Maybe I should be in intellectual decline but I’m not. If anything, I’m smarter than I’ve ever been. Fundamentally, this is because being smart isn’t about agility, it’s about strategy. Being strategic requires wisdom, patience, imagination, and data, the kind of data one can only obtain through years of trial and error, missed opportunities and maximized ones, being fooled and fooling others.
I say this, of course, as I scramble along with all the other old lemmings toward what we all think is the inevitable cliff of Alzheimer’s where we will fall into an abyss so deep we will lose even the ability to diaper ourselves. It might be this sense of impending doom that makes me think I’m so smart, wanting to have a more impressive before and after shot like a dieting person might binge on chocolate-covered donuts before stomach stapling.
Yet I do think I’m smarter than I’ve ever been. Here are the five reasons why.
1. I no longer compete to be the smartest person in the room. I don’t compete, not because I automatically am the smartest person in the room which is, increasingly, not the case, but because I have a solid grip on my expertise and I know where it starts and ends. In other words, I don’t over-reach anymore. That’s smart by itself.
2. I’m a better listener. Because I’m not competing to prove how smart I am, I am not spending the time while someone else is speaking to craft my retort. In this regard, it helps immeasurably that I am hearing-impaired and have to concentrate on someone while they’re talking or I won’t know if the topic is getting appropriate services for the homeless or whether Mexico is safe for tourists. (There’s a weird upside to every disability. Or so I’m told.)
3. I’m more patient. It has taken a long time to learn to let things unfold. Not everything that happens requires an immediate response. The answer that comes in a few days is likely to be better than the answer given today. This includes the answer I’m seeking and the answer I’m giving.
4. I know more stuff. If you have been around a long time, you simply know more things. An article in this morning’s New York Times, “The Older Mind May Just Be a Fuller Mind” attributes older adults’ occasional knowledge retrieval problems as caused simply by having a much, much larger filing cabinet to search. You have one drawer? I have six. Sorry if I can’t rifle through all of them fast enough to suit your one-drawer self.
5. I use my age to my own benefit. Although I went through a period of feeling apologetic about my age (believe me, you will traverse this same territory some day), I came out on the other side. On this other side, I own my age, my experience, my expertise, and, also, my failings, gaps, and datedness. All of it is stuffed in my big Coach bag with my hearing aid batteries, the last draft of a federal funding application, and six tubes of lip gloss. This is the ultimate to me. I have nothing to prove. Whatever was to be proven, whatever race I was running, I ran it, I proved it. Now I can just use what’s in the bag.
For those of you coming up, as we say, I have these words. Aging is not all bad. There is loss and gain. It is a wonderful thing to be at one’s intellectual peak even if it is, you know, an ever-moving target.