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  • Dan Connors

From Strength to Strength- finding wisdom and happiness in the third act of life

From Strength to Strength: Finding Success, Happiness, and Deep Purpose in the Second Half of Life

“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 Brooks

Let's face it- aging sucks. Once you pass the age of 40, there is an inevitable decline in both physical and mental abilities. Some people deny it and fight it, perhaps staving off the inevitable by a few years, but it is what it is. Even worse, in some professions mental abilities peak by age 30, and if you haven't made an impact by then you never will. But what if I told you there's a second curve, one that includes rising abilities of a different type, well into your 60's?

Finding strength in the second half of life, when declines are inevitable is the subject of From Strength to Strength by Arthur Brooks. Dr. Brooks is a Harvard professor, social scientist, and frequent writer for the Atlantic. He has a number of New York Times bestselling books including Love Your Enemies, Gross National Happiness, and The Road to Freedom.

Most of the strength of young minds involves something called fluid intelligence. That's what peaks by age 30 or 35. This type of intelligence is what we use while problem-solving and creating new solutions to novel problems. Scientists, musicians, professionals, and athletes all use fluid intelligence to look at problems and come up with fast and efficient solutions. Once that skill declines, they tend to fall back on what's worked in the past, which can be unreliable and out-of-date. Fluid intelligence works best in new situations where new strategies must be developed, which is how we learn and grow throughout youth.

"You can't teach an old dog new tricks" is a saying that has a lot of truth to it. After age 40 our abilities to confront new tricks decline, though for those who keep exercising their mind muscles, that decline is much slower, and never to zero. Luckily, there's a second type of intelligence that kicks in once we reach middle age, and that's crystallized intelligence.

Crystallized intelligence grows in powers just as fluid intelligence is starting to decline. It is the ability to used experience and already established knowledge to make sense of the world and make connections. While fluid intelligence is raw computing power, crystallized intelligence is wisdom. While the former may know that a tomato is a fruit, the latter knows not to put one into a fruit salad. Brooks spends most of his book inspiring those who fear decline how to access this later, lesser know, curve and add value to the second half of life.

Dr. Brooks got the idea for this book by observing a famous celebrity (he won't reveal who it was) on an airplane, and seeing that person's desperate cling to significance and attention, even though his/her best days were behind them. Many people in the second half tend to live in the past, when rosy colored glasses present them with a period of life that things were always getting better and better. Human beings are notoriously afraid of losing things- status, power, money, and that loss aversion can be much more powerful than any compulsion to go out and create something new and valuable. Some end up in denial that any loss has taken place, while others double down on obsessive workaholism to try to keep up with the results of the past. Now there may be another alternative.

This newfound crystallized intelligence can be used for entirely new endeavors where it is most needed- teaching, coaching, counseling, writing, and organizing. While new breakthroughs need fluid thinking, they are impossible alone without input from elders who know what the right questions are, and what hasn't worked in the past. Our culture has always celebrated youth, but there's still a way for the elderly to make an impact through volunteering, teaching, consulting, or just by sharing stories with younger generations. Plus even though their fluid intelligence declines, they still have some, and it can still come up with miracles, especially if paired with prior learning.

The second half of this book is full of helpful advice for aging happily and gracefully, and this book would be a great read for anybody over 40. Here are some tidbits I took from it:

1- Create a reverse bucket list. In the first half of life we become obsessed with more and more experiences and accomplishments. As we age, many of these experiences lose their appeal and we need to take a good hard look at what things and experiences will truly bring the most happiness. Cut out the trivial things as time gets shorter, and you appreciate the big things even more.

2- Satisfaction in life equals what you have divided by what you want. We are always obsessed with what we have and what others have. But if that amount pales in comparison to what we think we want, we become miserable. Part of the secret of a happy life is managing the denominator in that equation. What do we really want? Minimizing the things we think we want down to the essentials makes being happy that much easier.

3- Don't fear death. Expose yourself to death and dying to minimize the fears that will only grow as you get older. When time seems unlimited, we waste so much of it, but appreciating the limited time that we all have gives everything more meaning.

4- Cultivate your Aspen grove. Aspen trees grow tall into the sky only because their roots intertwine with those of many other trees. Research has shown that the number one thing that older people can to to make life longer and more rewarding is to cultivate long-term, stable, and meaningful relationships. Aging brings challenges- deaths of loved ones, disease, disabilities, and financial challenges, and the more connected we are to others, the more resilient we can be when those challenges arise.

5- Embrace spirituality in your third act. Childhood is all about learning. Young adulthood is all about growing. And the third act, according to many, is about figuring out who you truly are and why you were here. Cutting out the distractions of the first two acts leaves us with a good sense of what we are all about, and a chance to look for deeper answers to what our purpose has been here on Earth. That's where spirituality comes in.

6- Make weakness into a strength. Many of us are so filled with pride that we shudder at the thought of others seeing us as frail and weak. Growing old inevitably leads to more vulnerability- both physically and mentally. Brooks encourages the readers to embrace both vulnerability and pain as we age. Admitting vulnerability, which we often feel makes us less desirable, often works the opposite way- attracting people and helpers into our lives. And experiencing pain or loss, while always unpleasant, increases our resilience and gives our lives more meaning than if we just lived a happy-go-lucky lifestyle.

7- Change is unavoidable. While change can be uncomfortable while it is happening, many valuable things can be learned during periods of transition. If things always stayed the same, we'd end up learning a lot less in life.

I've seen similar advice in other books about aging, but this one pulls a lot together, especially the stuff about crystallized intelligence. Loss and decline are scary, and many people feel ashamed and confused when it starts to happen. Aging is perfectly natural, and it's our challenge to make the best of it, just like it was our challenge to make the best of our first half of life. The rules and skills are different, but we all have something to learn, even those over age 100. Brooks closes the book with seven powerful words that sum up his philosophy:

Use things

Love people

Worship the divine

Here is a Ted talk he did in 2022

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