One of my favorite annual Christmas season rituals is watching the movie “It’s a Wonderful Life” starring a young Jimmy Stewart. It’s a 1946 classic that tells a compelling story about making a difference in the lives of others.
In the movie, Jimmy’s character, George Bailey, becomes a reluctant leader in his small hometown of Bedford Falls. Engulfed in a personal financial crisis by the evil business tycoon, Mr. Potter, George prepares to jump off a bridge so his family can collect on his life insurance policy. Then, Clarence, George’s guardian angel, drops in. Clarence shows George what life would have been like in Bedford Falls (without him, it became Potterville) if George got his wish and he had never been born. The town and the many lives George touched (and even saved) so positively are much poorer because George was never there. In true movie fashion, George joyfully returns to his real life, and grateful friends and family resolve the financial crisis.
“It’s a Wonderful Life” raises important questions. What voids have I filled? Who’s lives have I touched? Who have I yet to touch? What bad things would have happened if I were not here? What would I want the key players in my life to say my life stood for or the difference I made? Who would those key players be? What have our lives made visible to others that without us would not have been seen?
These are the sorts of vital questions Arthur Brooks addresses in his latest book, From Strength to Strength: Finding Success, Happiness, and Deep Purpose in the Second Half of Life. Arthur is currently an American social scientist and Harvard professor, writer of “How to Build a Life” column in The Atlantic, and podcast host of “The Art of Happiness.” He began his career as a highly acclaimed classical French hornist, then earned a PhD in public policy, which led to becoming an analyst for the Rand Corporation, moving on to full professorship at Syracuse University (where he published 60 peer-reviewed articles and several books), and president of a Washington, DC-based think tank for 10 years.
This book, Arthur’s 12th, started as “me-search” 10 years ago, shortly after his 48th birthday. That’s when Arthur realized that despite meeting or exceeding all his professional goals, “I wasn’t particularly satisfied or happy. I had gotten my heart’s desire, at least as I imagined it, but it didn’t bring the joy I envisioned.” He spent most of the past decade reviewing literature on brain science, philosophy, theology, and history. Arthur also read biographies of highly successful people and interviewed hundreds of leaders. “What I found was a hidden source of anguish that wasn’t just widespread but nearly universal among people who have done well in their careers. I came to call this 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.”
From Strength to Strength is a powerful blend of Arthur’s biographical search for deeper meaning, happiness research, sad and inspiring biographies of historical figures like Charles Darwin, and practical advice. He reports, “The good news is that I also discovered what I was looking for: a way to escape the curse. Methodically, I built a strategic plan for the rest of my life, giving me the chance to have a second half of adulthood that is not only not disappointing but happier and more meaningful than the first.”
Arthur opens the book with a stark warning; our professional decline starts in our thirties and picks up speed over the decades. For many professions, performance peaks in the mid-forties and early fifties. He found, “on average, the peak of creative careers occurs at about twenty years after career inception…. That leads many achievers into a vicious cycle: terrified of decline, dissatisfied with victories that come less and less frequently, hooked on the successes that are increasingly of the past, and isolated from others.”
A key finding of Arthur’s research, and foundation of this book, is research on two types of intelligence. Professional decline results from the sharp drop-off of “fluid intelligence.” This includes reasoning, analysis, creativity, innovation, athletic skills, and the like. What he calls “the second curve” is “crystalized intelligence.” This accumulated knowledge and wisdom that tends to increase with age. Arthur writes, “When you are young, you have raw smarts; 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.”
Arthur devotes a chapter to “Kick Your Success Addiction” with powerful examples, research, and advice on dealing with workaholism and getting off the hedonic treadmill. “The buzz from success is neutralized quickly, leaving a hangover feeling…. after a while, you need constant success hits just not to feel like a failure…the carrot is gradually getting further away, despite the fact that you are running faster than ever. Thus, the dissatisfaction problem compounds the decline problem.”
Arthur provides several steps to transitioning from fluid intelligence to the second curve of crystallized intelligence. This includes pondering our death — what do we want our life to stand for, cultivating (real versus “deal”) relationships, deepening our spirituality, making the weakness of our decline a strength to connecting with others, and filling the second half of our lives with opportunities rather than loss. He concludes with a chapter on Seven Words to Remember; “Use things. Love people. Worship the divine.”
Since I am well into my second half of life — and looking to leverage my crystalized intelligence — this book resonated very strongly with me. It’s very well written with Arthur’s openness about his personal struggles, solid research, engaging examples, and practical advice. It also aligns very well with so much of my studying and writing about positive psychology and personal vision, values, and purpose.
Next post, I’ll share my favorite words of Arthur’s wisdom — his crystalized intelligence to help us build a wonderful life.