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Your Life Is Over. So What’s Next?
Riding Another Curve. Reviewing ‘From Strength to Strength’ by Arthur C. Brooks
From Strength to Strength, a philosophical, midlife self-help book by Arthur C. Brooks, reminds me of Douglas Adams’s Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Your world is ending, but Brooks reassures: Don’t panic; I know the meaning of life. Yes, differences emerge after that. Thankfully, those deviations prove refreshing, encouraging, even inspiring.
Not at the beginning. That’s the your-world-is-ending bit. And actually there are two of those grim chapters if you count the introduction. Bottom line, says Brooks, a trained social scientist: Our professional decline is inevitable. What’s more, it’s coming faster than we imagine.
Looking at the careers of athletes, entrepreneurs, scientists, writers, musicians, and others, Brooks shows that productivity tends to peak and decline somewhere between the late thirties and early fifties. Variances exist for both fields and individuals, but the downward slope is undeniable.
Physicists peak at 50, chemists at 46, medical researchers at 45. Doctors are already in decline by 40. There are ranges: Writers start dipping between 40–55, financial professionals between 36–40, office workers between 35–44, and semiskilled assembly workers between 45–54. “On average,” says Brooks, “the peak of creative careers occurs at about twenty years after career inception,” visualized below.
These trends are not only undeniable, they are inevitable. Why? It has do with fluid intelligence, defined as “the ability to reason, think flexibly, and solve novel problems.” Fluid intelligence tends to peak in midlife, tracking closely with Brooks’s career trajectories; productivity decline is the effect of fluid intelligence taking a dip.
So, we’re hosed, right? Fortunately, no.
A Second Curve
There’s another sort of intelligence we can employ: crystallized intelligence, defined as “the ability to use a stock of knowledge learned in the past.” Crystallized intelligence peaks much later because, in part, that stock of knowledge can keep growing well into old age.
“When you are young, you have raw smarts,” says Brooks; “when you are old, you have wisdom. When you are young, you can generate lots of facts; when you are old, you know what they mean and how to use them.”
The upshot: If we structure our later careers around projects and responsibilities involving high degrees of fluid intelligence, we’re in trouble. But if we can move into roles that favor more crystallized intelligence—say, leadership, management, mentoring, teaching—we can continue adding value.
Having laid this groundwork, Brooks then moves to the obvious problem. The shift from smarts to wisdom is bound to be bumpy. Whatever success we experience in our early careers is likely due to our fluid intelligence; to make the shift means abandoning the one thing we know works. Worse, the more successful we’ve been, the more “addicted” we are to that approach and what it means for our life—even while we’re watching it begin to fail us.
We can find ourselves in what Luke Burgis would call a mimetic trap. We’re on the hamster wheel because, well, look at all the other hamsters! And if all the other hamsters are running, we need to keep up! If we shift to this second curve, won’t we fall behind?
It’s the wrong question. But when we realize what’s motivating it—pride, fear of failure, social comparison—we can at least spot our real problem.
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The shift from the first to the second curve feels like a practical or technical challenge: We have a growing skills deficit we can offset by upgrading to a new set of tools; yet, making that shift while not losing ground poses difficulties. But that’s not how Brooks sees the problem.
Start by looking at some of his suggestions for migrating from the first to the second curve. He advises, among other things, investing in relationships, seeking transcendence, contemplating our deaths, and finding intrinsically meaningful projects to fill our limited time.
If these feel like moral and spiritual responses to a practical problem, that’s because we don’t really have a practical problem. The deeper issue—as revealed by those motivators of pride, fear, and comparison—is moral and spiritual.
Brooks drives home that point even further when he explores what makes these second-curve activities so hard. Why don’t we take more time to invest in significant relationships, attend to transcendent questions, or even mediate on our deaths? Those actives compete for the scarce time and attention we require for what an economist would call our revealed preferences: money, power, pleasure, and prestige. Brooks is an economist, but on this point he follows Thomas Aquinas and calls those idols.
The word might make some uncomfortable but it underscores the point. The meaning of life isn’t practical or technical. That’s like posing the question of life, the universe, and everything and hearing “42” in response. Because it’s neither practical nor technical, driving harder or concocting enhancements and hacks to surf the success-delivery curve longer ultimately won’t satisfy.
If we are seeking significance in our attainments, we will be disappointed. Says Brooks,
Our worldly urges for money, power, pleasure, and prestige come from our ancient limbic brains. We also instinctively want to be happy and satisfied. We then make an erroneous connection: “Since l have these urges, following them must make me happy.”
He calls that “Mother Nature’s cruel hoax.”
The downward slope isn’t our problem. Rather, our desperation to stay on the first curve exposes our actual problem. When we make an idol out of the fruit of fluid intelligence and all our early-life attainments, we are investing in decline and—to borrow an image from Hebrew wisdom literature—hustling after the wind.
Brooks attempts to sum up his advice in seven words:
Use things. Love people. Worship the divine.
We get in trouble when we mix them up. But we can thrive on both the first and second curve if we keep them straight.
We can also benefit from extending Brooks’s discussion and placing From Strength to Strength in conversation with a few other books, three I’ve reviewed this year and one I read last year before starting this project: Wanting by Luke Burgis, Wild Problems by Russ Roberts, and two by Kieran Setiya: Life Is Hard and Midlife: A Philosophical Guide. I recommend them all.
The answer to life is more complicated than 42, we can be both perturbed and relieved to discover. Going deeper takes discovery of its own.
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