It used to be that professional success for most was considered a function of doing the same job or working for the same employer for life -- much like success in one's personal life meant being married "for better or for worse." My uncle started as a bagboy at Steinberg's and, 50 years later, became president of the company. What could be a better example of success than that?
That story doesn't exist anymore -- at work or at home -- or, at least, it's no longer the norm. Today we look down on people who end up in dead-end jobs, doing the same thing day and day out, making meager salaries and even more meager raises. We look down on couples who hate each other but who stay together out of a sense of obligation. We see it as a slow death.
What we value instead is reinvention. We love entertainers like Madonna who continue to try new things, incorporate new influences. We idolize Apple because it never rests on its laurels -- iPod begets iPhone, which begets iPad. Successful advertising creatives are those who recognize that writing or designing ads the way David Ogilvy believed is a recipe for decay. Mad Men might be nostalgic but using, for instance, the advertising tactics of 1960 and ignoring the new realities of digital or social media is a recipe for disaster in 2012. The world changes and we all have to change with it.
But while reinvention is necessary, it too only goes so far. Hayflick's Limit is a biological phenomenon whereby cells only divide a limited number of times -- usually 40 to 60 -- before the process stops and the line of cells dies. Madonna, for instance, might be approaching her own Hayflick's Limit, if you've happened to see and hear what she's produced in recent years. Rafa Nadal and the Williams sisters are approaching their Hayflick's Limit too. No doubt, there will come a time when Apple, like Microsoft or Nokia or Blackberry or Kodak or any number of once mighty innovative leaders, will falter and be overtaken by someone better equipped to respond to the challenges of the day. Madonna or Apple or even I might still be able to carve out a little niche and continue to be reasonably successful in the short term but our heyday will one day be over. Creative rigor mortis will inevitably set in.
It's the reality of life. There's probably no better example of this than the dominant global force of the last 100 years -- The United States of America. No country has been more adept at creating, changing, adapting, reinventing itself as the US. But the signs of decay are there. Watch the sclerotic politics, the corruption, the widening gap between rich and poor and left and right, the inability to address the real issues affecting Americans, like health care, infrastructure, education, and you can plainly see what's in store. That doesn't mean the patient is dead yet or that reinvention still isn't possible. It just means it's becoming less and less probable. And it means that change, if and when it does come, will not come through reinvention or a predictable rolling in and out of the tides, but through something more dramatic, like a tsunami, or a revolution.