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Why You Should Change Your Life Every Decade

... because the greatest obstacle to success may be success.

You should change what you do, or how you live, every ten years because the greatest obstacle to success isn't failure; it's success.

Let me explain why.

The writer and “happiness” expert Arthur Brooks, currently at Harvard, advocates for changing your line of work every decade. He was a musician for a decade in his twenties; then took online college courses and obtained a Ph.D. in economics and taught as a college professor for another 15 years; then he took a job as head of the non-profit American Enterprise Institute, for a decade. From there, after writing some popular books, he has become a Harvard professor and happiness guru.

He could have stayed in music and become a more expert musician; or he could have stayed in academic economics, moving up the ladder; or in the nonprofit world, adding to DC-area influence. But with each change, his influence increased.

The physician-researcher, David Sackett, famous as one of the founders of the “Evidence-based Medicine” (EBM) movement in the 1970s and 1980s, believed that once you become an expert at something, you should quit. His reasons included the fact that experts often retard progress because they usually have produced their new ideas long before they became accepted as experts, and after their rise to expertise, they spend the rest of their lives defending their prior ideas. Experts don’t tend to help fields progress; the younger people who are not yet experts come up with new ideas. And then they become experts and prevent further progress.

Besides this objective rationale for not sitting on your laurels as an expert, Sackett argued that once you’ve mastered a field, you should move on to another, which might prove even more important. He had started his career in the field of medication compliance; he became an expert in it. He then quit that topic, which is when he came up with the idea of EBM, for which he became much more famous, and which turned out to be much more important than anything he could have achieved in the world of compliance.

That takes me to my final rationale. For everything, there is a season. There’s a time to be an expert at this; and a time to be an expert at that. You don’t need to be an expert at the same thing forever. You’ll never know, in fact, if the next great thing might happen unless you stop doing the last great thing.

In other words, the greatest obstacle to success is success.

You should change what you do, or how you live, every ten years. Now there’s a range; if things are going terribly, make a change in five years. If things are going great, you can drag it out for 15 years. But make a change.

When you succeed at something you’ve sought, you can stop there and keep doing it forever. In academic life, this is a constant chronic disease. Someone starts out in their 30s and becomes known for some tiny field of expertise by their 40s; then they get tenure, a guaranteed income, and they repeat the same ideas for the next 40 years, the second half of their lives, essentially doing nothing until time runs out. And that’s considered a successful academic career. People get congratulated for half a century of “service” in the same institution.

The problem is that the early success prevented later success, which might have been even greater.

My daughter recently graduated college. She and her peers suffer, from what I can observe, a paralysis in commitment to further graduate study or a certain line of work because they think they have to decide what they are going to do “for the rest of their lives.” Not only do they not know what they really will do for the rest of their lives, but I’m also trying to say that they shouldn’t even think about doing something for the rest of their lives.

They should just focus on the next ten years. And then after that, if they are very successful, they should quit what they are doing and focus on another ten years. It doesn’t matter, in fact, whether they succeed or fail, they should plan on making a change every decade or so. Too often, we think we should make a change only if things aren't going well or if we are failing in some way. That is so.

But what we don’t realize is that we should make changes even when we succeed. The problem is that failure tends to be seen as a good reason to make a change, but people will think there’s something odd if you want to make a change because of, or despite, success. Yet it really doesn’t matter. Either way, you should make a change, because either way, things might turn out better than they are if you make that change. And you’ll never know until you do.

Of course, if you have success with something you’ve been doing for a decade or two, you can keep doing it, and you’ll have some security that you’ll have the same level of success for decades more. And maybe that’s all you want. But there are good reasons to think otherwise if you’re willing to take a little risk and open yourself up to even greater rewards.

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More from Nassir Ghaemi M.D., M.P.H.
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