The strange implied arc of human achievement

I have been musing on a tendency that is highly pronounced in the USA, but which also exists in other places. It is the process by which we assign descriptions, greetings and modes of addressing to people based on what we perceive to be their peak of achievement. It is like we treat lives as akin to a parabola – an arc of rising achievement, a peak, followed by a decline, presumably ending when the casket is shut.
In the USA, it manifests itself in odd ways. Like the requirement that ex-Presidents continue to be addressed as “Mr. President” 30 years after they left office. Or calling your former high school coach “Coach Smith” 30 years after he stopped coaching. Or calling a retired General “General” 30 years after he served.
I used to think that this was peculiar to the USA, but no, it happens elsewhere, albeit in a slightly different way. I read an interview with George Harrison in the 1990s where he pointed out that he had really only spent 7 years in the Beatles, and had been an ex-Beatle for over 20 years, yet many people still asked him questions as if being in the Beatles had been the only thing that ever happened in his life. I read it in obituaries for sports stars, where, in some cases, it reads like the rest of their life after they retired hardly even existed.
It may be the case, of course, that for some people, there is a genuine peak in their life, after which time they may literally retire and not do a damn thing. However, most humans are not wired like that, especially perennial high achievers. I think as a society we need to stop addressing and defining people entirely by their past achievements, and engage them more on the basis of what they are doing in the here and now.


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