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The Curious Experience of Middle Age

While wandering around the Internet I discovered an archived story from National Public Radio in the US called "Does Age Quash Our Spirit of Adventure?" The reporter referenced psychology professor Dean Keith Simonton of UC Davis, citing his idea that those who are "eminent"—defined as those who had been quite successful early in life—tended to be locked into the patterns of early life, while those who are, ahem, "late bloomers" tend to remain more open to new ideas in middle age.

This sounded like pop psychology to me, but interesting enough to send me scurrying around the Internet looking for more. I couldn't find any other mention of Professor Simonton's theory of eminence and a decline in creativity, but I did go on to read several articles on creativity and novelty-seeking in middle age.

When I was growing up, "middle aged" was a synonym for "boring." Looking ahead across the gulf of years it appeared to me to be a time of life inhabited by people content with a dull routine, with little interest in the new.

Having reached the respectable middle age of fifty-two, I'm happy to report the reality I've experienced is quite a bit different from that.

Definitions of middle age vary. In my own mind I think of it as late forties and onward to some still-to-be-determined point that varies with the individual.

Everyone who arrives at this phase of life arrives along a different path, but for many, the tumultuous years of teenage children and aging parents are passing and the focus begins to shift. There is an awareness that the clock is ticking ever more loudly, which can be a great motivation to buckle down and concentrate on whatever your personal interests might be—be that traveling the world, writing a new novel, starting your own business, or something else particular to you—because if you don't do it now, when will you?

Assuming, of course, that you're still interested in pursuing new goals...

Ironically, the lure of nostalgia often seems strong among SF fandom, but my guess is that as a regular reader of Charlie's Diary, you've probably got the whole curiosity/novelty-seeking behavior pattern intact, no matter where you sit along the timeline.

I ultimately tracked down an interview with Professor Simonton in the New York Times in which he's asked questions on creativity and aging. He says that whether creativity burns out or not depends a lot on the sort of creativity you engaged in during youth.

"[...the painter Paul] Cézanne had a particular vision of the world that was so complex and rich that it would take more than one lifetime to explore, and so he kept on going...

"Usually the people who keep going are the ones who are open to new experiences... Do something different. Take a risk. Try to believe in the future tense."

For women especially, middle age can be liberating. Maybe it's a generational thing, but in my experience men commonly acquire self-confidence early on (maybe too early) while many women take longer to reach a point where they really believe in their own talents. Self-doubt gets enforced by a sense of being forever judged by society, (and by other women), on looks, accomplishments, social adeptness, family, etc. On twitter there have been intermittent back-and-forths about women's "self-talk" and how we tend to berate ourselves, and tear ourselves down because we're never "good enough". But I've asked around, and there comes a point for a lot of us where it gets much easier to say, "Whatever". One of the rewards of aging is learning to not give a damn about the opinion of those with nothing productive to say, as well as the nagging little perfectionist voice in the back of your own head.

Even so, it's a great time to optimize. It's a goal at any age to stay fit, but more so, the older you get. I try not to proselytize, but if you're not working out and you're in a mood to be persuaded, there's a fun book on fitness called Younger Next Year by Chris Crowley and Henry S. Lodge. It's premise is simply that you should exercise hard six a days a week and don't eat crap. Everything else is details and inspiration, but it's definitely worthwhile to read and I highly recommend it. And no, I don't actually manage to exercise six days a week, but that remains the ever-elusive goal, because I have a lot of books I still want to write, challenging books, and research shows that the best way to nurture the mind and to maintain creativity is to exercise.

Charlie will be returning home before too long. I want to thank him for the opportunity to guest blog, and thank all of you for the conversation this past week. It's been a great experience.



There are many ways of keeping fit & active & alert (your country need lerts) and most are NOT in any of the offical books. I still recall going walking in the English Lakes with my school, aged 16, notorius for hating team games & sports, & not having done any (at all) at that point for over 3 years ... And walking every other boym, including super-"fit" footie types into the ground ... Becuase I went home to lunch & therefore cycled 5 miles a day, 5 days a week ...... Now I still cycle a little, walk quiote a bit & keep an allotment - what was that about needing a gym? Changing jobs/professions wakes the brain up, as does a part-time one if you are over 65, epsecially if said job involves (even very elementary) statistics .... Please take these themes, & Linda's expressions of interest & we'll see what we find, shall we?


