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Key insights from

From Strength to Strength: Finding Success, Happiness, and Deep Purpose in the Second Half of Life

By Arthur C. Brooks

What you'll learn

Arthur C. Brooks (1964-) is an American social scientist who researches the intersection between culture, economics, and politics. He has authored twelve books to date, served as president of the American Enterprise Institute, and currently teaches at Harvard. Brooks has climbed the ladder of professional success in numerous fields, and has researched the key characteristics of happy people across the United States. From his research, he has gleaned insight into the nature of success and happiness. In From Strength to Strength, Brooks identifies a problem afflicting both American business professionals and ordinary citizens, which he calls the “striver’s curse.” Brooks shares his insights on this curse, what values underlie it, and what it takes to cultivate the new strengths that will lead us into our second life curve.
 


Read on for key insights from From Strength to Strength.

1. Progress is not simple, and never a straight line upward.

At a certain point in our lives, often earlier than we realize, we will face an inescapable decline in our success. Brooks calls this the “striver’s curse”: “People who strive to be excellent at what they do often wind up finding their inevitable decline terrifying, their successes increasingly unsatisfying, and their relationships lacking.” Because we long for the successes we have attained, we often enter a state of denial regarding our decline.

Moreover, we stubbornly insist on fighting an uphill battle that is increasingly unsatisfying and damaging to our well-being. We imagine success to be at the top of this hill, at the height of this curve, and therefore to progress we must keep striving. We long to inch closer to this summit we erect in our minds, no matter the cost. This will only create further hardship, dissatisfaction, and emptiness. We operate on the formula that “...the more you do something, the better at it you become.” As Brooks explains, this formula usually does not hold true forever. At one point or another, we simply stop getting better at whatever it is we are doing. We will simply stop being capable of the success we have known.

Instead, we must redefine success, and this entails redefining what progress means as well. Progress is not a linear movement upward, but a gradual movement from old strengths to new ones. This involves regarding our inevitable decline in excellence not as a tragedy to be avoided, but as an opportunity to transform ourselves. It involves reconsideration of what we truly value, reconfiguration of our skillset, and reevaluation of who we really are. We learn that progress is not one dimensional, but three dimensional. It is not measured by worldly accolades but by our continued movement (no matter the direction) toward our purpose.

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2. Intelligence changes from one type to another as we age.

As we become habituated to our first curve, to success as we understand it, we experience a transformation in our intelligence. If we attend to this transformation and capitalize on this new opportunity, we can move from our first curve to our second curve. In the first half of life we have fluid intelligence, which is “the ability to reason, think flexibly, and solve novel problems. It is what we commonly think of as raw smarts, and researchers find that it is associated with both reading and mathematical ability.” This intelligence declines in the middle of life, and its recession leads to the dissatisfaction that often plagues strivers.

Yet what is ignored by many is the replacement of fluid intelligence with crystallized intelligence. This intelligence is “the ability to use a stock of knowledge learned in the past…Crystallized intelligence, relying as it does on a stock of knowledge, tends to increase with age through one’s forties, fifties, and sixties—and does not diminish until quite late in life, if at all.” This kind of intelligence grows as we age, and thus is a major blessing of life that comes later, giving us the opportunity to grow as individuals as it manifests. This means that growing older is not a source of failure and dissatisfaction, but rather a source of new success and refined purpose. 

Intelligence is not something static, a quantifiable measure of IQ points. It is dynamic, and even in its latter, crystallized state, reflects the richness of our lived experience. As we age and face the decline of our present skills, our brain is already rewiring itself, beckoning us to learn new skills and seek new strengths we did not know we were capable of. Rather than viewing our failure in fluid intelligence as the whole picture, we can seek the seeds for new successes in our burgeoning crystallized intelligence. Understanding this truth about our mind is important in making the leap to our new curve.

3. Pride in our self-image keeps us addicted to success.

Our bereavement concerning our decline is often amplified by our success addiction. Our workaholism isn’t even concerned with the work itself, but rather with the successes we associate with our work. We seek the same satisfaction and enjoyment that we have experienced already. In the hopes that we can mechanize the feelings of success, we work harder and harder in the same way we always have, hoping to finally reach our goal and become the image of success we have in our minds. 

Underlying our self-image is ultimately our pride. Pride in ourselves, in seeing ourselves as better, as unique, as special, motivates the construction of our warped self-image. This is reinforced by our initial successes, and our success in the eyes of other people, which further strokes our pride. “Success, the fruit of excellence, becomes an addiction. All because of pride.”

This image we have of ourselves as a successful person, however, is a mirage that we compose ourselves. Our self-image is one dimensional, a flat cardboard cutout that reflects a worker, not a full human being. Moreover, we become enamored with our success as something which makes us special, putting us over and above everyone else around us. We think of being “better” as a part of our identity, and thus any failure leads us to think we are less of a person, less of a human being compared to those around us.

