From Strength to Strength | Arthur C. Brooks

Summary of: From Strength to Strength: Finding Success, Happiness, and Deep Purpose in the Second Half of Life
By: Arthur C. Brooks


In this summary of ‘From Strength to Strength: Finding Success, Happiness, and Deep Purpose in the Second Half of Life’ by Arthur C. Brooks, you’ll discover how the inevitable career decline in later years can be transformed into opportunities for growth and fulfillment. The book delves into the science behind the decline in fluid intelligence as we age and how to leverage crystallized intelligence, which grows with age, for new avenues of success. You’ll also explore the importance of developing eulogy virtues over résumé virtues, finding balance for a fulfilling life, and learning when it’s time to walk away from a dwindling career.

Embracing Career Decline

Charles Darwin is known for his significant scientific achievements, yet in his later years, he considered himself a failure due to the decline in his career. This decline is consistent with many professionals who face a decline in their abilities, which starts between the late 30s and early 50s. It is attributed to the decline of the prefrontal cortex – responsible for functions that contribute to professional success. However, this decline can be reframed as an opportunity to pivot towards new types of success and personal fulfillment.

When you think of Charles Darwin, you probably picture a successful scientist whose work forever changed our understanding of the world. Yet, surprisingly, Darwin saw himself as a failure later in life. What led him to this belief, and how does it relate to you?

At the peak of his career, Darwin published his groundbreaking theory of natural selection. However, as he entered his later years, he experienced a creative stagnation, which left him feeling as though he was no longer making meaningful contributions to his field. Like many people, this decline left Darwin feeling as if his life had lost its purpose.

But the truth is, this decline in professional ability is a universal experience shared by people across industries. Just as Darwin’s career slowed down, so will yours eventually. You might wonder why this happens and what it has to do with the brain.

It all comes down to the prefrontal cortex, the brain region responsible for working memory, executive function, and focus. A strong prefrontal cortex is crucial for developing expertise in one’s chosen field. However, it is also the first part of the brain to decline as we age, causing a drop in professional abilities between the ages of 30 and 50.

Research from Northwestern University professor Benjamin Jones bolsters this theory. His study of scientific breakthroughs and inventions shows that people are most likely to make significant discoveries in their late 30s. After that, the chance of achieving a groundbreaking innovation declines considerably, reaching near zero by the time an individual turns 70.

This pattern is observed across multiple industries. For example, air-traffic controllers are required to retire at 56 because their declining abilities may pose a risk to public safety. Only a small percentage of startup founders are over 60, and a study of Canadian anesthesiologists found that physicians above the age of 65 were 50% more likely to be held responsible for malpractice than their younger counterparts.

These facts might seem discouraging, but they don’t have to be viewed negatively. With the right mindset and a willingness to adapt, the decline of professional abilities can be viewed as an opportunity rather than a reason to despair. Instead of lamenting the loss of past achievements, you can focus on exploring new avenues of success or personal fulfillment.

In the same way that Darwin’s life was more than the scientific accomplishments he achieved, your life is about more than just your professional milestones. By embracing change and treating it as a chance to grow, you can turn the decline of your career into a new beginning. Not only does this outlook offer a healthier perspective on aging, but it can also help you make the most out of your present situation and enrich your life in ways you never imagined.

Embrace Age-Enhanced Intelligence

As we grow older, our fluid intelligence declines, while our crystallized intelligence increases, accumulating knowledge and experiences. To prosper in the second half of adulthood, embrace the strength of crystallized intelligence by aiding and mentoring others. Applying this wisdom in various fields promotes exponential fulfillment and success, regardless of age.

At some point, you may wonder how to transition successfully into the second half of adulthood. The key to understanding this trajectory lies in the concept of intelligence, as proposed by British psychologist Raymond Cattell. He identified two types of human intelligence: fluid and crystallized intelligence.

