Winners always quit

Back in August, before I was officially installed as the pastor of Westminster, I opened worship one day by saying, “For those I’ve not had the chance to meet, my name is Landon Whitsitt, and I have the pleasure of serving as Senior Pastor here at Westminster for the time being.” The committee that had spent MONTHS searching for a new pastor had a bit of small, heart-related episode. “For the time being?!!!! No, sir! Not after all the work we put into finding you!”

It was clumsy phrasing on my part, to be sure. I didn’t meant to imply I was only going to stick around for a short time, but it points to something I believe. Especially in ministry, those of us in any kind of leadership get tripped up when we don’t understand that we’re just stewards of something bigger than ourselves. This isn’t a Supreme Court appointment. I have no right to think I get to serve until I’m done or dead.

I’m particularly thinking about this these days, because I very well may be occupying the last “significant job” of my life. I’m 46 this year, my work feels like a great fit, I love the people, and I can see a lot of great things we can do together. It would not be out of the realm of possibility that this is where I live and work until I retire. In fact, it is entirely likely.

But I’ve watched too many people hang on waaaaaay past their peak. I am not unsympathetic that the economy is what it is and people need to earn a living till it’s smart to retire. But I’ve watched a lot of ministry go down the tubes when it didn’t have to. I don’t want to be that guy, and I’ve been thinking and strategizing about how not to be for the last decade. This article from the July 2019 issue of The Atlantic backs me up on this.

According to research by Dean Keith Simonton, a professor emeritus of psychology at UC Davis and one of the world’s leading experts on the trajectories of creative careers, success and productivity increase for the first 20 years after the inception of a career, on average. So if you start a career in earnest at 30, expect to do your best work around 50 and go into decline soon after that.

The specific timing of peak and decline vary somewhat depending on the field. Benjamin Jones, a professor of strategy and entrepreneurship at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management, has spent years studying when people are most likely to make prizewinning scientific discoveries and develop key inventions. 

Looking at major inventors and Nobel winners going back more than a century, Jones has found that the most common age for producing a magnum opus is the late 30s. He has shown that the likelihood of a major discovery increases steadily through one’s 20s and 30s and then declines through one’s 40s, 50s, and 60s. Are there outliers? Of course. But the likelihood of producing a major innovation at age 70 is approximately what it was at age 20—almost nonexistent.

Much of literary achievement follows a similar pattern. Simonton has shown that poets peak in their early 40s. Novelists generally take a little longer. When Martin Hill Ortiz, a poet and novelist, collected data on New York Times fiction best sellers from 1960 to 2015, he found that authors were likeliest to reach the No. 1 spot in their 40s and 50s. Despite the famous productivity of a few novelists well into old age, Ortiz shows a steep drop-off in the chance of writing a best seller after the age of 70.

What kind of saves my bacon is that innovators peak before 50, but teachers peak much later. Even up to 70. In my current work, I am fortunate to spend a lot of time teaching and leading/guiding. It is likely my “peak” is ahead of me in that work. And that’s the thing the article wants us realize. If we successfully shift from innovating to teaching others we can be “useful” for a lot longer.

I feel like I need to really start today in fine tuning and honing my ability to attract, nurture, support, and celebrate innovators on my staff.

Each of us only get to do what we get to do “for the time being.” None of us have a life-long lock on anything. One of the best ways to win at life is to quit.

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