I visited my hometown about a decade after I graduated high school and stopped at the local greasy spoon joint for a nostalgic junk food meal. I was surprised to see one of the most popular guys in school, star gymnast Tim, behind the counter taking orders. I asked him how long he’d been working there and he shrugged. “Guess I never left high school.”

When I used to bemoan the fact that I wasn’t one of the popular kids, my grandmother would shake her head and tell me, “You don’t want to peak too early in life.” Running into Tim seemed to affirm her words. But as Arthur Brooks reminds us in a recent Atlantic essay titled “Your Professional Decline Is Coming (Much) Sooner Than You Think,” holding onto our peak achievements isn’t just for aging high school gymnasts. Many of us anchor our identity in accomplishments, but when our careers fade—which they inevitably do—our sense of self-worth fades with it and leaves us floundering.

Brooks, a social scientist and former president of the American Enterprise Institute, notes that many of us will have the most productive years of our work lives between ages 30 and 50. After that, we begin a long, slow slide into professional irrelevance. Certainly there are exceptions to the rule. However, while we can expect to make meaningful contributions in the workplace after age 50, we likely won’t be climbing the success ladder at the same rate we once did. And how we navigate that decline can make or break our retirement years.

The more your identity is linked to achievement, says Brooks, the greater the sense of loss when your career downshifts or ends. “Abundant evidence suggests that the waning of ability ...

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