Fluid intelligence refers to our problem-solving, flexibility, and reasoning abilities. This form of intelligence assists us in making scientific discoveries and solving complex problems. However, fluid intelligence tends to peak in early adulthood and declines dramatically as we approach our 30s and 40s.

On the other hand, crystallized intelligence encompasses the knowledge and skills we accumulate through our life experiences and learning. This type of intelligence grows throughout our 40s, 50s, and 60s, and declines much later in life. While younger people possess fluid intelligence enabling quick thinking and recollection of facts, older individuals have crystallized intelligence that allows them to understand and apply knowledge.

Those who recognize and pivot their careers to rely on crystallized intelligence can experience deep fulfillment and professional success in the latter half of life. Typical career choices that leverage this intelligence are teaching, mentorship, and advisory roles. A study in the Chronicle of Higher Education observed that older college professors frequently received better teaching evaluations due to their valuable wisdom. This was particularly evident in the humanities, with professors’ ratings progressively increasing as they aged.

However, academic paths are not the sole source of success in later adulthood. Crystallized intelligence proves essential across various settings – from college classrooms to leadership roles. For example, startups with young entrepreneurs may rely on experienced advisory boards for guidance on which business plans have the most potential.

Cicero, the Roman orator, revered the importance of crystallized intelligence in later life, emphasizing the need for dedicating oneself to service and passing on wisdom. He believed that one’s innate strength lies in mentoring, advising, and teaching others. Instead of striving for material gains, Cicero encouraged giving back to society as the ultimate focus.

By embracing the growth of your crystallized intelligence and sharing your wisdom with younger generations, you’ll foster personal fulfillment and significant value to those you mentor. Celebrate your cumulative knowledge and experience to shape a prosperous second half of your adulthood.

Embrace Change, Find Purpose

A Roman dictator named Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus gained respect for knowing when to walk away from power to return to a modest life. Learning from Cincinnatus’ wisdom, the author, Arthur C. Brooks, was able to discover new, fulfilling opportunities by letting go of his dream to become the world’s best French horn player. This lesson reminds us to embrace change and explore new avenues in life, as it may lead to our true purpose and personal fulfillment.

In 458 BC, a Roman dictator named Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus saved Rome and, instead of clinging onto power, made the humble decision to return to a simple life on a small farm. His choice to walk away from the pinnacle of authority made him a renowned and virtuous leader, and the city of Cincinnati, Ohio, was named after him. Cincinnatus’ noteworthy lesson of knowing when to walk away echoes throughout history and applies to every one of our lives today.

Arthur C. Brooks, the author of these insights, embraced this lesson in his own journey. He spent his childhood with a singular goal – becoming the world’s best French horn player. Dedicated to his pursuit, he practiced every day, studied with the best teachers, and nurtured his talent until it blossomed. By 19, he was playing professionally, performed in various countries, and was well on his way to achieving his dream.

Nevertheless, life had other plans. In his early twenties, Brooks’ abilities began to wane. Despite visiting famous teachers and dedicating a significant amount of time to practice, his skills continued to decline. After nine arduous years of praying for a miraculous resurgence, Brooks, like Cincinnatus, chose to walk away from his lifelong goal at the age of 31.

This decision was undoubtedly painful, as his entire identity was wrapped up in achieving this goal. However, Brooks found the courage to face change and explore a new direction in life. Since moving away from music, he has experienced tremendous professional accomplishments and personal satisfaction as a social scientist, think tank president, university professor, and best-selling author. He’s discovered new talents and enriched the lives of many through his work.

Brooks’ story is a lesson for all of us as we navigate our own careers and personal journeys. The end of one opportunity often gives rise to the beginning of another, and in order to uncover our true purpose in life’s different stages, we must be willing to embrace change and traverse new pathways. While it may require courage to do so, the reward of discovering our purpose and personal fulfillment makes it worth the risk. So, let us take a page from Cincinnatus and Brooks, learn to walk away from the paths we no longer belong to, and open the door to unforeseen chapters in our lives.

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