From Strength to Strength: Finding Success, Happiness, and Deep Purpose in the Second Half of Life sounds like a great book, doesn’t it? Who doesn’t want to find success, happiness and purpose when we feel like we are on the back nine of life? So I eagerly jumped into it, especially since it was recommended to me by one of my most trusted and wisest friends.
Sadly for me, great start…weak finish. But I can fix that.
In From Strength to Strength, author and successful business leader Arthur C. Brooks, PhD, is earnestly trying to help high achievers—people he calls “strivers”—deal with their slowing performance as they age. Strivers have known nothing but hard work and competitive drive for their entire careers and then become lost later in life when they are no longer as vibrant or effective as they had been in their younger years. Needless to say, the concept resonated with me.
I was drawn into Dr. Brooks’s explanation of the aging brain and how, in our younger years, we are sponges for the information and data that allows us to think flexibly, solve unique problems and be more innovative. Later in life, changes in our prefrontal cortex make our brains work differently, in such a way that they no longer are optimized for highly focused, high-speed, creative innovation. 1,000% agree.
I have witnessed it in my own life—young me was a terrier, ensuring exact details and procedures for our corporate operations and customer service. Old me no longer has the patience or memory for all those details. Instead, I am now optimized to view and consolidate information that I have gathered across a broad array of topics to analyze and create new concepts, often using that unique broader perspective to coach friends and peers on their business and personal challenges.
Brooks paints a powerful picture of how the vast majority of innovation and invention is created by people in their 20s and 30s. He gives examples of tech entrepreneurs and Nobel Prize winners like Linus Pauling…and even Charles Darwin who had fabulous success when they were young. And then he goes on to describe the less than exciting output from people in their 50s and beyond. It isn’t that older workers aren’t smart or don’t have much to offer…they simply are on a different playing field than their young colleagues.
Strivers who don’t shift their roles and perspectives as they age risk being emotionally devastated when they are put out to pasture at work. They have lived their lives keeping score of their successes and competing to be the best. Once you’re not the best, then what?
Brooks’s solution? He suggests that strivers get in touch with all of those “zen-ny,” earthy things they have been ignoring all of their lives in the name of achievement. They should resist the four evils of money, power, pleasure and prestige…and instead find their hearts and realize that life’s true fulfillment and satisfaction comes from human connection and spiritual peace. He wants them to…
•Slow down and stop striving unnecessarily.
•Embrace the pain and suffering of their intellectual transition so they can grow, like Victor Frankl in Man’s Search for Meaning.
•Reject life’s luxuries as Thomas Aquinas did when he chose the priesthood over his wealthy roots.
•Embrace their weakness with pride, and admit that they are not who they used to be so they can more deeply connect with others.
All good things. But here’s my problem with that strategy—it’s too black and white. Brooks presumes that strivers have been nothing but shallow money- or attention-hungry individuals, devoid of human connection and any true joy or satisfaction from their work since the pursuit was paramount to all. He assumes that these strivers never had transformative experiences in other aspects of their lives from which they might have grown. Instead, his message is that your life now will be terrible—accept that fact, and get spiritual.
Ironically, this narrow scope is a very youthful perspective—strive or embrace your weakness. Yes, strivers can do some soul searching, but Brooks has ignored an endless continuum of options for these experienced, intelligent and extremely smart people to apply their knowledge. Some options off the top of my head…
•Shift to the human resources department, and help recruit and screen new employees, using your vast experience on corporate culture and true job requirements
•Develop (refine) training programs for new employees
•Develop leadership training programs for young employees. This helps young people transition into adulthood and teaches them how to act in a professional role. They’re not learning it at home or in college.
•Develop an active internship program at your company that offers interns true experience and exposure rather than the traditional fluff experiences.
•Get involved in local or regional politics. Make a difference in your community.
•Become members of the boards of companies or local organizations.
•Write your system of success. What was it that made you a superstar? Can it be taught to others? I have a friend who is an incredible networker, and I have been begging him for years to codify his actions so that he can mentor young professionals.
No one is suggesting that you should go out to pasture. Brooks is concerned that if you don’t plan your later career/life stage, it just may be decided for you. He’s right.
Forewarned is forearmed. Strivers will never be happy simply giving it all up to play golf or travel. You still will need to answer the question, “What are you doing?” when you have dinner with friends and family. What touches your heart? Assuming that you are free to do anything you choose, what have you always wanted to do but couldn’t at an earlier stage because of money or family constraints?
I appreciate my friend’s book recommendation. I appreciate Brooks’s wisdom…and I am grateful for the wisdom of my aging brain to know that I have the power to choose my path. What will yours be?