Arthur Brooks' From Strength to Strength: Finding Success, Happiness, and Deep Purpose (Part I)


An individual may have a lifetime of financial and career success—but neither friends nor close family. A cliché, but it keeps happening. A person may think about changing priorities and actions--but doesn’t. Or the individual is managing their affairs, just barely, and then a "life quake," something unforeseen, happens. 

How does a person manage “life quakes?” Most people don’t do it well. How does someone navigate life and move from strength to strength? Not easy. Does faith play a role? How can a person find happiness and deep purpose?

Arthur C. Brooks, a professor at Harvard Business School, focuses on the science of happiness. His recent book, From Strength to Strength: Finding Success, Happiness and Deep Purpose in the Second Half of Life (New York, NY: Penguin, 2022), provides great insights for people who want to find success, happiness and deep purpose and end well.

Brooks' work fits in well with the focus of the Human Flourishing Program at the Institute for Quantitative Social Science, Harvard University. The Human Flourishing Program integrates concepts of purpose and happiness into its analyses of human flourishing in various work contexts. The Human Flourishing Program is partnering with ELO to deliver the ELO Leadership Program at Harvard University in Summer 2023.

Brooks makes many good points throughout the book, introducing some novel concepts or familiar constructs in new and memorable ways. At the outset, he refers to the “striver’s curse.” He notes that “people who strive to be excellent at what they do often find their decline terrifying” [xiv]. He explains, however, that instead of trying to avoid decline, you can transcend it by finding a new kind of success [xv].

He has tangential insights throughout the book. For example, he has an interesting entrepreneurial aside. He notes that “by middle age, entrepreneurial ability is plummeting. Even by the most optimistic estimates, only about 5 percent of founders are over sixty” [7]. He says, “humans simply aren’t wired to enjoy an achievement long past” [21]. As a result, the key is “you need to build some new strengths and skills” [22].

He explains that there are two types of intelligence. First, there is “fluid intelligence” which is the ability to reason, think flexibly, and solve novel problems; this is raw smarts [26]. He explains that “Innovators typically have an abundance of fluid intelligence” [26]. Second, and quite distinct, there is “crystallized intelligence.” This is “the ability to use a stock of knowledge learned in the past” [27].

He explains that for people to move from strength to strength, they need to understand this difference in forms of intelligence. Brooks notes, “if your career requires crystallized intelligence—of if you can repurpose your professional life to rely more on crystallized intelligence—your peak will come later but your decline will happen much, much later, if ever, and if you can go from one type to the other—well, then you have cracked the code” [28].

There is good news. The joys of the second curve: it favours people who are older [32]. He notes that, for those who make the jump the reward is almost always enormous [33]. As a result, he advises people to “devote the back half of your life to serving others with your wisdom” [40].

There is the issue of workaholism getting in the way of transitioning to the second curve. This is a challenge, particularly since people are not good at self-diagnosis. He suggests that workaholism can be diagnosed with three questions:

  1. Do you spend your discretionary time on work activities?
  2. Do you usually think about work when not working?
  3. Do you work well beyond what is required of your job? [48]

He points out that, “working hard and enjoying it doesn’t make you a workaholic” [48]. What’s the point of excess work, anyways? He explains, “economists consistently find that our marginal productivity tanks with work hours beyond eight or ten per day” [49]. It’s not even practical. “Human focus—especially on sedentary tasks—simply can’t be sustained for so long” [49].

Brooks explains how to navigate the curves. He notes the importance “to get off the first curve and onto the second, instead of adding more to our lives, we need to understand why this doesn’t work and then start taking things away” [68]. He suggests the following ways to regulate wants: ask why not what; have a “reverse bucket list;” and get smaller [92].

He injects wry humour throughout the book. For example, he explains that “the average American considers the beginning of “old age” to be six years after the average person dies. We avoid thinking realistically about the length of our lives and our time left, lulling us into the false belief that we have all the time in the world. This expunges the urgency of life changes, such as jumping onto the second curve” [94].

Death is not an agreeable topic for most people. He quotes Dylan Thomas (1951) from “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night” who famously said, “Rage, rage against the dying of the light.” And people do. Brooks points out the prevalence of “thanatophobia” – the fear of death [97]. But Brooks has a better solution.

Check back next week for Part II