Strength to Strength: Finding Success, Happiness, and Deep Purpose in the Second Half of Life (hereafter S2S)
by Arthur C. Brooks
The title is a mouthful. It was something of a turnoff, to be honest. It reminded me of the self help books that I want no part of. Books that aim to help you squeeze more and more productivity, gain more success, wealth, and power. That’s just more of the treadmill that I think is unhealthy. Fortunately, S2S is rather the opposite.
The author, Mr. Brooks, is in his late 50’s. He’s losing some of his sharpness. He sees others with similar feelings. He’d written some books on happiness before, so he researched why people are unhappy in the second half of life. Turns out, according to the research cited in the book, it’s because we actually can’t do what we used to do. So… get used to it.
That sounds glib, and maybe it is. But, he takes another step. You shouldn’t just get used to it, you should embrace it, and also learn that you have a new kind of intelligence that you can utilize; intelligence that is different, but not necessarily worse. As we age, our brains change.
When you’re younger, you have what’s called fluid intelligence. It’s the strongest until middle age. Imagine a young mathematician or software engineer. They do their best work before they’re 40. That’s why you don’t see 60 year old software engineers starting up the next big tech company. The other kind is crystalized intelligence. It’s the strongest in the second half of life. Crystalized intelligence helps you to synthesize data. With that ability comes the ability to communicate that understanding. That’s where you get your mentors, teachers, and historians. It’s wisdom.
Brooks argues that you need to embrace the change, because it’s happening whether you want it or not. You might have been on the superstar trajectory at work before, but soon enough the younger generation will surpass you. It just happens. So you can either rage against it, or embrace it and make a change.
Brooks offers practical advice and personal anecdotes to help readers navigate this new stage of life. He himself shifted from being the president of a think tank to being a professor (the think tank was conservative, which was a bit of a turn off, initially). He shares insights from diverse philosophers, from St. Thomas Aquinas to the Dalai Lama. The examples were compelling and interesting.
I’m only two years or so behind the author. That’s probably why the book appealed to me. I feel that my priorities are shifting, and my faculties are too. For example, interestingly, I find it easier to learn new words. I recently spoke with someone in Chinese, which I haven’t used in decades, and it came fairly easily. These are both crystalized intelligence. I also find it a hassle to write the SQL queries or construct the spreadsheets that used to be easy, which is fluid intelligence. So, the examples in the book really hit home.
Beyond the suggestions that you become a teacher, mentor, or historian, Brooks also suggests that you change your goals. Instead of money, pleasure, power, and fame, you should shift to family, friends, faith, and meaningful work. This is also pretty good advice, and not the first time I’ve heard it. I might not agree on the faith part (though he makes a good argument), but the rest of it was pretty convincing, though you should consider that I’m already halfway in his camp.
So sum up the book, he writes the following (my comments in parentheses)
Use things (don’t love them)
Love people (don’t use them)
Worship the divine (if you believe it)
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