Something I’ve observed in the corporate world is that most people lose intelligence and creativity after 5 to 10 years. Sometimes they burn out even faster. The flame goes out; a robot stands where a person once was.
A few of us don’t go that way; we’re the rebellious ones who refuse to turn stupid. We rarely rise up the ranks. On the contrary, our self-protection often gets us disliked, excluded, and even fired.
This midlife cognitive decline is far from inevitable; it’s not biological. Our society romanticizes youth and exception, as if it were the norm to know everything at 25, but people who surround themselves with intelligent company, who continue to read and learn, and who find opportunities meaningful contribution to the world around them, will continue to grow, quite late in life. It’s true that Keats and Galois peaked young; they also died young. The norm is to peak after 40, even in mathematics, which is notable (more in romance than truth) for its early blossoming. Writers, on average, seem to peak after 50. Some of the great ones started after 50.
In other words, people who specialize at getting smart continue to get smarter as they grow older. People who specialize in climbing organizational ladders were probably the smartest when they were in school.
My suspicion is that the midlife cognitive decline one observes in Corporate America is, in addition, a low-grade and otherwise subclinical variety of depression. Is it the severe depression that requires electroconvulsive therapy and leads to catatonia and literal bed-shitting? No, of course not. It’s a rational adaptation to defeat. Though I imagine that major depression was always pathological, its milder cousin might be an adaptive, life-preserving response to transient low social status. Archaeological evidence and present-day observation suggest that violence related to social status killed about 1-in-5 adult men in the primitive world. Mild depression would keep one out of conflict. That dimming and shutting down saved lives. Is it useful now? I doubt it. It seems to have left us with a sleepy, bored, corporate-dominated society that can barely keep its own lights on.
In the business world, we see midlife cognitive decline both among the vast majority who lose, but we also in the small number of winners. Power gets to them and, though it has different effects, it seems just as capable of rendering formerly smart people stupid.
The rebels stay smart. The people who recognize the corporate game as pointless bullshit, who know that even if they get rich it’ll come with a sacrifice of identity that’s hardly worth it because the part of the person that matters will have died, they’re the ones who hit 30, 45, 60, and can still hold an interesting conversation. They’re not immune to depression, but they seem built to fight it. They don’t get stupid. Morose? Yeah. Anxious? Sure. Miserable? Sometimes.
If these rebels speak out, they’ll be labelled crazy. I shan’t unpack that word, nor shall I discuss mental illness and how poorly most people understand what it is and is not. There isn’t time for that, today. The accusation of craziness hurts us, not because we are insecure about our mental health, but because we are moralistic and self-critical, and our negative experiences pile on– that is the essence of any fight, and rebellion is no exception– and this causes a divergence between what we want to be and what we are.
We aren’t, in general, crazy. I’ll talk about that some other time. If we were, though, it’d still be better than turning stupid.