Thanks Linda, I loved every word of yours. Being a late bloomer myself (ah-hem; there might be a secret infiltration of the not-so-young-anymore in this blog) I have a concrete goal: becoming one of these old, wrinkled and crazy hags that don´t give a shit. I admire them endlessly. They care about their creativity, their work and being in a certain dialogue; it gives them life, energy and happiness. Funny that you mention exercise being a part of it. That might be true for us writers, professionally sitting around on one spot all day long. I keep telling myself that switching between two workplaces (one at my desk and one on the floor in the bedroom) is sufficient. Aloha Violet


"Ah, but I was so much older then. I'm younger than that now."

(I'm 68 and far more radical than I was at 38.)


The times they are achangin', aren't they? 1982 had a different kind of stupid going on, I think.

Anyway, this all gives me something to look forward to.


There are many ways of keeping fit & active & alert

Absolutely. Find something that works and that you want to do.


Thanks, Violet.

I have a concrete goal: becoming one of these old, wrinkled and crazy hags that don´t give a shit.

They can be awesome, can't they?


A few days ago NPR also had this: How Exercise And Other Activities Beat Back Dementia

Which I emailed to my mother because she often complains about her memory and general cognition. I don't think she has anything to really worry about. She's in her mid-60s now and has always been a creative, liberal, artsy type. Though it's only been in the last decade that she's begun not to worry what others think of her.

I'm nearing that supposed Middle-Age, or as I put it last week to friends: I've become the Answer to Life, the Universe, and Everything (though no closer to knowing what the question is). I hope I'm one of those late bloomers who, finally, have some idea what it is they want to do--at least for now. I completed my first (finished) novel last year and am waiting on my beta-readers, but meanwhile I'm starting on the next. Who knows what'll come of it? Anyhow, I have every intention to see Halley's Comet again, I'll only be 90, and hope to live well past that.


When I am an old woman, I shall wear purple with a red hat that doesn't go, and doesn't suit me. And I shall spend my pension on brandy and summer gloves and satin candles, and say we've no money for butter.

I shall sit down on the pavement when I am tired and gobble up samples in shops and press alarm bells and run my stick along the public railings and make up for the sobriety of my youth.

I shall go out in my slippers in the rain and pick the flowers in other people's gardens and learn to spit.

You can wear terrible shirts and grow more fat and eat three pounds of sausages at a go or only bread and pickles for a week and hoard pens and pencils and beer nuts and things in boxes.

But now we must have clothes that keep us dry and pay our rent and not swear in the street and set a good example for the children. We must have friends to dinner and read the papers.

But maybe I ought to practice a little now? So people who know me are not too shocked and surprised

When suddenly I am old, and start to wear purple.


I'm going to follow my parents' example...

They're 70 this year. Dad waited until retirement to start working as a consultant; and is enjoying it a little too much. He's still doing three skiing holidays a year (including the Swiss Wall this year, just to see if he could still manage it) but he's decided to give up SCUBA, because he isn't sure he could haul his buddy out of trouble if necessary, and doesn't want to be a tourist. He's not alone; he and his old hood mates appear to be working on their "sweet but mildly disreputable reformed rogues" credentials.

Mum was always creative, and while she complains that "she isn't good with technical things", I used to catch her borrowing and trying to program her school's computer. She went back to university for a work-related postgrad course in her late 40s. She's cut back on the skiing since a nasty tib/fib fracture in her 50s, and was always a prime candidate for wearing purple - although she claimed it was going to involve a motorbike and pink racing leathers.

Meanwhile, I'm working on keeping ahead of the younger engineers (C++11 beckons, I wonder what I can do with it) and trying to teach my sons to ski. I had my first and so far only surfing lesson at age 44, but pushing a muffin-top into a wetsuit is never a good look :) and I rather suspect that I'm about to be given the "opportunity" to take up Judo...


When I was a kid, I wanted to see everything and explore everything.

Now I've seen enough to have a fairly good idea of what's over the next hill. Strip malls, usually.


