Decompression: a personal appraisal

In conversation with a colleague they mentioned in passing they had been in their current role for 11 years. It was at that point I realised I had been working only for 9 years in total – I don’t celebrate my ten-year work anniversary until June 2015.

This provided a useful perspective and set off a series of interconnected, personal thoughts about where I have been, where I am and where I’m going.

Orson Welles, when asked about why he achieved what he did in making Citizen Kane at the age of 26, said it was due to arrogance and ignorance. He didn’t know what was and wasn’t achievable in film and so simply went about achieving what he wanted to.

There is a whole literature dedicated to age-achievement curves, broadly considering at what age significant contributions to different disciplines are made. In a paper on age and scientific genius, Jones, Reedy and Weinberg[1] note that the median age of “great achievement” (typically Nobel prize-winning contributions or equivalent) is 37 in maths, 40 in physics, 43 in engineering, and 45 in surgery and psychology.

Age-achievement curves

Exploring these differences in more detail, it is noted:

people who excel in abstract fields, like art or physics, tend to be younger than those who win prizes in fields that require more context, like history or medicine.

Even within abstract fields there are variations: theorists generally make their greatest contributions earlier than those who are “experimental” by just over 4.5 years.

If we look to the humanities we see that great contributions tend to come later in life: the average age of Nobel laureates for literature is 65 and for economics is 67.

Nobel laureate ages

There are basic reasons for these age-achievement curves:

The most obvious factor is education: Scientists spend ages 5 through 18 in school, and then ages 18 through 30ish getting their academic degrees. Then a few years of learning on the job… Meanwhile, scientific breakthroughs tend to be less common in old age because we invest less in learning as we get older, and our skills gradually become less relevant.


The most important conceptual work typically involve radical departures from existing paradigms, and the ability to identify and appreciate these radical departures may be greatest shortly after initial exposure to a paradigm, before it has been fully assimilated.

Is there an equivalent age-achievement relationship in public services and the public officials who run them? It is difficult to know because arguments can be made either way – for people being younger or older when they make/made a significant contribution – and I don’t think there’s a literature that has considered this question[2].

My feeling is that people are probably older when they make significant contributions to public services. Assuming it is possible to attribute changes to the effects of one particular individual, making that change happen requires things like seniority, the ability to persuade others, and having the chance to build a reputation over time – characteristics that come, mainly, with age.

What does this mean for how I feel now?

As a younger man I was in a hurry, partly because I’d been a late starter. Now I am much less so. The ignorance and arrogance of youth – the things I didn’t know I didn’t know – carried me so far; the ability and leeway to ask questions or offer challenges that other people didn’t was present. This, coupled with a strong work ethic, meant some progress on things I was involved with could be made.

Experiencing things for the first time in the world of work was a blessing. I had fresh eyes. There was no sense of the routine, no jaded feelings from having been here before. There was no chance to say: “I remember when…” or inclination to lament: “We’ve tried that before…”. By definition, the things I was then involved with and at what level I operated weren’t as sophisticated or complicated as they are now, and so lent themselves to a progress of sorts.

In the earlier stages there had been no seeing behind the curtain and realising the Emperor is at best only partially clothed. I was optimistic, not cynical. Cynicism or the (temporary) loss of hope or optimism is one of the hardest new realities to deal with. “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed people can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.” “We must become the change we want to see in the world.” These are all true and yet none of them are true.

Things change.

Political HorseshoeWork-wise the issues are more complex, more nuanced, more serious; less easy to solve, less easy to understand and less easy to address. The decision points become finer, the judgments more balanced, the action less direct and the influence more subtle. The implications are bigger – for people, for staff, for policy, practice and precedent. The room for mistakes is larger; the margin of success slimmer. It is said that political ideology most resembles a horseshoe; I’ve always found this interpretation compelling, and it may not take much to jump the gap, perhaps even before you realise you’ve done so.

And these changes in work happen at a time when there are changes in a personal life. Relationships, family, children, health, balance, perspective; a slowing down, a different pace, an accrual of experience; perhaps a sense of where the limit of your ability might lie; understanding what got you here won’t get you there.

What does this mean for how I feel about the future?

All of the above are phenomena that need time and space to consider. Taking this time, decompressing experience, so that it stretches out, feels important. In doing so there are more opportunities for reflection, to think about what something might mean and to think of implications in many directions. To think of why? as well as what? and how?

There are plenty of future times. To make the most of the fact things have happened or been tried before, of history, of documented experience, is a benefit. It’s a chance to learn, change what needs to be changed, keep what needs to be kept and work with the people who need to be worked with.

In taking time to truly know where I am now – of undertaking a personal appraisal – there is more chance to absorb experience and to fill in the gaps that ignorance and arrogance left behind, and of equipping myself for a more balanced future.


[1] – “Age and Scientific Genius” (pdf), National Bureau of Economic Research. A fascinating paper by Dean Simonton summarising what is known about age and outstanding achievement, including methodological questions, is available here (pdf).

[2] – For example, try easily finding the average age of all local authority chief executives.

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Man of letters & numbers; also occasionally of action. Husband to NTW. Dad of three. Friendly geek.

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