme of the work of Chip Conley, author of Wisdom at Work, around what he calls transitioning to being a “Modern Elder”. Among the more than 600 articles on this site, I’ve written much about Chip, his book, and the theme of Modern Elder. If it intrigues you, do use the search option at the top of this page to find out more.

For today, though, among the many gems in the long article noted above, I was particularly taken with this section, with the key learning at the end:

What’s the difference between Bach and Darwin? Both were preternaturally gifted and widely known early in life. Both attained permanent fame posthumously. Where they differed was in their approach to the midlife fade. When Darwin fell behind as an innovator, he became despondent and depressed; his life ended in sad inactivity. When Bach fell behind, he reinvented himself as a master instructor. He died beloved, fulfilled, and—though less famous than he once had been—respected.

The lesson for you and me, especially after 50: Be Johann Sebastian Bach, not Charles Darwin.

How does one do that?

A potential answer lies in the work of the British psychologist Raymond Cattell, who in the early 1940s introduced the concepts of fluid and crystallized intelligence. Cattell defined fluid intelligence as the ability to reason, analyze, and solve novel problems—what we commonly think of as raw intellectual horsepower. Innovators typically have an abundance of fluid intelligence. It is highest relatively early in adulthood and diminishes starting in one’s 30s and 40s. This is why tech entrepreneurs, for instance, do so well so early, and why older people have a much harder time innovating.

Crystallized intelligence, in contrast, is the ability to use knowledge gained in the past. Think of it as possessing a vast library and understanding how to use it. It is the essence of wisdom. Because crystallized intelligence relies on an accumulating stock of knowledge, it tends to increase through one’s 40s, and does not diminish until very late in life.

Careers that rely primarily on fluid intelligence tend to peak early, while those that use more crystallized intelligence peak later. For example, Dean Keith Simonton has found that poets—highly fluid in their creativity—tend to have produced half their lifetime creative output by age 40 or so. Historians—who rely on a crystallized stock of knowledge—don’t reach this milestone until about 60.

Here’s a practical lesson we can extract from all this: No matter what mix of intelligence your field requires, you can always endeavor to weight your career away from innovation and toward the strengths that persist, or even increase, later in life.

Like what? As Bach demonstrated, teaching is an ability that decays very late in life, a principal exception to the general pattern of professional decline over time. A study in The Journal of Higher Education showed that the oldest college professors in disciplines requiring a large store of fixed knowledge, specifically the humanities, tended to get evaluated most positively by students. This probably explains the professional longevity of college professors, three-quarters of whom plan to retire after age 65—more than half of them after 70, and some 15 percent of them after 80. (The average American retires at 61.) One day, during my first year as a professor, I asked a colleague in his late 60s whether he’d ever considered retiring. He laughed, and told me he was more likely to leave his office horizontally than vertically.

I need a reverse bucket list. My goal for each year of the rest of my life should be to throw out things, obligations, and relationships.

Our dean might have chuckled ruefully at this—college administrators complain that research productivity among tenured faculty drops off significantly in the last decades of their career. Older professors take up budget slots that could otherwise be used to hire young scholars hungry to do cutting-edge research. But perhaps therein lies an opportunity: If older faculty members can shift the balance of their work from research to teaching without loss of professional prestige, younger faculty members can take on more research.

Patterns like this match what I’ve seen as the head of a think tank full of scholars of all ages. There are many exceptions, but the most profound insights tend to come from those in their 30s and early 40s. The best synthesizers and explainers of complicated ideas—that is, the best teachers—tend to be in their mid-60s or older, some of them well into their 80s.

That older people, with their stores of wisdom, should be the most successful teachers seems almost cosmically right. No matter what our profession, as we age we can dedicate ourselves to sharing knowledge in some meaningful way.

What are your thoughts from this? Do email or message me, would love to learn from you.

As for myself, I’m 53 at the time of writing. I do find that I’m less about fluid intelligence these days and more about crystallised intelligence. I do absorb learnings and problem solve (fluid), yet perhaps find that less easy than when younger. At the same time I find it easier and easier to tap into my library of knowledge and apply it (crystallised), often with a speed of thought that surprises me.

I’ve therefore shifted my professional life over time to match that, hence my role as a sounding board, mentor and coach to others.

Finally, at the heart of it is acceptance of change and the choice to respond rather than react. For me, this is the shift in all I do into helping others through first learning and then sharing knowledge.

From the short post: “Purpose, work, gifts, sharing“:

“The purpose of life is to discover your gift.
The work of life is to develop it.
The meaning of life is to give your gift away.”

~ David Viscott


Also published on Medium.

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