That is one of my mother's favorites. Thankfully, she is not a Red hatter, though she did inquire with a local group, but was told they were invitation only, and were a bit snobby. So she tried to start an unofficial Red Kippah group (Khevra Kippah Edom) among her friends from her synagogue. It lasted for a couple years, but they didn't do much at the time. She's trying to them back together now that more of them are retiring.

Meanwhile, my father is in his early 70s, and has gone rather conservative (actually I suspect it was always there, he just lets it out now), which might be considered odd since he had been an art teacher and bookseller. It's pretty safe to say that I take after her, after all she's the one who raised me.


Interestingly, I pulled up some DK Simmons papers to skim through them, and in one of them he goes over typical creativity curves by profession.

The late bloomer/retains creativity post peak is something that's supposedly typical among writers (among other professions).


"Now I've seen enough to have a fairly good idea of what's over the next hill. Strip malls, usually."

Every once and awhile you get lucky and it's a Strip Club :)


One of the things that annoys me is just how difficult the US system for financing health care makes this type of thing, at least until people reach age 65. Several years ago the company I worked for was acquired and all of the headquarters research staff let go. I was covered under a very old contract that required the acquiring company to keep me in the group plan and subsidize my premiums. Most of my colleagues were not covered that way, resulting in a mad scramble by several of them to find a job that included health insurance because either they, or a spouse, or child, had a condition that made it impossible (or prohibitively expensive) to buy private insurance.

I've lost track of how many people I knew over the years who were locked into a miserable job/career because it was the only way they could get health care coverage.


The late bloomer/retains creativity post peak

Post peak? I haven't peaked yet! ;-)


I've lost track of how many people I knew over the years who were locked into a miserable job/career because it was the only way they could get health care coverage.

Yes, the lack of a rational health care system is incredibly anti-entrepreneurial. People who would otherwise be eager to take a chance and start their own business don't do it because the family's health care is attached to the existing job.


I truly don’t know how US of A ian writers ever make the leap from part time writer hunched over typer and imagination - as supported by partner/Academic/ Lawyer/ similar such type real time professions - to the Exalted Heights of Full Time Professional Writer.

I've been around U.K. Fandom long enough to have friends who are - or, sadly, Were - Filthy Pros who have made the Transition to Pro Writer Dom to know that even in the U.K. - with its National Health System and such like social support for the infirm and Ancient - a Professional writer can always be haunted by the thought that .... What happens if I wake up tomorrow morning and my Talent for The Craft is GONE?

In the U'K. That can count as being a species of mental illness and thus worthy of NHS treatment and the support of the Welfare State...this being up until the present time in which we have acquired the most poisonously Right Wing Government by Multi Millionaires in many, many years-which could be described as being a bit like the Government that the US of A vians thinks of as being vaguely to the Right wing of the Democratic Party.

How do you cope?

Our Gracious Host has a fall back position of a National Health Service. If, say, he breaks his foot . . insert “Work Shy Scrounger Wrestles Octopi in Singapore “ Daily Fail Headlines .. our GH should be alright for Beer and Beans, but, how do writers in the US and similar such countries ever dare to make the transition to full time Pro Dom?


I'm a Generation Xer in the US, so I expect to spend middle age working two jobs in a desperate attempt to scrape together enough money to support myself when I can no longer work. I'll also be crossing my fingers and praying I don't get laid off, because I work in the tech field, where anyone over 40 is considered obsolete.


Honestly? From what I can tell, the most common solution for people in creative fields in the US is to be married to someone with a steady job that has good health benefits. Otherwise their only real option is a day job.


the most common solution for people in creative fields in the US is to be married to someone with a steady job that has good health benefits.

It's one of those jokes that isn't a joke, but one of the traditional bits of advice for making a writing career work is "marry well." I'm sure it applies equally to other creative fields with erratic income.


I took early retirment through ill health from Tech Support in a major U.K. University just after the turn of the century and at that time what I understand to be the standard American pattern of an academic having to be really outstanding in ability to achive " tenure " was steadily creeping in to Higher Education in the U.K. There were all sorts of reasons for this but up until that time if you had mentioned anything resembling "tenure " in a British University you'd have been met with puzzelment that anyone would accept what we would have called Visiting Lecturer status as a basis for a carreer in Academia.

