From Strength to Strength (2022) is a roadmap for thriving in the second half of life. Packed with practical advice, it helps readers stop dwelling on past successes and find fulfillment in the present.
Who is it for?
- Anyone facing the decline of their professional abilities
- Professionals preparing to pivot from one career to another
- Everyone who wants to lead a life full of purpose
Introduction: Finding purpose and fulfillment in the second half of life.
For the first half of life, working tirelessly seems to be a tried-and-true formula for success. But eventually, working hard stops working.
As we age, our abilities change. But contrary to popular belief, that isn’t a bad thing.
In fact, the second half of life can be even more promising than the first. With the right strategies and mindset, you can find success and lasting fulfillment as you age – happily going from strength to strength.
We’ll show you how.
In these summaries, you’ll learn
- which major mistake Charles Darwin made in the second half of his life;
- why knowing when to walk away is the secret weapon of many successful people; and
- how the brain changes as you age – and how to use this to your advantage.
Professional decline is inevitable – but that isn’t a bad thing.
What do you think when you hear the name Charles Darwin? Successful scientist, or complete failure?
Of course, most people would consider Darwin’s career to be a massive success. At 22, he boarded a royal ship and embarked on a now-famous scientific expedition – spending five years scouring the globe to collect the exotic plant and animal samples that would earn him an esteemed spot in history.
At 27, he developed the theory of natural selection, which proposes that organisms best adapted to their environment are most likely to thrive through survival of the fittest. At 50, he published On the Origin of Species, his best-selling magnum opus that changed science forever.
Today, Darwin is a household name. His theory of natural selection is taught in countless classrooms around the world. His writing has been read by billions. He’s hailed as the Father of Evolution and is buried in Westminster Abbey as a national hero. To say he made an impact on humankind would be an understatement.
And yet, Darwin died considering himself a failure. Why?
Like many successful professionals, Darwin couldn’t bear to see his career decline as he approached old age. Publishing On the Origin of Species at 50 was the peak of his career – and from there, he’d no place to go but down. From 50 to 73, Darwin found himself stuck in a period of creative stagnation.
No more scientific breakthroughs. No more industry-defining books. And for Darwin, that meant no more purpose.
“I have not the heart or strength at my age to begin any investigations lasting years, which is the only thing which I enjoy,” he lamented to a friend. “I have everything to make me happy and contented, but life has become very wearisome to me.”
Fame and fortune meant nothing to Darwin in his later years. What he wanted was to achieve new scientific progress and success – and eventually, doing so was simply beyond his abilities.
Charles Darwin was a brilliant scientist. But whether you’ve followed in his footsteps or taken a different path entirely, you and the Father of Evolution have a lot in common.
You see, Darwin’s professional decline was completely normal and predictable. Whether dancer, doctor, painter, or pilot, one thing is sure: one day, you’ll face a similar decline in your career.
The prefrontal cortex is to blame for that pesky phenomenon. It’s the part of the brain responsible for working memory, executive function, and the ability to focus. A strong prefrontal cortex enables you to improve upon your speciality, whether that’s writing sonnets or performing heart surgery. And it also happens to be the first part of the brain to decline in adulthood.
Study after study shows that in almost every high-skill profession, decline sets in sometime between one’s late 30s and early 50s.
Consider the research of Northwestern University professor Benjamin Jones, for instance. He’s spent years studying when people are most likely to make prizewinning scientific breakthroughs and key inventions. Drawing from over a century’s worth of data, Jones found that the most common age for great discovery is one’s late 30s. From there, the likelihood of having a Darwinian breakthrough declines dramatically through one’s 40s, 50s, and 60s. By 70, the probability of producing a major innovation is approximately zero.
The same pattern plays out across many other industries. In aviation, air-traffic controllers are mandated to retire at 56 because the consequences of declining abilities are too dangerous. Only about 5 percent of startup founders are over 60. And in a recent study of Canadian anesthesiologists, researchers found that physicians over 65 are 50 percent more likely to be found at fault for malpractice than their younger peers.
