The Psychological Formula for Success After Age 50

Julia Child launched The French Chef on TV at 50, a year after publishing Mastering the Art of French Cooking. Ray Kroc began franchising McDonald’s at 52. Estelle Getty landed her breakout role on Broadway at age 58, then in her 60s racked up seven back-to-back Emmy nominations for The Golden Girls. These are all clearly exceptional third acts, but even if you aim for something more modest, you’re likelier to get there if you understand how the psychological formula for achievement shifts as you age.

The Psychological Formula for Success After Age 50

Psychologists have long known that success is fueled by grit, passion, and a growth mindset—a deep-seated conviction that you can excel at a new pursuit. Norwegian psychologist Hermundur Sigmundsson says that passion is by far the most important psychological factor—but it peaks early, which you may have seen in kids’ obsessions: the Dinosaur Phase. The Truck Phase. The Minecraft Phase. To a lesser extent, the same is true of the growth mindset, so by the time most of us reach the Build a Company Phase, two of the three most important ingredients in the recipe for achievement are waning. “You lose the thinking that maybe you can do this,” Sigmundsson says.

The Psychological Formula for Success After Age 50

But grit—a combination of perseverance and determination—rises through middle age and peaks in your 70s, as do a number of other helpful intellectual traits. Harvard and MIT researchers who tracked the cognitive skills of 48,000 people over time found that while mental processing speed is already on the downswing by the time you depart college, your ability to perceive the emotional state of other people and your vocabulary, comprehension, and aptitude for math keep climbing until at least 50. Though short-term memory declines after age 35, the mind’s accumulation of facts and knowledge peaks around retirement age. In many ways, that’s when your mind is best suited to dominate on the job.

You’ll still need to overcome your flagging passion and growth mindset. A surplus of grit can help, says Anne Boden, 60, founder and chief executive officer of Starling Bank, a consumer-focused online financial house. When founding a company, “you spend most of your time convincing people to believe in you and give you money,” she says. “It’s a very weak position, and very humbling.”

Boden had never lacked for ambition, holding roles at various financial companies and ultimately serving as chief operating officer of Allied Irish Banks Plc, Ireland’s biggest lender. Along the way, she frequently felt banks don’t really put customers front and center. So as she passed the five-decade mark, she decided she should do it herself. “The first time I uttered the words ‘I’m going to start a bank,’ I couldn’t believe they came out of my mouth,” she says. But by saying it over and over, she grew more comfortable with the idea. Soon, she says, “I felt like a woman who was going to start a bank.”

The Psychological Formula for Success After Age 50

Such an overabundance of determination may be unusual, but gritty, later-life professional success is not. Joy Behar taught English to high schoolers and worked as an ABC receptionist and producer before landing her seat on The View in 1997, at age 54. She continues to co-host at 78. Sigmundsson rattles off examples of colleagues such as a retired professor who started speed skating at 67 and is now a masters world champion at age 85. And Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, 86, the psychologist who discovered the immersed mental state known as “flow,” is still publishing. “It’s possible,” Sigmundsson says, “to keep the fire burning.”

How to Stoke the Fire

1. Make It Meaningful
Once you pass the half-century mark, avoid work you don’t find compelling. The pandemic provides the perfect occasion to ditch—or be fired from—a position that doesn’t do much beyond keeping the lights on and the fridge full. “When you lose that just-OK job, you have the opportunity to take a big risk,” says Boden. “Take all the good from your past ventures and throw them into the future.”
 
2. Move Your Body
“Physical activity is very important to keep the gray and white matter in your brain more functional,” says Sigmundsson. His studies show that successful older people are all physically active, including everyone mentioned in this article. Anything that gets your heart pumping, such as walking, swimming, yoga, biking, or weights, will do the trick.
 
3. Fight Weakness
Which is lowest: your grit, passion, or growth mindset? Help nurture your weakest trait by surrounding yourself with people and deadlines that bolster it. If your entrepreneurial passion is fading, find an enthusiastic business partner and join an incubator program. If you fear you won’t be able to write that novel you keep seeing in your dreams, join a weekly writing group and hire a book coach.
 
4. Beyond Work
Bonus points for learning completely new skills, which can improve cognitive function. The more novel and mentally demanding, the better—try, say, learning a new language or musical instrument. After a lifetime of playing percussion, Sigmundsson picked up the bass guitar at age 50. “My band needed a bass player,” he says. “Now I’m 55, and I’m quite good.”

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