I am out of touch with most of my former collegues but I gather from casual conversation mixed with various news reports that the American pattern has now taken hold in many of the U.K. universities and it seems to me that the American working practice of Academics in some subects in Higher Education only being able to afford to teach their subject if they had an alternative income stream - say a partner in a secure job - will be along real soon now if it isn't already firmly established.

If you accept that teaching in Higher Education is a ' creative field ' then the 'jokes that isn't a joke " have arrived in Education in the U.K. and by the look of it even worse working practices are creeping in in other fields.

Just google for " Zero-hour contract "

" A zero-hour contract (or zero-hours contract) is a recent[when?] type of contract under which an employer does not guarantee the employee a fixed number of hours per week. Rather, the employee is expected to be on-call and receive compensation only for hours worked.[1]

Sutherland and Canwell have defined zero hour contract as an arrangement between an employer and an employee who has agreed to be available for work as and when required, therefore no particular number of hours of times of work are specified.[citation needed] Zero hour contracts may suit some people[who?] who want occasional earnings, but they do run the risk of being misused, for instance when employees are asked to stop work during quiet periods but remain on the premises in case they are needed.[original research?]

Alternatively, zero hour contracts can simply be read as a means for companies to get away with paying their employees less, by making their continued employment dependent on their ability to work at any time without notice, while also not having to pay them during quieter periods. It is a modern form of indentured servitude, reflective of a widening poverty gap and the wholesale destruction of workers' rights in supposedly civilised countries.[neutrality is disputed] "


You're pretty much dead on about the situation for college instructors in the US. In general there's a major surplus of candidates for tenure-track positions outside the "hard sciences," and some profs are telling students up front to not to start graduate degrees in humanities subjects because there won't be viable jobs for them when they graduate. I know people who are stuck earning poverty-level wages while balancing tens of thousands of dollars in student loan debt (which can't be forgiven in bankruptcy, by the way.) The usual solution for "visiting lecturers" is to string together two or three jobs, often driving between different community college campuses to teach them.

In this era of belt-tightening, degrees in subjects that don't contribute directly to GDP are starting to be seen as a luxury we can't really afford.


Degrees in the physical sciences, in my experience, are not much better. English is much cheaper to teach than chemistry (my field). Also, investors have gotten used to the types of returns associated with Moore's Law, which are very difficult to compete with if your field does not lend itself to fast exponential growth.


I'll also be crossing my fingers and praying I don't get laid off, because I work in the tech field, where anyone over 40 is considered obsolete.

My (Silicon Valley) employer has plenty of over-40 engineers (me being one of them). They hire good people and keep them doing tech stuff... Strangely, 25 years of experience allied with an enquiring nature is seen as an advantage :) and having the patents granted last year doesn't hurt :)


I am 3 years older than you. As you say, "one of the rewards of aging is learning to not give a damn about the opinion of those with nothing productive to say, as well as the nagging little perfectionist voice in the back of your own head." Miss the energy and flexibility though, heaven is having both experience and plasticity.


Giulio @ 25 THAT gets you labelled "Cantankerous old Bastard" though!


TOTALLY Off-topic... but very important. Kepler result!

Two liquid-water planets found in Goldilocks zone at 1.2k ly away.


This following is sort of off topic but on conversation in so far as that conversation has drifted towards Academic study and what can be said to be useful and valuable. Anyway it’s made me smile in a fiercely predatory 'got you Bastards ' sort of way

" This week, economists have been astonished to find that a famous academic paper often used to make the case for austerity cuts contains major errors. Another surprise is that the mistakes, by two eminent Harvard professors, were spotted by a student doing his homework."


I'm back home (after a month away) ... somewhat tanned, very tired, but with much better leg muscle tone than at any time since I broke a metatarsal last September.

At age 48 the whole middle-aged thing is looming very close in my rear-view mirror. Through luck as much as anything else I'm now self-employed and in a job where I actually enjoy what I do enough that I'd still dabble in it as a hobby if you dropped a £100 million trust fund on my head. But I'd have to admit that I've had the odd sensation of losing mental acuity over the past few years, and the cold wind of impending mortality (in the shape of too much fucking cancer afflicting people close to me -- ahem) is most unwelcome.