These statistics may sound disheartening. But here’s the good news: they don’t have to be a source of stress. In fact, they shouldn’t be.
With the right mindset and tool kit, you can reframe a decline in professional abilities as an opportunity to pivot toward new types of success – and make the present even more fulfilling than the past.
Crystallized intelligence is your secret weapon in the second stage of life.
Of course, pivoting toward new types of success in the second half of adulthood sounds much easier said than done. So, where should you start?
To find out, let’s look at the research of British psychologist Raymond Cattell. According to Cattell, there are two types of human intelligence: fluid intelligence and crystallized intelligence.
Cattell defined fluid intelligence as “the ability to reason, think flexibly, and solve novel problems.” It might help someone solve complex mathematical equations, devise new inventions, or – in Darwin’s case – make a breakthrough scientific discovery.
But here’s the kicker: fluid intelligence is highest in early adulthood and declines dramatically starting in one’s 30s and 40s. Eventually, it will fail you.
Fortunately, that’s where crystallized intelligence comes into play. Cattell defined crystallized intelligence as “a person’s knowledge gained during life by acculturation and learning.” Since crystallized intelligence relies on accumulated knowledge, it increases through one’s 40s, 50s, and 60s, and doesn’t decline until much later in life.
In other words, young people have the ability to think on their feet and recall facts. But older people are uniquely able to better understand and apply that knowledge.
If your career hinges on fluid intelligence, you’re bound to experience eventual disappointment – much like Darwin did. But if your career relies on crystallized intelligence – or you can pivot to a path that does – you can find deep fulfillment and professional success in the second half of life.
Teaching is one of the most popular career paths that relies on crystallized intelligence. In fact, a recent study in the Chronicle of Higher Education found that the oldest college professors typically had the best teaching evaluations within departments. This was especially true in the humanities, where professors received lower ratings early in their careers and continuously improved throughout their 60s and 70s.
But that doesn’t mean you have to enter academia to achieve success in your second half of adulthood. Crystallized intelligence is essential in many different settings, from college lecture halls to the C-suite. Take the start-up world, for instance. A young, scrappy entrepreneur may be able to generate several new business ideas a day – but they’ll likely rely on a wise, experienced advisory board to tell them which ones are most likely to succeed and why.
The Roman orator Cicero had a few fundamental beliefs about older age. First, it should be dedicated to service. Second, the greatest gift at this stage of life is wisdom – which can and should be passed down. Third, one’s natural strength in older age is to mentor, advise, and teach others. And finally, our focus shouldn’t be on amassing worldly rewards like money, power, or prestige – rather, it should be on giving back.
So rather than regretting the decline of your fluid intelligence, relish in your rising crystallized intelligence – and put this unique gift to good use by shaping younger generations. Your wisdom can serve others well.
Success often means knowing when to walk away.
Let’s travel back in time for a moment to meet a Roman dictator named Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus. It was 458 BC, and Rome was under siege. What happened next?
The answer may seem anticlimactic: Cincinnatus led Rome to victory, remained in power just until it returned to stability, then abruptly resigned – retiring to a small farm, where he proceeded to lead a quiet life with his family.
If Cincinnatus had decided to remain dictator, however, we may not even know about him today. Clinging onto power, he probably would have grown ineffective and unpopular. Perhaps he’d even have been assassinated, as other ambitious statesmen were.
But that isn’t true. History remembers Cincinnatus as a virtuous leader. In fact, there’s even an American city – Cincinnati, Ohio – named after him today. Cincinnatus is admired for one powerful reason: he knew when to walk away.
That’s a lesson we’d all benefit from internalizing in older age. In fact, these summaries wouldn’t exist if the book’s author, Arthur C. Brooks, hadn’t known when to walk away.
You see, Brooks never dreamed of being a social scientist, best-selling author, think tank leader, or Harvard professor. As a child, he had just one life goal: to become the world’s best French horn player.
Growing up, he played his instrument for multiple hours every single day of the week. His bedroom walls were decorated with photos of famous horn players. He studied with the best local music teachers his family could afford and was consistently lauded for his talent.
