The Half-Life of a Professional

PROFESSIONAL careers and the radioactive nature of nuclear fuel have interesting similarities. Consider the very nature of nuclear fuel. Its value is at its peak when in an enriched state. Then it goes into a state called ‘half-life’ and begins to lose energy. After attaining this state, the decay of the nuclear fuel becomes exponential. Thus, at its half-life, much of its utility is over and it becomes what is known as ‘spent fuel’. At that state, it is an environmental liability.

Our professional careers are like enriched uranium. The tragedy, however, is that when we reach our half-life state, most of us do not notice the fact. Other people come to learn of it before we do. The interesting aspect of all this is that the time to reach half-life in every career is shrinking. There was a time when many professionals reached their half-life only in their mid-forties. That has been reduced by at least a decade as I look at any profession today.

The problem is that by the time I reach the half-life state, it is too late to re-enrich my radioactive state. The process of re-energising must happen much before a person hits the peak. Before we consider how best to do that, let us first ask ourselves: what is the telltale sign that I am closing in on my half-life? The answer is inherent in the ability to answer another question: "What is new and different about myself that I can think of in the quarter that went by?"

Now take the word ‘new’, and look at every other single word in the dictionary. If you prefix ‘new’ to any randomly picked word, the result will be a term that stands for a more progressed state. New manager. New angle. New book. New friend. New movie. New learning. New colleague. New skill. New city. New family. New customer. New car. New haircut. New food. New sport. I could go on and on. If I step back and periodically ask myself what was new in the last quarter, a few of these ‘new things’ should jump out of the mind to indicate that I am still in a state of enrichment.

Personally, one of the tests I have is to ask myself every year if I have landed and taken off from two new airports in the preceding 12 months. It seems a trivial question, but if you work backwards to consider all the things that must precede the experience, you will realise that tonnes of work, and not serendipity, takes you there. Similarly, last year, I learnt to cook – rather unusual for someone my age whose wife has not run away. More than being a survival skill, the process of learning to cook taught me many new things. It helped me slow down. There is a process to cooking. You cannot short-circuit it and get what you want. Try cutting vegetables after frying them or putting the ingredients in the pan before heating the oil. Similarly, you cannot hustle vegetables to cook before their time has come. You cannot take your eye off the pot without burning it. You seldom cook for your own enjoyment. These exemplify the simple truths embedded in the experience of learning to make a simple dish. Yet, how often in our professional life we do things contrary to the simple truths. I am sure Martha Stewart was no contemplative cook – else, she would not be where she is today.

Coming back to the ability to answer the ‘what is new and different in this quarter?’ question, one has to go a step further. My radioactive state is of no value unless it converts itself to usable energy. Usability always takes place outside the element that contains energy. In other words, I must create value for someone else. But in this process of self-enrichment, before being able to create the value, I need to ask what new thing I ‘know’. Then invariably, I need to ‘do’ something of value with it.

There is usually a gap between knowing and doing; let’s call it the ‘know-do’ gap. As the world around us is becoming more complex and demanding, the know-do latency is shrinking. As a professional, I need to be cognizant of this and make sure my radioactivity is never past its half-life. The danger is, when it does get past, I will be the last to know.

Rukodo Says
Saturday April 7th 2012

Hello. I have read the book of Dr. Stephen Covey ‘The 8th Habit’. I learned from the book one of 4 assumptions that shall help lead a more balanced and integrated life is to assume that the ‘half-life’ of my profession is two years and to prepare accordingly. I don’t know what half-life is so I searched online and happened to find your blog. I have found your experience and insights on half-life helpful. Thank you for sharing.

    James Says
    Thursday November 13th 2014

    I also am in the process of reading ‘The 8th Habit’. I also had trouble understanding what the half-life of a profession met. I believe your post not only enlightens us on the definition of a professional, but also provides some key insight in how to observe this benchmark in harmony with the other material discussed in the ‘Eighth Habit’. Thank You for posting this.

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