Gazing past apogee

What will Barack Obama do with his life after his second temporary job as president of the United States ends in 2016? He’ll be 55.

What will Felix Baumgartner, who holds the world record for highest free fall sky dive at 128,000 feet elevated into the stratosphere, do with his life now that he’s retired from record-setting? He’s 43.

What will NFL quarterback Peyton Manning do with his life after 15 (or more) years throwing a ball on a grass field? Right now he’s 36.

Each of these men is an example of an accomplished individual who either will shortly, or already has, peaked in their chosen endeavors. Each of them has the likelihood of a good number of years ahead before they check out of Hotel Earthly Plane. Baumgartner has said he is pursuing a career as a helicopter pilot for emergency services. Manning isn’t done yet, judging by his win Nov. 18 over the Chargers. Will he follow the tradition of former football stars and do sports commentary on television? Write a book (“Being Eli’s Big Brother”)? And Obama? He’s focusing on the here and now, I’m sure, but I wonder if he and Michelle Obama have discussed life after the White House. Maybe it will be her turn to run.

At some point in life we all peak. We don’t often recognize it at the time. But one day, we look over our past accomplishments, and we think to ourselves, “Well, that just might be the best I’ll ever do.” Or someone points it out to us when they ask, “Say, do you miss being the best at what you did?” That can be a bucket of cold reality.

Sure, there’s always something worthwhile to do, something to contribute to the world. And it’s never too late to learn new things. Continual learning is a way of retaining high quality of life into the last decade of one’s life. Science has proven that old brains can learn constantly, as long as they are constantly challenged to do so, and there’s no pathology. Second and third careers are quite possible. But it’s rare for one individual to be great at several things serially in life.

When we find ourselves past our peak of performance, in whatever endeavor we have dedicated ourselves for most of our adult lives, we have choices. We can spend time reliving the past, warm in the nostalgia that is created from years of strong memories, sweat, tears and laughter. That can be a good thing to do. For a while. We can also choose to stand outside the ring and help the new kids learn how to box.

One of the most important differences between humans and other animals on Earth is that we have a very, very long childhood as a proportion of our life span, and we employ that time in learning what the generations before us have amassed in knowledge, skill and experience. At 22, graduated from college (if done in four years right after high school), we have spent 25 percent of a normal life span preparing for it.

Personally, I took two years longer, and so did my kids. Some people pursuing doctorates or medical degrees may not hit the streets until they are 30, or more than a third of the average life. This long training period is why our species has progressed in quality and duration of life. Sure, we’re advancing ourselves right off the planet if we don’t turn our smarts toward solving the large problems our cleverness has created. But the degree to which we have indeed progressed, it’s been because we take a lot of time to learn from those who have come before.

So if you are feeling over the proverbial hill, or someone has made you aware of the fact, then your new purpose is to teach those who are coming up. Find a young person to mentor. Teach classes at a community college, or get your credential and take on the public school system. That would be brave. Go back to the company you retired from and volunteer some time to help the ones who took up your slack.

I already have my plan. I’m going to wear a drab brown suit, which is completely contrary to my current professional wardrobe, take a card table downtown, with two chairs. My cardboard sign will read, “Business Advice $5. Don’t Let This Happen to You.”

Sewitch is an entrepreneur and business psychologist. He serves as the vice president of global organization development for WD-40 Company. Sewitch can be reached at

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