At 19, Brooks began playing professionally in a touring chamber music ensemble. While others his age were off at college, he toured the country playing 100 concerts per year. By 21, he’d seen all 50 states and 15 foreign countries. When he turned on the radio, he’d occasionally hear albums he’d worked on. His dream of becoming the world’s best horn player felt well within reach.
Then, the unexpected happened: in his early 20s, Brooks started getting worse.
Desperate to stay on top, he started visiting famous teachers and practicing more than ever before. But nothing helped. Brooks experienced blow after blow. Pieces that were once walks in the park became challenging to play, and pieces that were already challenging became impossible.
For nine long years, he continued to play the French horn and pray for a miraculous return to his former abilities. But it never materialized. So at 31, Brooks – like Cincinnatus – walked away. He abandoned his lifelong dream.
As you can imagine, this was a painful process. His entire life up until that point had been singularly focused on one specific goal, and that was no longer attainable.
But Brooks carried on. He had the courage to find a new future – and that made all the difference.
By now, you know where this story is going. Since pivoting away from music in 1994, Brooks has found tremendous professional success and personal fulfillment as a social scientist, think tank president, university professor, and best-selling author. He’s unlocked new talents that he uses to benefit many through his work.
And yet, none of this is what he’d imagined life had in store for him.
Let that be a lesson as you navigate your own professional journey. Where one opportunity ends, another begins – and to find your purpose in the second stage of life, you must embrace change and tread new pathways. Doing so may take courage, but it’ll be worth it.
Shake your reliance on worldly success and rewards to find true fulfillment.
Finally, there are two enemies you’ll want to avoid while navigating your way through the second stage of life: first, addiction to work and success, and second, attachment to worldly rewards.
Across industries and around the world, many high-achieving professionals are wired to crave continuous success. But workaholism is a serious problem. Addicted to success, workaholics depend on the dopamine hit that results from receiving money, power, or prestige. However, these chemical highs are short-lived – they don’t lead to lasting happiness.
And as we discussed earlier, success won’t look the same later in life due to declining abilities. That can be devastating for workaholics, who might have identity crises or crash and burn when their professional abilities start shifting.
To avoid this, you must recognize that you can’t rely on professional success to achieve happiness. As the famous former Formula 1 race-car driver Alex Dias Ribeiro wrote, “Unhappy is he who depends on success to be happy.”
Rather than finding happiness solely in professional success, turn to outlets that will never fail you – whether that’s family, friendships, or faith. Working until you die and neglecting all else is not success. Leading a balanced life of fulfillment is.
One way to put your priorities into perspective is by distinguishing between “résumé virtues” and “eulogy virtues.”
As their name implies, résumé virtues are professional and indicate stereotypical earthly success – for example, “She won a gold medal at the 2016 Olympics,” or, “He raised $100 billion in venture capital for his startup.” By their very nature, these virtues require comparison with others.
On the other hand, eulogy virtues require no comparison at all. They are ethical and spiritual – what you’d want people to talk about at your funeral. For example, a few eulogy virtues might be, “She was incredibly kind to everyone who crossed her path,” “He was the most generous person I knew,” or, “Her sunny spirit always lit up the room.”
Workaholics may find it hard to focus on developing eulogy virtues. They’re trained to specialize and be the best – and virtues like kindness and generosity may not strike them as worthy aspirations, simply because they aren’t rare or “special” enough. They may think: Anyone can be kind, but not anyone can build a software business from the ground up. Why would I focus on developing eulogy virtues, when résumé virtues are what got me ahead in the first place?
However, that’s where a crucial reality check is in order. After all, as you age, résumé virtues fade right along with fluid intelligence. It’s eulogy virtues that stick with you, growing stronger and stronger with each passing year.
What’s more, résumé virtues don’t deliver lasting fulfillment like eulogy virtues do. By relinquishing work’s all-consuming grip on your life, you’ll be freed to focus on deepening virtues that deliver lasting happiness – and well on your way to leading a truly meaningful second half of life.
