Let’s start with the questions. No pressure, by the way, but just know that your answers could determine the quality of the rest of your life.
Question One: How Do You Become An Adult?
Serious question. Are you an adult? How did it happen? How did you grow up? What does it mean to grow up? Is there a right way to become an adult? A wrong way? And, maybe most importantly, what happens in the second half of our lives if we get the first half wrong?
Okay, while you’re thinking about your answer, consider another....
Question Two: Is there an age limit on peak performance?
This is another serious question. If you’re reading this, it’s probably because peak performance and flow really matter to you. But riddle me this—for how long? How long can you continue to perform at your best? Is there an age limit of thriving? What about flow? Does our ability to get into flow, like many other cognitive skills, decline over time? And if it does decline, crucially, is there any way to stop the slide?
And while you’re thinking about that answer, let’s add in a hypothetical....
Question Three: If it’s possible to sustain peak performance long into our later years, at what age do we need to begin training for our later years in order to make this possible?
Now, let’s turn to the answers, which will, of course, produce even more questions, but one step at a time.
First, the question of how we grow up is central to the field of adult development. Sigmund Freud had an opinion. He argued development was biological. We have basic drives. We react to those drives. And we grow up automatically, as a result.
Freud isn’t right. But he isn’t wrong.
Psychologist Erik Ericsson also took a swing. His version is the mouthful known as “psycho-social development,” which means we grow up by confronting a series of crises that threaten our psychological stability (that’s the psycho part), and that these crises always involve other people (that’s the social part).
And Ericsson, like Freud, is both right and wrong.
One of my heroes, Bernice Neugarten, also had a theory. She argued that humans are subject to social clocks—essentially cultural peer-pressure for an individual to meet certain criteria for “adulthood” by a certain age.
Social clocks are the voice of society saying: This is the right time to choose a career; this is the right time to settle down and get married; this is the right time to start a family. We can give into the pressure and be “on schedule” or ignore the pressure and move “off-schedule” but either way, it’s the existence of this schedule and our reaction to it that pushes us into adulthood.
And Neugarten too is right and wrong. Before we dive into those details, let’s first answer the next question: Is there an age limit on peak performance?
Yes and no, though, no and yes is probably closer to the truth. But to understand why, we have to return to those details about adult development.
Turns out, there is no right way to grow up, but there is a wrong way.
Put differently, a growing pile of research shows we can sustain peak performance farther into life than anyone thought possible. Sure, our physical skills begin to decline in our thirties. Sure, they drop roughly one percent a year thereafter. That’s where the biology stands today. But we are also starting to understand how to offset this decline without a significant amount of performance loss. And there’s an opportunity for enormous performance gain.
As we enter our fifties, if we get “it” right, we gain access to a suite of legitimate cognitive superpowers. Over the course of that decade, there are fundamental shifts in how the brain processes information. In simple terms, our ego starts to quiet, and our perspective starts to widen. Whole new levels of intelligence, creativity, empathy and wisdom open up. As a result, key downstream skills like critical thinking, problem solving, creativity, communication, cooperation and collaboration all have the potential—if properly cultivated—to skyrocket in our later years.
Yet, access to our superpowers isn’t automatic.
To produce the necessary brain shifts, we must first pass through a series of gateways. Work in adult development shows that crossing these thresholds is necessary for maintaining happiness and well-being into our august decades. More important here, if the goal is peak performance aging, passing through these thresholds and unlocking our superpowers significantly offsets the natural decline that comes with time.
What are those gateways?
By age thirty, we need to have figured out who we are in this world, solving the crisis of identity. By age forty, we have to figure out how to make a living that is seriously aligned with our big five intrinsic motivators: curiosity, passion, purpose, autonomy, and mastery. By fifty, we need to forget old grudges, forgive those who have done us wrong, and generally clear our emotional slate. Finally, somewhere along the way, we need to counteract the rising risk-aversion and general fragility that accompanies aging.
How to utilize the tools of peak performance to pass through these gateways, unlock our superpowers and gleefully attack hard challenges throughout our later years—turns out, that is the topic of my next book. It’s called Gnar Country: Growing Old, Staying Rad.
Gnar Country is the result of two decades of research into peak performance aging. It’s a primer on how to kick ass until you kick the bucket. But this brings us to our last question—if we want sustain peak performance far into our august years, when do we need to start training for those august years? Short answer: If you want to rock ‘til you drop, you have to start to train long before you start to wane.
Some of this has to do with passing through those gateways of adult development, more of this has to do with how you choose to live your lives from your twenties onward. Sure, you can apply the tools of peak performance aging at any age and still get a massive uplift, but if you start training for tomorrow today, your chances of going father faster and with a lot less fuss just increase exponentially.