I've recently started watching Mad Men. Not what I expected. But it did remind me of what things were like back in my parents day, namely that people physically aged a lot faster back then and looked worse while doing so. There's nothing mysterious about that of course, it's just that life was physically harder on the body back then. My dad's older brother may have lived to see 50, but he was definitely dead by 51, mainly because he worked on a road crew all his life spreading tar and asphalt with a big squeegee and had a two-pack-a-day habit - non-filtered of course. One of the neighboring dads was missing his left arm below the elbow in a shop floor accident. And so on and so forth. Our parent's children were probably the first generation to see employment in non-physically demanding jobs with safe working conditions as the norm rather than the exception (in our first-world countries of course) and it shows in their relative vitality as they enter middle age themselves. I guess you can thank automation for that one.

If these general observations hold, look to the 21st century as being the century of the feisty fruit bats, oldsters with time on their hands and the inclination to do something with it. Sorta like the gerontocracy in Sterling's Holy Fire. If marijuana ever gets legalized here in the U.S. they'll be the group responsible (any harmful outcomes attributed to it by the State pall in comparison to its general effectiveness in managing pain).


But I'd have to admit that I've had the odd sensation of losing mental acuity over the past few years

I've felt similar. But how much of that is looking for it (in my case, having seen a paternal grandfather develop Alzheimer's), and how much is an increased level of self-awareness that comes with life experience? A sort-of Dunning-Kruger effect?

It's like driving - are my roadcraft and reactions getting slightly worse, or am I just more aware, perhaps more careful and self-critical about my actions behind the wheel?


Funnily, I'm (only?) 40 and I've considered myself middle-aged for years. I passed the midpoint of my life expectancy about four years ago. Actually that's an average US male life expectancy; since I'm fat that's probably optimistic.

Its funny to me how the language skews in service to our egos. The number of ways to avoid calling someone old is almost as vast as the number of ways to avoid saying "fat".


mental acuity

Primarily, I've noticed a huge slowdown in my reading speed. When I was younger I could just shovel in entertainment and data. Now I'm much more critical of entertainment, and new data has to be balanced against old. Particularly with soft subjects like history, anthropology, or sociology.


At age 48 the whole middle-aged thing is looming very close in my rear-view mirror.

Ahem. Just how far past 100 do you plan to live?

At 59 in a week I have trouble with the though that I'm almost 60. Doesn't seem quite real. Partly due to having kids in my 30s I guess. Partly due to my family on my father's side seeming to never retire. Well never sit around relaxing. My father was busier at 70 than most people at 30.


Ahem. Just how far past 100 do you plan to live?

As Woody Allen said, I plan to live forever, or die trying.

(And I hear what you say about never retiring. Retirement, from what I've seen of it, looks boring. Sitting around in death's waiting room. I will concede that for people with jobs they hate or which involve manual labour retirement is a promise, not a threat, but I can see myself continuing to do what I do, albeit at a much slower pace and punctuated with increasingly long sabbaticals, right up until the terminal decline.)

As for living forever ...

The aches and creaks of getting physically old are unpleasant, and if offered an elixir of eternal youth I'd chug it immediately, even if the price was outrageous. I think the time to worry about immortal ennui is when you get it, not before; and I happen to enjoy being alive and want to continue until I stop enjoying it. Mind uploading, if indeed it ever becomes possible, is a second-best: I'd do it if I was dying, but I consider it an act of desperation, like cryonic suspension.


"Middle age" is at least partly a state of mind rather than a sum where "MA = Life expectancy / 2".

I know people in their 30s who're MA, and others in their 70s who break easier than they used to but you would never describe as MA if you knew them.


Retirement, from what I've seen of it, looks boring. Sitting around in death's waiting room.

Yep. My dad died a year after they found his spine and chest full of tumors from decades of smoking. He was 76. The summer before he lost the feeling in his legs all he did was dig out an line a spring with timbers. Then install a pump. Ran a water line 400' up hill to the house. Then build and install an 8 zone sprinkler system for the yard. Which he had bought 10 years before and totally remodeled.