Aging isn’t something to be feared. With the right roadmap, you can make the second half of life even more meaningful than the first – finding lasting fulfillment in the present rather than wistfully living in the past.
And here’s some more actionable advice:
Reconsider your bucket list.
Pull out your bucket list and examine it with a critical eye. Which items will deliver you worldly rewards and which will bring about lasting happiness? Deprioritize items that fall into the first category and focus on everything else. This is where you’ll find fulfillment in the second half of life.
In short, aging isn’t something to be feared. With the right roadmap, you can make the second half of life even more meaningful than the first – finding lasting fulfillment in the present rather than wistfully living in the past.
And there are always things you can do to focus on the right things. Pull out your bucket list and examine it with a critical eye. Which items will deliver you worldly rewards, and which will bring about lasting happiness? Deprioritize items that fall into the first category and focus on everything else.
Be kind to yourself when you notice your fluid intelligence fading, as it inevitably will, and look for ways to put your growing crystallized intelligence to use. This is where you’ll find fulfillment in the second half of life, and how you can keep yourself moving from strength to strength.
Job Hunting, Careers, Aging, Relationships, Parenting, Self Help, Psychology, Personal Development, Philosophy, Health, Inspirational, Sociology
About the author
Arthur C. Brooks is an American social scientist, Harvard professor, and columnist for the Atlantic. For over a decade, he served as president of the American Enterprise Institute. His past titles include Love Your Enemies, The Conservative Heart, The Road to Freedom, Gross National Happiness, and Who Really Cares?
Arthur C. Brooks is an American social scientist, the William Henry Bloomberg Professor of the Practice of Public Leadership at the Harvard Kennedy School, and Professor of Management Practice at the Harvard Business School. Prior, he was the president of the American Enterprise Institute for ten years, where he held the Beth and Ravenel Curry Chair in Free Enterprise. He has authored eleven books, including the bestsellers Love Your Enemies and The Conservative Heart, and writes the popular How to Build a Life column at The Atlantic. He is also the host of the podcast The Art of Happiness with Arthur Brooks.
Table of Contents
Introduction The Man on the Plane Who Changed My Life
Chapter 1 Your Professional Decline Is Coming (Much) Sooner Than You Think
Chapter 2 The Second Curve
Chapter 3 Kick Your Success Addiction
Chapter 4 Start Chipping Away
Chapter 5 Ponder Your Death
Chapter 6 Cultivate Your Aspen Grove
Chapter 7 Start Your Vanaprastha
Chapter 8 Make Your “Weakness Your Strength
Chapter 9 Cast into the Falling Tide
Conclusion Seven Words to Remember
INSTANT #1 NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER
The roadmap for finding purpose, meaning, and success as we age, from bestselling author, Harvard professor, and the Atlantic’s happiness columnist Arthur Brooks.
Many of us assume that the more successful we are, the less susceptible we become to the sense of professional and social irrelevance that often accompanies aging. But the truth is, the greater our achievements and our attachment to them, the more we notice our decline, and the more painful it is when it occurs.
What can we do, starting now, to make our older years a time of happiness, purpose, and yes, success?
At the height of his career at the age of 50, Arthur Brooks embarked on a seven-year journey to discover how to transform his future from one of disappointment over waning abilities into an opportunity for progress. From Strength to Strength is the result, a practical roadmap for the rest of your life.
Drawing on social science, philosophy, biography, theology, and eastern wisdom, as well as dozens of interviews with everyday men and women, Brooks shows us that true life success is well within our reach. By refocusing on certain priorities and habits that anyone can learn, such as deep wisdom, detachment from empty rewards, connection and service to others, and spiritual progress, we can set ourselves up for increased happiness.
Read this book and you, too, can go from strength to strength.
Read an Excerpt
Decline Is Coming (Much) Sooner
Than You Think
Who are the five greatest scientists who have ever lived? This is the kind of question people like to debate in nerdy corners of the internet that you probably don’t visit, and I don’t intend to take you there. But no matter how much or little you know about science, your list is sure to contain Charles Darwin. He is remembered today as a man who changed our understanding of biology completely and permanently. So profound was his influence that his celebrity has never wavered since his death in 1882.
