This question is prompted by a speech that John W. Gardner, a noted educator, delivered to McKinsey and Co. in 1990. His audience was composed of highly successful people in the prime of their lives, (people just like those who read these posts), yet he felt compelled to deliver an urgent message about avoiding complacency and staleness.
“We can’t write off the danger of complacency, growing rigidity, imprisonment by our own comfortable habits and opinions. Look around you. How many people whom you know well — people even younger than yourselves –are already trapped in fixed attitudes and habits? A famous French writer said “There are people whose clocks stop at a certain point in their lives.”
We all know people like this, people who have stopped learning and growing, who haven’t had an original thought since maybe their twenties, who are counting the diminishing number of years until they can retire and really stagnate. Some have checked out because they’re satisfied with where they are, or because they have learned their jobs so well they can basically do them in their sleep. Some less fortunate ones have simply learned to accept their dissatisfaction, defeated by apathy, bureaucracy or boredom. My Dad worked in the private sector all his life, and in retirement went to work for a county agency. After a week on the job his coworkers pulled him aside and told him to stop working so hard, because it made them look bad. He went with the flow at work, but his clock kept running and he kept his zeal for learning. The week he died, at 86, he had just attended a class to learn how to use yoga to improve his golf game.
The good news is that your clock does not have to stop, and even if it has, you can rewind it and start it again. As Gardner explains, life is not a mountain that has a summit, or a game with a final score.
“Life is an endless unfolding, and if we wish it to be, an endless process of self-discovery, an endless and unpredictable dialogue between our own potentialities and the life situations in which we find ourselves. By potentialities I mean not just intellectual gifts but the full range of one’s capacities for learning, sensing, wondering, understanding, loving and aspiring.”
The important thing is not to lose your zest for learning and growing. No matter how old or how young you are, it is never too late.
Although it’s an extreme example, a story that I read recently in the Fort Lauderdale Sun Sentinel illustrates this well. As described in the article, Tom Galjour has Stage 4 metastatic small cell lung cancer. Two and a half years ago, he was told he had at most a few weeks to live. Soon thereafter, he was rushed to the hospital, where the doctors prescribed hospice and morphine. His friend Ted Owens called Galjour’s ex-wife and said, “You better come, too—it’s time”, at which point Tom said, “Time? Time for what? This is bull___!” as he ripped off the wires connecting him to monitors. He refused hospice and left to die at home. After suffering in bed for two weeks, he told Ted, “Hand me my guitar. Screw this, I’m not ready to go today.”
Tom managed to get out of bed and restart his life. He decided to supplement his medical care with his own approach, which included buying a $4,000 sniper rifle (hey, everybody has their own way of enjoying life) and lifting weights. At 64, weighing 150 pounds and hooked to an oxygen machine, he recently benched 240 pounds, and now is aiming for 260.
As the article says, medical research hasn’t found a correlation between “fighting spirit” and survival rates. Maybe Galjour would have survived this long even without this attitude – but would that life have contained the same level of zest and richness? He is one man who has refused to let his clock stop…
I’ve written before about one of my favorite books, Mindset by Carol Dweck. Dweck’s research has found that children grow up either with a fixed mindset and believe that intelligence and ability are innate and unchangeable, or a growth mindset which holds that we can improve and grow through effort. Her studies have shown that children with a fixed mindset, even those who are very bright, tend to protect their status as “smart” and are less likely to risk their self-image by trying difficult things; they also give up faster. In some small way, even at an early age they are at risk of letting their clocks run down.
Fortunately, a growth mindset can be taught to children at an early age; maybe it’s important to teach and reteach that lesson to adults as well. For starters, we can dispel the myth that entrepreneurship is for the young. Research has shown that there are twice as many entrepreneurs over 50 as there are under 25. In fact, adults who have a ton of life experiences under their belts may be better positioned to make wise choices about how and where to spend their energies.
I’m not referring to working harder; if you’ve gotten to the point where you can still be effective with less work, you’ve earned it. But you will do yourself a favor if you channel that extra time and energy into keeping your clock running, either through maintaining curiosity or increasing commitment to something that is important and is bigger than just you. A good example is John Spence, who recently wrote about his own effort, now that he has turned 50, to devote a part of his time over the next decade to learn how to paint.
Regardless of how successful you are, you have far more capacity in you than you have yet realized. I’ll let Gardner have the last word on this:
The thing you have to understand is that the capacities you actually develop to the full come out as the result of an interplay between you and life’s challenges –and the challenges keep changing. Life pulls things out of you.
Keep the clock running: stay challenged, curious and committed.