I'm doing way more in my house than I ever expected to. And aches are much more noticeable. But I can't imagine sitting around writing checks for what I want done when I can do it.

Mind uploading, if indeed it ever becomes possible, is a second-best: I'd do it if I was dying, but I consider it an act of desperation, like cryonic suspension.

I've made a little side-bet with myself that we'll see mind uploading scams in the next ten years.

"No - we can't run you virtually now... but if we high-resolution scan your brain, and slice 'n' scan you after you're dead - we will in the future! Live forever for a mere $N (for large values of N)".

Much lower overheads in storing data rather than frozen meat. You can also probably bring in some more annual payments stuff too (annual sets of scans "just in case" with some argument about more data / redundancy making the chances of resurrection better).

File under Evil Business Plans... I worry that my head produces so many that fit in that category ;-)


Charlie @ 35 As someone who is at least 25 years "ahead" (behind?) you in that race, I can only concur heartily. The trouble with mind-uploading, is that I suspect you can't cuddle a kitten in there .... Assuming, of course, that you haven't been scammed as per #38 See also "Cryoburn" by Bujold?


Err, why be so boring?

get a modular chatterbox, feed in some data, and voila, there is the uploaded mind.


a) quite a few of the usual suspects for uploading would fail the turing test, just look at the usual troll b) there would be a nontrivial overlap between the usual suspects and heavy social media users, e.g. much data to work from c) we could do a background check to weed out people with friends knowing real secrets

it might work.

if somebody does a test on real secrets, it might help to use some tricks used by mediums, e.g. "this is of little concern to the uploaded", or "the brain was damaged before the upload".

iirc there was a max headroom episode about a similar scam.


err, who's to say you can't upload kittens. plus you can create copies of your mind and the kittens in question to get the optimal numbers of kittens to crawl and instances of yourself doing the crawling...

iirc there was a max headroom episode about a similar scam.

and there it is...


It depends what you call a scam, according to a professor in the relevant sciences I asked, cutting your brain into fine slices and plastifying it is probably the best archival method for your headmeats we have with current technology.

You could, with a perfectly straight face, offer this as a brain preservation technique awaiting a sufficiently high technology to recreate you in the future.

For me, OGH and his fellow scribes have given me enough nightmares about what you can do with an upload that I'm rather glad neural tissue liquifies so quickly after death. It seems like a feature to me now.


I find that I go in cycles of a few months of sedentary creativity and intellectual curiosity alternating with a few months of physical activity and external exploration. I wonder if I get smartest just as I am most physically declining because the physical decline actually does something to make me smarter, or because physical activity makes me dumber (or a different kind of smart) or simply because you get on a roll and you get "in practice" at sitting and doing mental stuff.

All my life I've tried to set up systems and regimens to motivate myself and routinize things to be more efficient. Most of the time I've had outside issues to deal with that impinged sooner or later and forced me to drop or alter a system so it would fail. I always promised myself that one day, maybe when I retire, I would be able to do this right. But now that I CAN I find that I don't want to and don't have to and would rather wing it all. Which means the cycle loosed.


Hope I'm not too late to say "DON'T"!

I've practiced Judo for thirteen years, stopped eight years ago. I'm now 31, and I'm not planning on taking regular classes again. Why? Dislocated both shoulders, strained both of my big toes, not to mention my twisted pinky (the owner's mirror?), an inter-vertebral disc slipping... Yeah, I'd do it all over again. And I'd still stop before thirty. :) Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (BJJ), OTOH, is wonderful for us Judo veterans. It has the same Judo set of rules (with more leeway), but with an emphasis on groundwork (locks, pins, strangleholds) that makes it less traumatic (Judo's mainly practice standing, involving repetitive falling; even on the mat, it takes its toll). BJJ, while no less demanding, as a progressive, pacient grappling duel at ground level is much more forgiving to the less youthful's joints than its standing, explosive, "everything-or-nothing" variant. Try both, by all means. Find a good gym. Check the atmosphere. And get ready to roll with that best of 'em. Semper Novus!



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This page contains a single entry by Linda Nagata published on April 18, 2013 10:03 PM.

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