Science is like a love affair with nature; an elusive, tantalising mistress. It has all the turbulence, twists and turns of romantic love, but that’s part of the game.
Looking back on a lifetime of twists and turns as it relates to personal achievement, one could easily capture its essence by replacing “science” in the quote above with the word, “achievement.” For most gifted elders, achievement – or perceived underachievement – has been like an elusive love affair, wrought with periods of intense creative productivity and hindered at times by the realities of the human condition. It is my observation that this is the path travelled by many gifted elders. Allow me to explain…
The term need for achievement (N-Ach), first used in the past century by Henry Murray (1938) and quite popular in leadership literature throughout the past century and up to the present, is the distillation of a psychological disposition that individuals have and that manifests itself as a drive or impetus towards accomplishment. As a psychological variable, some experience N-Ach more intensely than others do. Furthermore, gifted adults are generally known for their strong drive toward accomplishing difficult goals and their incentive to constantly be learning, creating, and improving themselves.
How does N-Ach look in the gifted elder? In my own case, six months into my 72nd year, I avidly continue to read self-improvement articles. In addition to subscribing to new courses on MOOCS (mass open online courses), I also persevere in trying out new organizers or productivity apps (Pomodoro, KanBan) in the hopes of finding the perfect system. A late-bloomer, I completed a B.A., M.A. and then took time off from my studies to raise children, while also teaching fulltime. Achieving a Ph.D. in my early 50’s, I recently retired for a second time as a full professor at a highly respected southern university. I promptly returned to life as a student and I am now within a couple of months of completing a Master’s in Clinical Psychology. I have known and interviewed many elders whose professional paths took a circuitous route like mine. Nevertheless, N-Ach is ever present and persistently driving them forward.
When is enough, enough? To continue growing, learning, and achieving is part of the nature of giftedness for many adults and elders. The intellectual imperative we might call it, or the impetus to self-actualize oneself – to fulfill the blueprint of potentiality with which we were born. For some, it is impossible to turn off the N-Ach switch.
I remember my friend and mentor, Annemarie Roeper, who continued writing and publishing into her nineties. A few years before her death and continuing until her final months, she would share with me her lament at the growing disparity and disconnection between her mind and her body. In her book, Beyond Old Age, she wrote,
How do you find yourself in older old age? Rather, how do you find your new position in life? Is it a new period ofdependency? Or is it in some way a repetition of childhood, only instead of having a growing body, geared toward attaining independence, you have a disintegrating body, and you don’t know how far you are yet going to sink.
The discrepancy between what we still want to achieve and the limited energy and concomitant health needs of elderhood emerges during our waning years in stark contrast to the exuberance and limitless zest we remember as who we were as recently as seemingly yesterday. What is more discouraging are the reactions of some that belie their thoughts that we should be happy to rest, take it easy, and enjoy our golden years of leisure. Yet we have promises to keep.
For those of us who continue to be propelled forward by our N-Ach, that is our drive to continue to contribute to our world, there are a number of tasks we must master. Firstly, we must negotiate a truce between our minds and our bodies. One step in accomplishing this task is to be ever mindful of when our energy is strong and to take advantage of those times to work.
Another task is to recognize that our time is not limitless and to decide what we can and what we will not accomplish during our final years. I recently had to bow out of a project with a group of colleagues that I love and respect because it was clear that I could not participate with them, finish my clinical psychology studies, prepare for the licensure exam, and have the energy left for my writing agenda, which includes blogs and two separate book projects.
An additional task for the achievement-oriented elder is to reconcile oneself with the fact that enough is enough. In other words, what we have accomplished, if it contributed to the betterment of our loved ones, our profession, and our world, is worthy. The love affair is a success!
Murray, H. A. (1938). Explorations in personality. New York: Oxford University Press
Roeper, A. (2011). Beyond old age: Essays on living and dying. Berkeley, CA: Azalea Press.
This blog article is part of the Hoagies’ Gifted Education Page February 2016 Blog Hop on Other Achievement. I thank my friends at Hoagies’ Gifted Education Page for their inspiration, support, and suggestions over the last two decades.
Please click on the link below to see to the titles, blog names, and links of other Hoagies’ Blog Hop participants.