A few posts ago, I discussed a new study that concluded that people who attempt an entrepreneurial venture end up better off financially, regardless of whether the venture succeeds or fails. (The theory being you learn from the experience and return to a salaried job smarter and savvier, even if your self-employment doesn’t pan out.)
Well, here’s another, if more sobering, study that lays out why spending some time in your career forging your own path may have important benefits, even if it’s tough, or doesn’t “succeed” in the end.
Silvia Canetto, a psychology professor at Colorado State University, published a study in November that explores a perplexing phenomenon: namely, that suicide rates are higher among older white men than among any other demographic group–despite the fact that white men tend to have “fewer burdens associated with aging” than other groups. White males are, for example, less likely to experience widowhood and tend to have better physical health and fewer disabilities than older women, while having more economic resources to deal with problems of aging than women or ethnic minority men.
So what accounts for the high depression and suicide rates? Professor Canetto gives two main reasons. The primary cause, she believes, is a “rigidity in coping and sense of self.” White men, she asserts, “may be less psychologically equipped to deal with the normal challenges of aging … likely because of their privilege up until late adulthood.” The second reason–for the higher incidence of suicide as a response to that depression, anyway–is that suicide is seen, culturally, as at least a masculine response to despair, a la Ernest Hemingway.
After caring for my declining parents, the past few years, Professor Canetto’s point makes perfect sense to me. For I can tell you with absolute certainty that the “challenges” of aging go far beyond the physical decline we all somewhat expect, as we age. Unless you have a million dollars in the bank to hire private help and pay out of pocket for absolutely everything, you can easily find yourself suddenly dependent on local, state and federal systems and bureaucracies to help you. And the most shocking thing to me, in trying to get my parents the care and help they are, by law, entitled to, was learning that in the eyes of many of the bureaucrats who administer that assistance, my parents had become the equivalent of a lazy, unemployed, single welfare mother, who was asking for too much, needed to be handled like an undisciplined child, and somehow should have avoided becoming a case problem on that person’s desk. And I suspect this same saga plays out for many elderly people–even if they were contributing, responsible, and successful members of society, giving of themselves to others and making the world a better place, for their entire working lives. It’s degrading, frustrating, exhausting, draining, and depressing. And yes, the system–and the attitude of those administering it–should be improved. Our elderly all deserve better than that.
But to Professor Canetto’s point–when we’re faced with a stage in life where we are no longer esteemed, privileged, or at our most competent best … when we are not deferred to, and the status of whatever job title we may have had is gone … the people who seem to cope better are those who have had some experience hacking their way through difficult forests, trails, and times before.
If you’ve been protected by corporate benefits and status your whole working life, the loss of that status, and the need to fight for dignity and services, must be an even more bitter pill to swallow. But if you’ve taken a less protected road–one where you had to let go of external status and protection, cope with more failure and setbacks, and find rewards, status, and safety within yourself, instead–among the many rewards you may find yourself reaping is an increased flexibility and resilience to the ups and downs of life–even in later life.
Failure, it seems, can generate more rewards than just learning a better way to build a light bulb. Uncertainty, challenge, learning to navigate uncharted landscapes, and yes, even failure, can also allow us to age with more strength and resilience and, perhaps, grace.
It’s probably not the first thing any of us think about, when we’re contemplating an adventure or uncertain journey. But the truth is, none of us hold all the cards to our own success, even if we take the reins of our careers into our own hands. As I’ve written before, luck, timing, other people, and circumstances beyond our control play a big part, too. All we can do is do our best on the parts we do control, and hope for fair winds, following seas–and a little good luck and serendipity along the way. But if the seas get rough, the winds turn, and the sky feels very dark … Professor Canetto’s findings offer at least the silver lining of knowing we’re learning how to deal with adversity, indignity, and rough seas … knowledge that will stand us in good stead, if we make it to old age.