Review: From Strength to Strength

Devote the back half of your life to serving others with your wisdom. Get old sharing the things you believe are most important. Excellence is always its own reward, and this is how you can be most excellent as you age.

Arthur C. Brooks

How do you ensure you don’t get the most out of aging well: cultivate gratitude, practice compassion, build relationships, and create beauty. I love the simplicity and truth of that.

In “From Strength to Strength: Finding Success, Happiness, and Deep Purpose in the Second Half of Life,” Arthur Brooks addresses a common problem faced by many successful individuals (who he calls “strivers”) as they enter the second half of their lives.

Yes, but I’m 46, should I care about this? Well, yes, according to most research I’m past my professional prime. In the world of tech/science the most common age for producing a magnum opus is the late 30s. The likelihood of a major discovery increases steadily through one’s 20s and 30s and then declines through one’s 40s, 50s, and 60s. Research shows that the likelihood of producing a major innovation at age 70 is approximately what it was at age 20—almost nonexistent.

My brand is innovation and innovators typically have an abundance of fluid intelligence. It is highest relatively early in adulthood and diminishes starting in one’s 30s and 40s. This is why tech entrepreneurs, for instance, do so well so early, and why older people have a much harder time innovating.

Crystallized intelligence, in contrast, is the ability to use knowledge gained in the past. Think of it as possessing a vast library and understanding how to use it. It is the essence of wisdom. Because crystallized intelligence relies on an accumulating stock of knowledge, it tends to increase through one’s 40s, and does not diminish until very late in life.

Careers that rely primarily on fluid intelligence tend to peak early, while those that use more crystallized intelligence peak later. For example, Dean Keith Simonton has found that poets—highly fluid in their creativity—tend to have produced half their lifetime creative output by age 40 or so. Historians—who rely on a crystallized stock of knowledge—don’t reach this milestone until about 60.

No matter what mix of intelligence your field requires, you can always endeavor to weight your career away from innovation and toward the strengths that persist, or even increase, later in life.

This book underscores the tragedy of “peaking early” and failing to grow and adjust to life’s stages. But this is the lot of the striver. There will be a point where worldly accomplishment diminishes or even stops. What happens then when the most difficult task is the daily struggle with a sense of failure and despondency.

To address this issue, Brooks suggests that it is necessary for individuals to find a deep purpose in their second half of life. This can be achieved through the cultivation of gratitude, the practice of compassion, the building of relationships, and the creation of beauty. By focusing on these actions, individuals can find a sense of fulfillment and purpose that will carry them through the second half of life and enable them to finish well.

One of the most compelling aspects of Brooks’ book is his emphasis on the importance of gratitude. He argues that cultivating gratitude allows individuals to find joy and purpose in their lives, even in the midst of challenges and setbacks. By focusing on the things we are thankful for, we can find meaning and fulfillment that is not dependent on external circumstances or accomplishments.

But gratitude is empty without the practice of compassion. By seeking to understand and care for others, we can find a sense of purpose and meaning that goes beyond our own individual accomplishments. Brooks makes it clear that this can be especially meaningful in the second half of life, as it allows us to contribute to the greater good and make a positive impact on the world around us.

In addition to cultivating gratitude and practicing compassion, Brooks also emphasizes the importance of building relationships. He argues that strong relationships with others can provide us with a sense of belonging and purpose that is essential for a fulfilling life. By investing in these relationships and seeking to connect with others, we can find meaning and joy in the second half of our lives.

Finally, Brooks suggests that creating beauty is another key way in which individuals can find purpose and meaning in the second half of life. Whether through art, music, or other creative endeavors, the act of creating beauty or building beautiful things allows us to connect with something greater than ourselves and find a sense of fulfillment and joy.

Winston Churchill Painting as a Pastime

On a personal note, I have to contrast Brooks message with the story of the apostle Paul. Writing from prison, he emphasized the importance of pressing on towards the goal and finishing his course. However, this is not a problem unique to Paul, as many people struggle with a sense of failure and despondency in the second half of life. What would Paul think of the danger of peaking in one’s career between the ages of 30 and 50, and the potential for a sense of failure and despondency in the latter half of life.

Brooks suggests that in order to avoid this sense of failure, it is necessary for individuals to find a deep purpose in their second half of life. Paul would say it is also important for individuals to recognize that their identity should not be solely based on their accomplishments or successes. Instead, our identity should be rooted in our relationship with God and the gospel of Jesus Christ. This allows us to find a sense of purpose and meaning that is not dependent on our external circumstances or accomplishments.

I also found wisdom from a completely different angle: the varnasrama system of Hinduism which splits up our lives into four distinct stages, each happening every 20-25 years—with vanaprastha (वनप्रस्थ) being the all-important third stage.

After our youthful first stage (“figure out who I am”), in our early-20s we move to a second stage (“prove yourself”) that lasts until we are about 50 years of age. In the second stage, we are driven by the pursuit of pleasure, sex, money, and accomplishments. But by the third stage (“give back”), at around age 50, we begin to pull back from a focus on professional and social advancement. Instead, we become more interested in spirituality and faith.

The important transition is from stage 2 to 3, which typically occurs around age 50, can be difficult for many people, especially in Western societies, where there is often a strong emphasis on professional and social advancement. According to Arthur C. Brooks, this transition is important because it can lead to increased happiness and contentment, as well as better physical health. Additionally, as people age, they tend to become wiser, with greater ability to combine and express complex ideas, interpret the ideas of others, and use the knowledge they have gained throughout their lives. This “crystallized intelligence” can be put to good use by sharing wisdom with others and becoming more devoted to spiritual growth. It is important to let go of the things that once defined us in the eyes of the world and embrace this new stage of life in order to truly thrive in the latter half of adulthood. In summary, the older we get, the better we get at:

  • Combining and using complex ideas and expressing them to others
  • Interpreting the ideas others have (even if we didn’t create them ourselves)
  • Using the knowledge we have gained during our lives

As we approach the finish line of our journey, it is essential that we strive to finish well. This involves finding a deep purpose in the second half of life, cultivating gratitude, practicing compassion, building relationships, and creating beauty. By doing so, we can navigate the challenges and winds of life with a focus on the ultimate goal of glorifying God and finishing our course with joy and purpose.

“From Strength to Strength” is a thought-provoking and insightful book that offers valuable insights and strategies for finding success, happiness, and deep purpose in the second half of life. Whether you are just entering this phase of your journey or are well into the second half, this book offers valuable guidance and encouragement for navigating the challenges and winds of life with a focus on the ultimate goal of finishing well.







2 responses to “Review: From Strength to Strength”

  1. Sandeep Neema Avatar
    Sandeep Neema

    Very insightful review of the book, particularly enjoyed the quote on the four stages of life per Hinduism. Thanks for sharing this perspective that is relevant to all middle-age professionals.

  2. Tanya Avatar

    Inspiring Tim! Thank you for sharing.

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