And yet Darwin died considering his career to be a disappointment.
Let’s back up. Darwin’s parents wanted him to be a clergyman, a career for which he had little enthusiasm or aptitude. As such, he was a lackluster student. His true love was science, which made him feel happy and alive. So it was the opportunity of a lifetime to him-“by far the most important event in my life,” he later called it-when, in 1831 at age twenty-two, he was invited to join the voyage of The Beagle, a scientific sailing investigation around the world. For the next five years aboard the ship, he collected exotic plant and animal samples, sending them back to England to the fascination of scientists and the general public.
This was impressive enough to make him pretty well-known. When he returned home at age twenty-seven, however, he started an intellectual fire with his theory of natural selection, the idea that over generations, species change and adapt, giving us the multiplicity of plants and animals we see after hundreds of millions of years. Over the next thirty years, he developed his theory and published it in books and essays, his reputation growing steadily. In 1859, at age fifty, he published his magnum opus and crowning achievement, On the Origin of Species, a bestseller explaining his theory of evolution that made him into a household name and changed science forever.
At this point, however, Darwin’s work stagnated creatively: he hit a wall in his research and could not make new breakthroughs. Around that same time, a Czech monk by the name of Gregor Mendel discovered what Darwin needed to continue his work: the theory of genetics. Unfortunately, Mendel’s work was published in an obscure German academic journal and Darwin never saw it-and in any case, Darwin (who, remember, had been an unmotivated student) did not have the mathematical or language skills to understand it. Despite his writing numerous books later in life, his work after that broke little ground.
In his last years, Darwin was still very famous-indeed, after his death he was buried as a national hero in Westminster Abbey-but he was increasingly unhappy about his life, seeing his work as unsatisfying, unsatisfactory, and unoriginal. “I have not the heart or strength at my age to begin any investigations lasting years, which is the only thing which I enjoy,” he confessed to a friend. “I have everything to make me happy and contented, but life has become very wearisome to me.”
Darwin was successful by the world’s standards, washed up by his own. He knew that by all worldly rights, he had everything to make him “happy and contented” but confessed that his fame and fortune were now like eating straw. Only progress and new successes such as he enjoyed in his past work could cheer him up-and this was now beyond his abilities. So he was consigned to unhappiness in his decline. Darwin’s melancholy did not abate, by all accounts, before he died at seventy-three.
I’d like to be able to tell you that Darwin’s decline and unhappiness in old age were as rare as his achievements, but that’s not true. In fact, Darwin’s decline was completely normal, and right on schedule. And if you, like Darwin, have worked hard to be exceptional at what you do, you will almost certainly face a similar pattern of decline and disappointment-and it will come much, much sooner than you think.
The surprising earliness of decline
Unless you follow the James Dean formula-“Live fast, die young, leave a good-looking corpse”-you know that your professional, physical, and mental decline is inevitable. You probably just think it’s a long, long way off.
You’re not alone in thinking this. For most people, the implicit belief is that aging and its effect on professional performance are something that happen far in the future. This attitude explains all kinds of funny survey results. For example, when asked in 2009 what “being old” means, the most popular response among Americans was, “turning eighty-five.” In other words, the average American (who lives to seventy-nine) dies six years before entering old age.
Here is the reality: in practically every high-skill profession, decline sets in sometime between one’s late thirties and early fifties. Sorry, I know that stings. And it gets worse: the more accomplished one is at the peak of one’s career, the more pronounced decline seems once it has set in.
Obviously, you aren’t just going to take my word for this, so let’s take a look at the evidence.
We’ll start with the most obvious, and earliest, decline: athletes. Those playing sports requiring explosive power or sprinting see peak performance from twenty to twenty-seven years of age, while those playing endurance sports peak a bit later-but still as young adults. No surprise there-no one expects a serious athlete to remain competitive until age sixty, and most of the athletes I talked to for this book (there aren’t any surveys asking when people expect to experience their physical decline, so I started doing so informally) figured they would have to find a new line of work by the time they were thirty. They don’t love this reality, but they generally face it.
