Old age is not particularly special or virtuous in and of itself. Old age is simply the terminal stage of the human lifespan. What is good and virtuous, however, is giving back, contributing, growing and deepening your learning as you age. Senior citizens who achieve this are often described as “wise”. This article describes a beloved Japanese elder who stayed active and vibrant as he aged, contributing much to his community and country.
“Until the turn of the century, Dr. Hinohara was known mainly in the medical profession. Then, at age 90, he published “How to Live Well,” a collection of commentaries on life with his gentle visage on the cover, wearing a doctor’s coat and holding a stethoscope. The book said people over 75 shouldn’t be shunted to society’s margins, and he exhorted his fellow elderly citizens to consider themselves “on the job” of living even if they were retired from paid work. “
Stories like this are inspirational but we should remember that high achieving elders were often driven, high-agency people in their younger years. Is it possible for someone to radically reinvent themselves as a senior citizen? If you believe in the power of human potential, then the answer is yes.
In the article “What can we learn from people who succeed later in life?“. Albert-László Barabási makes some good points. When you consider that aging is a biological reality we all face, it is surprising we don’t hear more about aging and how to be healthy and productive as we age. The largest cohort of aged people in human history, the baby boomers, are now entering their later years. Perhaps we don’t hear much about aging because it is depressing. Youthfulness is considered to be energetic, beautiful, and healthy but people often equate aging with decline, senility, weakness, and sickness.
I recall reading an article about early achievers and late achievers a few years ago. Apparently some high achievers peak very young while others peak relatively late in life. This article speaks about high achievers who peak later in life.
I love the story of Japanese painter, Hokusai, who died at the age of 89, having been remarkably productive in his later years. A genius and an eccentric, he called himself “Old Man Mad With Painting”. The article does not mention Claude Monet, a long-lived artist who produced an incredible amount of high quality work well into his 80s. Picasso is another long-lived artist who stayed productive as he aged but Picasso’s later work was a shadow of his earlier genius. Unlike Hokusai and Monet, Picasso peaked in his youth.
The article describes high achievers, creative, intelligent and driven people, who peak later in life rather than earlier. The title of the article notwithstanding, every person in the article already had agency, intelligence and determination when they were young. They call this a person’s “Q factor” and they claim “Your ability to turn an idea into a discovery is equally important, and that varies dramatically from person to person”. According to the article, “We all start our careers with a given Q, high or low, and that Q-factor stays with us until retirement.” The idea that we don’t change is rather depressing, and it clashes with recent research in brain plasticity that suggests people can make radical positive changes which can be measured by brain scanning technology.