The Age of Highest Achievements

It is fair to say, that coming to my age, most of the people look back and contemplate what was the highest achievement of their life, what was they being most proud of.  Was it a professional career? Family live? Athletic accomplishments? Maybe a significant discovery? Or social connections?  And was it a one-time event or a lifetime accumulation of work?  If a one-time event, at what age did it came about?

Having a happy family life is a very subjective assessment and is a tough thing to measure.  Dysfunctional household from the other end is visible on the outside and commented upon by friends and neighbors quite frequently, if not covertly.

Monetary achievements are easy to evaluate, and some people indeed count these as their biggest lifetime achievements.

A professional career for many people certainly is the biggest accomplishment.  And if is so, at what age they were most proficient in their skills?

From my school day I remember estimating an age of maximal professional proficiency for mathematicians in their 20s and 30s, for language, social, philosophy disciplines (we used to call them humanistic disciplines) in the 30s and 40s and for medical, legal professions in the 40s and 50s.

The main deciding components are:




The modifying factors

*parental responsibilities

*administrative duties

*health problems.

Mathematicians usually peak early in their lives.  Gauss defined the theorem of algebra at the age of 21.  In elementary school he already amazed his teacher, who was trying to make her students busy by asking them to give a sum of numbers from 1 to 20, hoping for keeping the class busy for an hour of lesson.  Young Carl gave a correct answer a minute later.  Évariste Galois died at the age of 20 in a senseless duel, killed by an army officer, having already done monumental work on the theory of equations.  Alexander Grothendieck’s most work on geometry, number theory and topology came before the age of 30. And so on and so on.  It has to be said that there is division between pure mathematicians (they peak earlier) and applied ones (these achieve greatness later in life).

Writers are a very diverse group.  Poets do their best works early in life, and by the age of 30 they all supposed to be dead(?!).  When one is at the bottom of the Spanish Steps in Rome and facing up, in the building on the right there is a Keats – Shelley house, where John Keats died of tuberculosis.  He was 25 years old.  Percy Bessie Shelley died at 29.

Novel writers start in their 30s (Tom Clancy and John Grisham for example) and continue to improve for most of their lives.

Professional athletes mostly achieve their recognition in their early 20s. By the next decade, many of their skills will be gone, and so is the most of their money.  Of course, there are exceptions.

Musicians are not a homogeneous group.   Opera singers have their breakthrough roles in the 30s, peak in the 40s and decline in the 50s.  Instrumentalists start earlier, in their 20s, and rarely go past the 30s.  Rock music bands go as long as their brand is popular until they fall apart because of health problems or difficulties in getting along as a result of their unique lifestyle.  Classical instrumentalists start usually in their 20s with a dazzling technique, but maturity of interpretation comes later on.

This brings me to 10,000 hours of practice, described by Malcolm Gladwell.  I guess it’s a natural selection process.  If one is not passionate about what he is doing, there is no way he will be able to practice his craft for that long period of time.

And what about doctors?  I would apply here separation between medical doctors and surgeons, where manual skills and physical stamina are important.  Medical school gives you knowledge, but this is not enough.  Critical skills like judgement, experience and technical abilities for surgeons are acquired on top of formal medical education.

Mark Twain said: “Good judgement comes from bad experience, and experience is a result of bad judgement”.  It takes a long time and many patients to develop both.

Whether a candidate for a surgeon will be technically good, we can see by the age of 30.  At that point of time, certain traits are fully recognizable.  Not only manual dexterity, but also the decision-making process.  During my medical school years in Poland, I was told that everyone, even the orderly, can be taught to be a surgeon.  That’s not true.  This is being said by the surgeons, who are not good themselves.  And the surgical abilities do not parallel intellectual skills.  Of course they do not exclude each other.  I’ve seen quite a few well-educated, intelligent “renaissance men”, who indeed were destitute surgeons.  Over-intelectualization of a surgical procedure doesn’t help and quite often gets you in trouble.  Technical skills and stamina decrease with time. You don’t see too many fully active surgeons on medical staff past the late 60s.

So when is surgeon to retire?

One should retire, when he decides to do so, on his own terms and not be forced by the hospital of his partners.  It should be a long plan of transition to the next phase of life.  Proper management of family matters, financial base, health problems and social situation are crucial factors.  Decreasing surgical and physical abilities play only a minor role.  And of course, proper planning for the future in retirement is paramount, so the wife will not tell you, that “she married you for good and bad, but not for lunch”.

But whatever you do, don’t die with your music still in you.

Wayne W.Dyer

Or in front of the TV, I would add.

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