It’s a much different story for what we now call “knowledge workers”-most people reading this book, I would guess. Among people in professions requiring ideas and intellect rather than athletic skill and significant physical strength, almost no one admits expecting decline before their seventies; some later than that. Unlike athletes, however, they are not facing reality.
Take scientists. Benjamin Jones, a professor of strategy and entrepreneurship at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University, has spent years studying when people are most likely to make prizewinning scientific discoveries and key inventions. Looking at major inventors and Nobel winners going back more than a century, Jones finds that the most common age for great discovery is one’s late thirties. He shows that the likelihood of a major discovery increases steadily through one’s twenties and thirties and then declines dramatically through one’s forties, fifties, and sixties. There are outliers, of course. But the probability of producing a major innovation at age seventy is approximately equal to what it was at age twenty-about zero.
That fact no doubt inspired Paul Dirac, the Nobel Prize-winning physicist, to pen a little melancholy verse about how age is every physicist’s curse. It ends with these two lines:
He is better dead than living still
when once he is past his thirtieth year.
Dirac won the prize when he was thirty-one years old, for work he had done in his midtwenties. By his thirtieth birthday, he had developed a general theory of the quantum field, the area in which he had earned his PhD at Cambridge (at age twenty-four). At twenty-eight he wrote The Principles of Quantum Mechanics, a textbook still in use today. At thirty he was a chaired professor at Cambridge. And after that? He was an active scholar and made a few breakthroughs. But it was nothing like the early years. Hence his poem.
Of course, Nobel winners might be different than ordinary scientists. Jones, with a coauthor, dug deeper into the data on researchers in physics, chemistry, and medicine who had highly cited work, as well as patents and various prizes. They found that peak performance is occurring at later ages than in the past, principally because the knowledge required to do cutting-edge work has increased so much over the decades. Still, since 1985, the peak age is not old: for physicists, fifty; for chemistry, forty-six; and for medicine, forty-five. After that, innovation drops precipitously.
Other knowledge fields follow the same basic pattern. For writers, decline sets in between about forty and fifty-five. Financial professionals reach peak performance between the ages of thirty-six and forty. Or take doctors: they appear to peak in their thirties, with steep drop-offs in skill as the years pass. It’s sort of reassuring to have a doctor who reminds people my age of Marcus Welby, MD. However, one recent Canadian study looked at 80 percent of the country’s anesthesiologists and patient litigation against them over a ten-year period. The researchers found that physicians over sixty-five are 50 percent more likely than younger doctors (under fifty-one) at being found at fault for malpractice.
Entrepreneurs are an interesting case when it comes to peak age. Tech founders often earn vast fame and fortune in their twenties but many are in creative decline by age thirty. The Harvard Business Review has reported that founders of enterprises backed with $1 billion or more in venture capital tend to cluster in the twenty to thirty-four age range. The number of founders older than this, they discovered, is low. Other scholars dispute this finding, claiming that the average age of the founders of the highest-growth start-ups is, in fact, forty-five. But the point remains the same: by middle age, entrepreneurial ability is plummeting. Even by the most optimistic estimates, only about 5 percent of founders are over sixty.
The pattern isn’t limited to knowledge work; noticeable age-related decline comes earlier than people think in skilled jobs from policing to nursing. Peak performance is thirty-five to forty-four for equipment-service engineers and office workers; it is forty-five to fifty-four for semiskilled assembly workers and mail sorters. The age-related decline among air-traffic controllers is so sharp-and the consequences of decline-related errors so dire-that the mandatory retirement age is fifty-six.
Decline is so predictable that one scholar has built an eerily accurate model to predict it in specific professions. Dean Keith Simonton from the University of California, Davis, studied the pattern of professional decline among people in creative professions and built a model that estimates the shape of the average person’s career. Fitting curves to gigabytes of data, he created a graph that looks like figure 1.