It is not true, however, that failure makes us less. Our adherence to the image that constrains and flattens us does that. We objectify and try to shape ourselves into the image of our most productive, special self. We tyrannize ourselves with this image, and bind ourselves to the fluid intelligence curve that we have known so far. We hope that we can really achieve this image, that our success is truly within our grasp, no matter how many hours it takes to get there. Instead, we must learn to let go of our attachment to that image of ourselves, re-articulate our purpose, and grow in new strengths towards new kinds of success.

4. We must stop being statues, and become like trees.

We cling to the self-image that was forged in our early successes and which depends on our waning fluid intelligence. But it constrains us. Our pride reinforces this self-image, hardening us into a statue. As a statue, we are not dynamic and capable of new strengths and growth, but are fixed upon our past success. We lose momentum by further diminishing enjoyment of our work. We poison our new opportunities by seeing only our declining capabilities and what we once were. Ultimately we muddle our purpose by obscuring the truth of ourselves with the lies about success and happiness that we affixed to our former successes.

While pride hardens us into a statue, humility roots us like a tree. The former can never move itself or grow, while the latter is continually nourished by all that is around it. Trees are strong, durable, reliable, and solid. But unlike statues, they continue to grow, and can bear wounds. Scars and decay on a tree can become part of the tree’s beauty as it ages and matures. A statue, however, can only ever be as perfect as its initial image. Any change or alteration to the statue is always a weakening, a lessening. Too often, we see ourselves as statues, which means we have no room for decay, imperfection, or failure. Every failure and wound the tree bears spurs it on to further growth and renewal. 

Statues are solitary by nature, set apart from the environment in which they exist. If people are to be like trees, then they are to be nourished by all that is around them. Communion with other people and the divine is essential to one’s growth and new strength. It is the second curve, the decline of our formidable fluid intelligence, that beckons us to renew our bonds with others. Crystallized intelligence, the source of wisdom in us, requires others for its fullest actualization. 

5. Satisfaction and success do not appear at the end of the road, but permeate each step along the way.

We assume that with enough work we can reach some far off goal that is the point of utter fulfillment. Strivers repeatedly experience, however, that every goal, once achieved, raises the question “So, what’s next?” The goals we achieve never turn out to be the end of the journey. This is a fundamental misstep that Americans make when they envision “the good life.” Putting off satisfaction until the destination is reached leaves the journey itself to be something shallow, merely the means to a more pleasant end. This skews our happiness, however, by undermining our satisfaction in ordinary workdays and other pursuits, such as our family and faith.

Our success cannot be the only good of our lives, with everything else as a means to it. Daily work must also be seen as a good in and of itself, even if that daily work is new and requires change to be properly undertaken. Mindfulness of the present moment is essential for our flourishing. This fact requires us to be open to change, seeing opportunity in everything, even what originally appeared only as decline and loss. “When we think of our identities as fixed and unchanging…we’re shutting ourselves off from many of life’s possibilities. Being open to reevaluating our ideas about ourselves can keep us from getting stuck in patterns that aren’t true to our changing selves.” The second curve represents a new self, or rather, a new self-image premised on deeper knowledge of what is true, good, and beautiful about the world and oneself.

6. Decline is not a tragedy, but rather an opportunity for new success.

No matter who you are, at some point, you will experience a decline in fluid intelligence, which will have some impact on your concept of self and success. It is important in times like these not to dig in and focus only on what is lost, but rather on what can be gained. In times of suffering, the key is to reconsider what your purpose is, so you can recognize from what you derive meaning. The work you do day in and day out has meaning, even if it challenges your sense of self.

As your fluid intelligence declines and you find successes coming less frequently and with less satisfaction, it is important to consider what this decline is revealing about your changing skills, and what new strengths await you. “Weaknesses are never purely negative things,” Brooks writes. They come upon everyone at various points in their life, and sometimes they come in the places we thought we were strongest. Having weaknesses highlights new opportunities that are unfolding. Though these do bring suffering, they serve as guideposts to the second curve, to a renewed perspective on life.

When we are in a phase of decline, it is hardest to let go of the things that once made us happy, because they often are the only path to happiness we know. They seem, paradoxically, to be both the cause of and the solution to our dissatisfaction. Moreover, letting go of our current path, our first curve, often feels as though we are rejecting everything we know, including ourselves. It is true that moving from the first curve to the second involves questioning our identity in challenging ways. Asking “Who am I?” in these times beckons us to the precipice that we have to leap over if we are to experience the renewed life that awaits us on the second curve. In taking that leap, we must, “Use things. Love people. Worship the divine.” We must reevaluate ourselves, and re-prioritize our efforts, valuing what is truly valuable, giving up what is out of our hands, and setting our hands to what we are given the strength to accomplish.

Endnotes

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