Arthur Brooks has boundless energy and a contagious enthusiasm. A musician-turned-professor-turned-think tank CEO-turned-Atlantic magazine journalist-turned-Harvard faculty superstar, Brooks is a social scientist with a calling. He’s learned that happiness is entirely achievable, so long as you do the right things. His book, from Strength to Strength, outlines what they are. Mostly, that you accept the realities of ageing and work with them, rather than trying to soldier on as the ego-driven, ambitious ‘striver’ the book is written for, in denial, hanging on to outdated status, scripts and stuff.
The key message of the book is that our minds “decline” with age, and that first-half-of-life “fluid” intelligence (the kind that is fast and innovative a la Elon Musk) morphs in the second-half into “crystallized” intelligence (more insightful and integrative a la Dalai Lama). This theory isn’t new, it goes back to work done in the 1970s by Raymond Cattell, but Brooks uses it to explain the need for a ‘second curve.’
Do What I Do
Brooks seems to be writing for a limited audience – successful men like himself who are addicted to success, status and extrinsic adulation. The ‘aha’ moment and motivation for writing the book was over-hearing a once world-renowned older man complain bitterly to his wife of his irrelevance and yearning for death. He decided he didn’t want to become that man and suffer the tortuous demise known as 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.”
Brooks has ‘found the cure’ and is happy to share it. The recipe, “grounded in social science data,” is how he designed his own second-half-of-life.
1. Don’t ‘rage against the dying of the light.’ The famous quote from the poet Dylan Thomas is, Brooks asserts, a guaranteed road direct to depression. High achievers are those who are both most certain to fall from grace and to most hate the resulting invisibility. His advice? Don’t hang on too long, or you’ll regret it. Brooks quit his job as the CEO of the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) because he knew what was ahead: less.
2. Surf your ‘second curve.’ Move from roles and sectors that value and require fluid intelligence to those (he points to his teaching at Harvard) that share knowledge and mentor future generations. Certain sectors and jobs favour different ages and types of intelligence. Poets peak young, historians late. Know where you stand and be ready to move if the young folk are nibbling at your heels.
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3. From ‘blank canvas’ to ‘block of jade.’ Western art is built on the idea of adding paint onto a blank canvas. Eastern art on the concept that a sculpture sits, awaiting the artist, within its block of jade. We are the same, he suggests. We need to chip away a lot of rock to reveal the truth of who we are. The takeaway? Don’t keep adding stuff to your life, work at finding your essential self.
4. Cultivate your aspen grove. His final metaphor is that, as the Harvard study of happiness has proven, the secret to happiness is love and relationships. So don’t over-invest in things that take away attention from those you love most. Just as aspens aren’t individual trees, but vast tracts of connected root systems, understand that your life depends on your connectedness to others, and nurture them.
Look at me now, he enthuses, I’m at the top of my game on this regime, full of energy, fitness and followers. Plan for change and follow me. And follow they do. His Harvard Business School course on Leadership and Happiness is wildly over-subscribed. Not unexpected, as pandemic-tossed students try to find a rudder to navigate the storm. At Yale, Laurie Santos’ ground-breaking 2018 course on Happiness & The Good Life was the university’s most popular course… in 300 years. Her Coursera course has taught almost four million people the Science of Well-being (and is being offered again free this February). Well-being and happiness are becoming a big business worth over $4 trillion, which Harvard Business School students will be primed to explore.
A Modern (and Male) Rebranding
Strength to Strength is full of good advice and stories, engagingly told. Understanding that the second half of life has different adult development tasks and motivations than the first half is not a new idea. It was first introduced by Erik Erikson and developed by many other adult development psychologists. Brooks packages these ideas in poetic modern tales urging his super-high-achieving students to be prepared to shift careers over time from a focus on ‘innovation’ to a focus on ‘instruction.’
Some may see this is an ageist simplification. Most of the ‘data’ he cites is historical, just as we are entering a world-shifting reality of much longer, healthier and more engaged lives. We have no idea yet what accomplishments and innovations may come from a much older world. That the average age of an entrepreneur has risen over the years to 45 leaves some room to wonder about his basic premise.
It also reads, as many books by men about ageing do, as a very masculine perspective, based on a reality restricted to a small, privileged group. The fast, upward, linear careers that successful, workaholic men and companies have long favoured become more complex in a gender-balanced world. It is not surprising that successful men struggle more with the status-shifting realities of ageing. One of the gifts of longer lives may be precisely the opposite of what Brooks is arguing.
There will be many different times and ages for a variety of contributions from a broader variety of ‘intelligences’. Neuroscience has advanced more in the last decade – even in the last year – than in the last 100. Basing a book on research rooted in 1970s thinking is attractively simple but dangerously reductive. We now know that brains can rewire and grow at any age. We are just beginning to see women’s careers flourish post-50, for example, (including Brooks’ own wife’s) because many women devoted the first half of their lives not to ‘striving’, but to balancing a range of roles.
But the key message of Strength to Strength is likely to hold true. The “sum of your life is not your achievements, it’s the sum of the love for the people in your life.” It’s good for Harvard students to hear this message – and the uber-charming and very human Brooks is a perfect messenger. And if you love someone who is working harder at work than at love, this is the ideal Valentine’s Day gift.