On average, the peak of creative careers occurs at about twenty years after career inception, hence the finding that people usually start declining somewhere between thirty-five and fifty. This is averaged across lots of fields, however, and Simonton found a fair amount of variation. For example, he has looked at the “half-life” of many professions-the age at which half of one’s work has been produced. That would more or less correspond, on average, with the highest point in the graph. A group that closely tracks this twenty-year half-life is novelists, who generally do half their work before, and half after, 20.4 years from the start of their writing careers. Also close to this are mathematicians, who have a half-life of 21.7 years. Slightly earlier are poets, who hit their half-life after 15.4 years. Slightly later are geologists, at 28.9 years.
Let’s think what this means for a moment. Say you are involved in a quantitative field-you are a data analyst, for example. If you finish your education and start your career at twenty-two, you will, on average, hit your professional peak at forty-four and then start to see your skills decline. Now say you are a poet-freshly minted with a master of fine arts degree at age twenty-five. Simonton’s data show that you will burn through half your life’s work by about age forty and be in productivity decline after that. On the other hand, if you are a geologist, your peak will tend to come closer to fifty-four.
For me, early decline is personal
When I started this research, I was especially keen to see if the decline patterns applied to musicians, especially classical musicians. There are some famous cases of classical musicians who go on and on, performing into old age. In 1945, double bass player Jane Little joined the Atlanta Symphony at the tender age of sixteen. She retired seventy-one years later at the age of eighty-seven. (Well, she didn’t exactly retire: she actually died onstage during a concert while performing “There’s No Business Like Show Business.”)
Ms. Little is not the norm, however; most retire much earlier. And arguably, retirement happens too late. In surveys, classical musicians report that peak performance occurs in one’s thirties. Younger players often groan over the prime spots occupied by older players with tenure-orchestras have tenure just like universities-who hang around long after they’ve lost their edge. The problem is, these older players often can’t admit decline even to themselves. “It’s very hard to admit that it’s time,” said one fifty-eight-year-old French horn player in the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra. “We’re expert at denial. We have been successful because we refuse to accept the overwhelming odds at making it in our profession, so early in our development denial is a positive.”
That French horn player wasn’t me. But it could have been, in a parallel life.
As a child, in fact, I had just one goal: to be the world’s greatest French horn player. I practiced my horn slavishly, hours and hours a day, playing in any ensemble I could find. I had pictures of famous horn players on my bedroom wall for inspiration. I went to all the best music festivals and studied with the greatest teachers available to a lower-middle-class kid in Seattle. I was always the best player, the first chair.
For a while, I thought my young life’s dream might come true. At nineteen, I left college to take a job playing professionally in a touring chamber-music ensemble. We played one hundred concerts a year, driving around the country in an oversized van. I didn’t have health insurance and rent day was always nerve-wracking, but by the age of twenty-one I had seen all fifty states and fifteen foreign countries and made albums that occasionally I would hear on the radio. My dream was to rise through the classical-music ranks in my twenties, join a top symphony orchestra in a few years and then become a soloist-the most exalted job a classical musician can hold.
But then, in my early twenties, a strange thing happened: I started getting worse. To this day, I have no idea why. My technique began to suffer, and I had no explanation for it. Nothing helped. I visited famous teachers and practiced more, but I couldn’t get back to where I had been. Pieces that had been easy to play became hard; pieces that had been hard became impossible.
“In this book, Arthur C. Brooks helps people find greater happiness as they age and change.” – The Dalai Lama
“To the overachievers, success addicts, and tired strivers who are fairly confident you can’t keep it up forever but will try anyway—this book is for you. Arthur Brooks shows you it’s possible to build a life that really does get better with age.” – Simon Sinek, optimist andauthor of Start with Why and The Infinite Game
“From Strength to Strength is a wise and inspiring guide to reimagining the rest of your life. If you’re a striver tired of striving, this remarkable book is for you.” – Daniel H. Pink, author of Drive, When, and A Whole New Mind
“Brooks appears to have a clear strategy here: first he horrifies you, then he bucks you up. An alternate title for this book could be The Good News About Your Inevitable Decline. Most of us strivers believe we can keep racing until we run out of road. Arthur is trying to save us pain and maximize our contributions to the species. Every ambitious person should read this.” – Dan Harris, author and former ABC News anchor
“Arthur Brooks is one of my very favorite thinkers. Witty, wise, and insatiably curious, he is one of the few intellectuals who can reliably weave scientific research and everyday observations into what we all really need: succinct advice for a good life.” – Angela Duckworth, founder and CEO of Character Lab and author of Grit
“In this sparkling book, Arthur Brooks considers one of the oldest and deepest questions in the spiritual tradition, namely, how to navigate the tricky waters that separate the first and second halves of life. I found inspiration and hope literally on every page.” – Bishop Robert Barron, founder of Word on Fire Catholic Ministries and auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles
“From Strength to Strength offers real answers to timeless questions about happiness and progress: How can I be happier? How can I have more meaning in life? What is the most important thing to me right now and why?” – Eric Schmidt, former chairman and CEO of Google
Reading Group Guide
- What brought you to this book?
- Reflecting on your life so far, what are the relationships, successes, jobs, experiences, and goals that have given you the most satisfaction? What are the ones that have given you the least? Do any of the answers surprise you?
- As you look toward the second half of your life, what are your wants, desires, and goals? What are you looking forward to? What are you dreading?
- Brooks writes that noticeable decline in our professional skills happens earlier than most of us expect—usually in our thirties, forties, or fifties. But there are other skills and qualities that actually improve with age. Have you noticed these patterns of decline and improvement in your life? What skills and qualities have you noticed declining as you age? Which have you noticed improving?
- There are two curves of intelligence: fluid intelligence and crystallized intelligence.
What are the benefits to being on each curve of intelligence, and why does Brooks suggest that readers get on their second curve? How can you get on your second curve? Brainstorm two to three ways and share with the group.
- What is a success addiction? How does it relate to workaholism? What roles do pride and fear play in success addiction?
- Take the quiz on page 40. What did your answers reveal? Reflect and discuss.
- What is the “bucket list” problem? Do you have a bucket list, and if so, does crossing things off give you an enduring feeling of satisfaction? Why or why not?
- Thomas Aquinas named four main worldly idols—money, power, pleasure, and honor—that lead to self-objectification but never satisfy the soul or our craving for happiness. Play Brooks’s “What’s My Idol” party game on page 73. Which of the four is your main idol? Does this idol interfere with your ability to find happiness?
Why or why not?
- Brooks provides three formulas for dissatisfaction:
Satisfaction = Continually getting what you want
Success = Continually having more than others
Failure = Having less
Discuss what each formula means and the role they have played in your life.
- Brooks also provides a formula for satisfaction:
Satisfaction = What you have ÷ what you want.
Discuss what this means. How can you work to chip away at and manage the denominator of your worldly “wants”?
- Brooks writes that to truly eradicate the fear of death and decline, we must stare right at it, and that “contemplating death can even make life more meaningful.”
How often do you contemplate your decline or death? How do you feel when you do? Does contemplating your own death make your life feel more meaningful?
Discuss why or why not.
- What is loneliness and why is it a threat to long-term happiness? What types of relationships should we cultivate to mitigate loneliness?
- What does it mean to “cultivate your Aspen grove?” What are the key points to doing so? What are the challenges to doing so?
- What is the difference between a “real friend” and a “deal friend”? Take stock of your friendships. How many fall into the “real” category vs. the “deal” category? If the first list is short, brainstorm ways to cultivate more “real” friends.
- What are vanaprastha and sannyasa? How are they achieved? Why is a focus on transcendent things sometimes hard for strivers to attain? Is this true for you?
- Brooks writes, “To see weakness as purely negative is a mistake.” What does he mean? What is one of your weaknesses that has benefitted your—or someone else’s—life?
- Complete the two “modern elder” exercises on page 115. Share your responses with the group. Are there one or two actions that feel more challenging than the others?
- Why does Brooks think that our individual decline should be a shared experience?
- What are the seven words Brooks uses to sum up the lessons of the entire book?
Which resonate the strongest with you? Why?